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France’s monarchy gives way once more – to the Third Republic

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War on Thursday, 29 March 2012

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This edited article about post-Napoleonic France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 679 published on 18 January 1975.

Bismarck and Napoleon III, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon III surrendered to Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan, by Pat Nicolle

The period that followed the banishment of the Emperor Napoleon to the island of St. Helena after the Battle of Waterloo can be likened in France to the dustcart that follows the Lord Mayor’s Show. After all the glory and the greatness came the dull and the mediocre.

The King, Louis XVIII, who had fled from his throne after Napoleon’s escape from Elba for the period known as the Hundred Days, crept back so quietly, it seemed that he was hoping no-one would notice his return.

In fact, hardly anyone did. Frenchmen, forever fickle, were too busy wringing their hands at the loss of Napoleon, whom they had once praised and reviled in turn, to care for the old and ineffective King. Their despair for the lost days of glory caused the nobles and the royalists to wreak revenge on these Bonapartists, as they were called, by massacres and other atrocities. But that civil strife dissolved after a French army, led by the King’s nephew the Duke of Angouleme, made a successful attack upon Spain. The idea that they might once again be victorious in battle made even the gloomiest Frenchman smile.

Louis XVIII was succeeded by his brother, Charles X. This new King was 67 when he was crowned, but he had little intelligence to couple with all his experience of life. One of the most memorable things he said, which succinctly expressed his viewpoint, was, “I would rather chop wood than be a King like the King of England.”

The King of Britain at this time was George IV. Although there were plenty of unsatisfactory things about that British King’s behaviour, he had no chance to be a national autocrat, for Britain had already established her steady Parliamentary democracy. And that, of course, was what Charles meant when he spoke scornfully of the King of Britain.

If the French people did not have their King on their side, they did have their Charter of Liberties. This was a document agreed by Louis XVIII at his restoration – a charter setting out the rights of the people. “I don’t want that!” declared King Charles, when the people clamoured for their Charter to be upheld, and in a rage he disbanded the National Guard, who had supported the people in their call for liberty.

After that, Charles couldn’t do a thing right. For his three senior ministers he chose the three most hated men in Paris – one of whom had been a friend of the despised Marie Antoinette. Then he passed a law that flouted the Charter of Liberties and greatly enlarged the power of the King at the expense of parliament.

As so often has happened in our story, Paris rose in revolt against this despotism. Mobs surged through the streets, breaking and looting. For three days in that year of 1830 – called the Three Glorious Days of July – Paris was once again in a state of revolution.

The troops of the city, under General Marmont, were ordered by the King to put down the riot. But most of them refused. Marmont then implored the King to come to his senses. Charles continued in his stubbornness and when at last the rioting grew so serious that he had to yield, it was too late. Then the King did the only sensible thing he had done throughout his reign – he abdicated. Ironically, perhaps, the place he chose to live in first upon leaving France was that same Kingdom upon whose monarch he had poured scorn at the beginning of his reign.

Charles had hoped that he would be succeeded by his 10-year-old grandson Henry. Instead, the government chose as their new King, the Duke of Orleans, who was 57 and who styled himself Louis Philippe I.

Louis Philippe’s ambition was to rule as a citizen rather than as a monarch. This, perhaps, was not surprising, for his father had been on the side of the revolutionaries during the French Revolution and was one of those who had voted for the execution of Louis XVI. But the elected King had little chance to put his plans into practice, for from the moment he took the crown he was opposed by at least four powerful parties.

There were those, for instance, who thought that Henry, grandson of Charles X, should really be King. There were those who thought that Charles should never have abdicated. There were those who wanted Napoleon’s son to be made Emperor. And there were those who did not want a King at all, but who thought that France should return to being a republic.

Of all these causes, the principal one was that of the Bonapartists. The death of Napoleon’s son brought to the fore the next contender – the great Emperor’s nephew, Louis Napoleon. His plots to seize the throne became so plentiful that eventually he was arrested. He escaped from prison, and went to live in England.

Soon, England had another distinguished resident who had just decided to leave France. This was none other than King Louis Philippe. The crown, he had decided, was not for him, and at the age of 75 he had decided to give it up. That was perhaps just as well, for France, too, had grown tired of the monarchy.

The abdication, however, was far from a cure-all for the nation. The people were still hungry and they fought each other in the streets. Communists, complete with the red flag, now entered upon the stage. The proclamation of the Second Republic did nothing to ease the strain, and when even the gallant Archbishop of Paris was shot dead while trying to quieten a street riot, it seemed that the country was once again set upon a revolutionary course.

But many weeks later the rioting simmered down and then it was decided to hold elections for a President of France. Among the candidates who offered their nominations were General Cavaignac, who had helped quell the riots, and Lamartine, the Foreign Minister. And there was also Louis Napoleon, the 40-year-old nephew of the great Napoleon Bonaparte.

On December 20, 1848, the election result was declared, and Louis Napoleon became President. He had polled five and a half million votes – four million more than the next candidate. For Louis Napoleon that was a sweeping victory, and it brought out in him a streak of his famous uncle’s character. He had already decided that to be President of the Republic was not enough; that ambition could only be satisfied by being Emperor. Thus, four years after his presidential election. Louis Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French. He styled himself Napoleon III, because the first Napoleon’s son, who was now dead, had sometimes been called Napoleon II.

He married a Spanish lady named Eugenie, and Napoleon and she reigned in glittering style in the mid-nineteenth century Paris that had become the citadel of nineteenth century Western civilisation. It was at this time that something happened that many of the heroes of France of yesteryear would never have believed could happen. A new war broke out – and Britain and France were on the same side.

The war was the Crimean War and the common foe was Tsarist Russia. It was a war best known for stirring deeds of courage – the war of Florence Nightingale and of the vainglorious Charge of the Light Brigade. Three years after the allied victory the Emperor Napoleon III was at war again – this time with Austria. At Solferino, in the Lombardy plain, he fought and won a famous victory as a result of which the Austrians were driven out of the northern part of Italy.

The Emperor was a big, aristocratic man, heavily built, and with a long moustache and a goatee beard. He did not have many friends and, after his next campaign, he had fewer still. This time the Emperor decided to force upon the Mexicans an Emperor of his choice – Maximilian, who was brother of the Emperor of Austria.

The Mexicans did not want Maximilian. Why indeed should they have had him? They resisted this French imposition bitterly – and the French fought back as stoutly. Then, suddenly, the Emperor Napoleon III recalled his army to France, leaving the unfortunate Maximilian alone and without support. The Mexicans thereupon seized the puppet ruler and shot him.

But it took yet another war to set the seal on the Emperor’s fate. It happened in 1870, when France declared war on Prussia. The reason was that the Spanish had offered their throne to a nephew of the King of Prussia – and France did not want that to happen because she feared that a Prussian-Spanish alliance would crush her.

But the Emperor Napoleon III was little prepared for his new war, called the Franco-Prussian war, which he had brought upon himself. The Prussians had the best army in Europe, and, in Count Bismarck, one of the greatest statesmen. The Emperor of the French was a poor match, as he was soon to find. The rival armies met at Sedan, where the Prussians found the French encamped in a bowl of hills from which there was no escape. It is doubtful whether any army had ever put itself in a worse position before a shot was fired than did the French at Sedan.

For all that, they fought like brave men, until the Emperor Napoleon III, accepting the hopelessness of his position, surrendered himself and more than 80,000 of his soldiers. Napoleon and Count Bismarck then talked over the surrender terms while sitting in the sun outside a weaver’s cottage.

The Emperor was sent as a prisoner to Germany, and it was on the way there that he read in a newspaper that the Empress Eugenie had fled from Paris, the French Empire had fallen, and the Third Republic of France was proclaimed.

What this meant was that although the Prussians had defeated the Empire – they had yet to defeat the Republic. The French were determined to continue the war. But that was a decision that served them badly, for very soon the Prussians were in sight of Paris, and the capital was besieged.

For four months the Parisians defended their city through one of the coldest winters ever known. They were without light, fuel or food, and they ate cats, dogs and rats to survive. In the end they had to surrender.

Almost at once a civil war – that scourge of the story of France – broke out. The rebels against the government elected their own government, called the Commune. The Communists fought terrible battles in the streets and burned all the principal buildings in Paris. When at last government soldiers put down the Commune, the capital was a smouldering ruin. And if you go to Paris today you will see much of the city that was planned and rebuilt after the war.

So we come to the twentieth century, when the stories of European countries merge into one another, when each country’s story is the story of the Continent. Today, after two world wars in which she was the battlefield, France is again one of the world’s great nations.

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