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Meeting with J. Grondeux: the conquest of power by Napoleon III


On the occasion of a History Café dedicated to the conquest of power by Napoleon III, the Thucydide association received on April 3, 2012 the historian Jérôme Grondeux, lecturer at the University of Paris IV Sorbonne, and also professor of history of political ideas at the Institut Catholique de Paris. He is the author, among others, of Socialism: the end of a story? (Payot, 2012). The opportunity to compare the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte and the presidential campaign of 2012. History for all was present.

The political context of the 1848 election

To begin his remarks, Jérôme Grondeux insists on the very short duration of the presidential campaign of 1848, which partly explains the hesitations of certain politicians. Among them, Adolphe Thiers, who does not appear, and maintains complex relations with Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. A politically savvy and knowing that he is too identified with the bourgeoisie, Thiers sensed the tidal wave in favor of the future Napoleon III.

The latter has before him a serious candidate, General Eugène Cavaignac, "The man of moderate Republicans [the blues]" as Jérôme Grondeux specifies. In power since June 1848, Cavaignac is an authoritarian republican who was able to convince some of the conservatives, such as the Comte de Falloux.

The other candidates have diverse backgrounds, but are not strangers. First, General Changarnier, pushed by Legitimists nostalgic for Charles X; then, François-Vincent Raspail, of the socialist and revolutionary far left, who is at the moment in prison, but presented for election by his friends. However, these two men are unlikely to threaten favorites Cavaignac and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. The role of third man then fell to two personalities: Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, leader of the so-called Mountain Republicans [the reds], a prudent man and also dragging a few pots; and Alphonse de Lamartine, "A man too abused by history" (according to François Mitterrand, quoted by Jérôme Grondeux). Lamartine is "The great man of the provisional government, and he did a lot to make the Republic less fearful in France", according to Jérôme Grondeux. But overtaken by the events of June, he is indeed the "lyrical illusion" of the Republic transcending divisions. Jérôme Grondeux sees in him a mixture of Villepin and Bayrou ...

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's “extraordinary resource”

The future chosen one, and future emperor, is a mystery but has a big advantage, "An extraordinary resource", at the time of the elections, and despite its previous setbacks: his name. In the France of 1848, nostalgia for the Emperor returned, after a period of disgrace shortly after his fall (and even a little before ...). Napoleon I is seen as a compromise between the legacy of the Revolution and the need for order, very present at this time, especially after the days of June. That Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte also has a few saucepans, that he is not a good orator ("He would have a headache", says Jérôme Grondeux) does not really matter. All this allows Bonaparte to be seen well by a good part of society, including among the peasants, who are particularly worried about threats to property. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte understood the importance of this, and of money more generally, and he did not hesitate to borrow and to get into debt. He is therefore not alone, and even supported by the Committee of the rue de Poitiers. He manages to present himself as the candidate of the Order party, while being independent, and not a puppet. In addition, Bonaparte "Does not have the blood of the workers on his hands [and enjoys] a political virginity" compared to its main competitors.

A skillfully conducted campaign

For his campaign, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte has already understood everything about political communication, even though he is a poor speaker compared to other candidates. He focuses his messages on posters targeted to the audience, which makes Jérôme Grondeux say that "Bonaparte used triangulation like a Tony Blair". Certain themes and the way of approaching them resonate curiously with the presidential campaign of 2012: the state of the country, close to bankruptcy, while France is so rich in skills and assets; the need for security and order, ... Bonaparte also uses his name to call for confidence: “Napoleon saved France from anarchy in the First Revolution. The great man's nephew, with his magic name, will give us security and save us from misery ”, we read on a poster (quoted by Jérôme Grondeux). We see the religious in the political, here fully assumed.

The candidate knows how to seduce on the left, by appealing to the people (we are here in claimed populism), and on the right, thanks to order, security, and Christian values ​​(he is also supported by the Church, to which he made concrete promises, especially on education). Jérôme Grondeux speaks for this campaign of "Differentiated propaganda". Behind the idea of ​​national unity, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte thus touches "The workers, the peasants, the men, the Church, the soldiers, ...". And he does not hesitate to play the self-fulfilling prophecy by announcing his victory before the hour.

Lessons from the conquest of power by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte?

The lack of opinion polls at the time made it difficult to assess accurately the victorious campaign of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, and the importance of the weight of his name. If he wins nearly 75% of the vote, it is probably due to a number of factors: his name certainly, the skill of his differentiated campaign, his support, or the way of voting at the time. (favoring fraud, even if historians agree that the result generally reflects opinion).

That did not prevent him from quickly having some problems, some of which were related to his campaign strategy. So the tensions with the Order Party. The weight of the workers' vote in his favor should not be overestimated either, since Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte subsequently tried to win their support a little more. Jérôme Grondeux concludes "That it [needed] an extraordinary situation to be elected with such an eclectic program, on the idea of ​​a national rally". But that the real strength of Bonaparte was his mastery before the hour of political communication, and his ability "To transform weakness into strength." Insituable, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte succeeded in convincing a majority ".

To read

- E. Anceau, Napoleon III, Tallandier, 2008.

Jérôme Grondeux's website.

The site of the History Cafés of the Thucydide association.


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