Second French Empire: Characteristics And Consequences

The Second French Empire is the period of government in France from 1852 to 1870, under the power of Emperor Napoleon III, who was the third son of Napoleon I’s brother, Louis Bonaparte. In the first stage of government, between 1852 and 1859, it was characterized by its authoritarian political tendency and by significant economic growth.

Through his foreign policy, Napoleon III wanted to reissue the greatness of the French Empire. Carlos Luis Napoleón Bonaparte was born on April 20, 1808 in Paris and died on January 9, 1873 in London. He became the only first president of the Second French Republic, and later declared himself Emperor of France.

Second French Empire

The empire ended in 1870 when a Constitution was passed that established the republic again. Among the causes of the fall are the French defeat in the Battle of Sedan (Franco-Prussian War), the uprising in Paris and the overthrow of the government on September 4, 1870; this led to the abdication of Napoleon III and the end of the empire.


Carlos Luis Napoleón Bonaparte, son of Luis Bonaparte and supposed nephew of the first French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, ran as a candidate for the presidential elections of France in 1848.

It is worth noting that it was recently shown by DNA tests that he was not Napoleon’s nephew, at least not by his father.

These first elections by universal male suffrage were overwhelmingly won by Carlos Bonaparte. With the support of the Catholic population, he thus became the first and only president of the Second French Republic.

During his three years in office, he passed liberal laws, such as freedom of education, that displeased extremist Catholics. The reason was that this law gave the state university the exclusive rights to award degrees.

Two other laws passed were the electoral law, which, although it did not violate the principle of universal suffrage, did harm the workers.

To vote in a municipality, the voter had to have resided in it for three years. It also approved the press law, which imposed limits on freedom of expression.

In view of the fact that he could not be reelected at the end of his term, on December 2, 1851, he staged a coup. The coup was supported by the French people with the aim of instituting the Second French Empire.

There was very little resistance from members of the National Assembly; the greatest focus of resistance was found in and around Paris.

Political, social and economic characteristics


When restoring the French Empire, the new emperor took the name Napoleon III because the name Napoleon II was reserved for Napoleon’s son, who died at the age of 21. Politically, the Empire of Napoleon II had the following characteristics:

– Laid the foundations for the establishment of a new colonial empire. French foreign policy focused on strengthening its political, religious and economic influence in Europe, Africa, the East and America through a system of alliances.

– The expansionist policy also sought to support Catholic missions throughout the world and achieve opportunities for the flourishing French industry.

– From the beginning, the Second French Empire was characterized as a dictatorial regime that muzzled freedom of expression. However, over time and forced by circumstances, the regime had to give in. Little by little it evolved towards a more tolerant form of government, close to the parliamentary regime.

– Turn towards liberalism after the results of the legislative elections of 1869 gave 45% of the votes in favor of the opposition. The emperor took note and called to the government the leader of the “third party”, Emile Ollivier, who brought together moderate republicans and Orleanists.


– France was transformed during these two decades more rapidly than at any other time in its history, although the population lived under the surveillance of the imperial state and political opponents were in prison or in exile.

– Starting in 1860, Emperor Napoleon III was forced to expand political freedoms. The deputies who had remained silent in supporting the government began to criticize. The press began to gain a little more freedom.

– The imperial court was open to the non-class spirit of the French bourgeoisie, while welcoming the intellectuals. The emperor himself took over the social and economic policy of the government.

– Through his minister Victor Duruy, Napoleon III the emperor revived public education.


– The Second Empire was the first French government regime that favored economic objectives. Emperor Napoleon III was a faithful supporter of modern capitalism and commercial exchange as the participation of other economic sectors.

– During this period the government surrounded and advised the best French economists and technicians of the Saint-Simonian and liberal movement such as Prospero Enfantin, Michel Chevalier, and Emile and Isaac Pereira. He applied the doctrine of Saint-Simon, who affirmed that economics had primacy over politics.

– From the beginning of the imperial government in 1852, a strong boost was given to French finances with the creation of the mortgage bank ( Credit Foncier ). Later, in 1859 he created the General Society for Industrial and Commercial Credit ( Société Générale ) and the Credit Lyonnais in 1863.

– The railway industry grew and spread outside of France, to the point that the current network was built between 1852 and 1856. The railways were the architect of the new banking organization. Through the merger of small companies, six large railway organizations were created.

– It welcomed the Industrial Revolution with enthusiasm and the country was endowed with greater infrastructure and urban planning.


Thanks to this period, France modernized in all respects. Paris obtained large infrastructure works to improve its cleanliness and sanitation. An extensive sewerage network and aqueduct were built to supply the city with drinking water.

The markets were rebuilt and the streets were lit with gas lamps. Urban furniture and green areas were improved in city parks and the outskirts.

The Second French Empire led to the Third Republic of France. With this a new country was born to which all French society aspired and which introduced a series of social reforms after a brief internal political turbulence with the establishment of the Commune.

After the Franco-Prussian War ended, the European continent experienced a period of peace and relative calm. This favored economic, social and scientific advances, even in France, along with Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy.

Fall and end

In 1870 Napoleon III resigned from the Legislative Power, which had a large opposition representation. The majority of the French people approved of this decision.

However, on July 19, 1870, France declared war on Prussia, which joined the other German states. This war cost her her throne, as Napoleon III was defeated at the Battle of Sedan and taken prisoner. Finally, on September 4, 1870, the Republicans seized the Assembly and proclaimed the French Third Republic in Paris.

Since 1865 Napoleon III had many failures in his foreign policy. Between the years 1867 and 1869 France experienced a severe economic crisis due to poor harvests, which reduced the consumption of the peasants.

Industrial investment fell and, with it, employment and production. So Napoleon III had to decide between making new political concessions or radicalizing.

The factory workers began to organize and criticize the lack of freedom and the standing army. This context favored the fall of the Second Empire of France.


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