Rule of Napoleon III
The Imperial Standard of Napoleon III.
The structure of the French government during the Second Empire was little changed from the First. But Emperor Napoleon III stressed his own imperial role as the foundation of the government. If government was to guide the people toward domestic justice and external peace, it was his role as emperor, holding his power by universal male suffrage and representing all of the people, to function as supreme leader and safeguard the achievements of the revolution.
He had so often, while in prison or in exile, chastised previous oligarchical governments for neglecting social questions that it was imperative France now prioritize their solutions. His answer was to organize a system of government based on the principles of the "Napoleonic Idea." This meant that the emperor, the elect of the people as the representative of the democracy, ruled supreme. He himself drew power and legitimacy from his role as representative of the great Napoleon I of France, "who had sprung armed from the French Revolution like Minerva from the head of Jove."
The anti-parliamentary French Constitution of 1852 instituted by Napoleon III on 14 January 1852, was largely a repetition of that of 1848. All executive power was entrusted to the emperor, who, as head of state, was solely responsible to the people. The people of the Empire, lacking democratic rights, were to rely on the benevolence of the emperor rather than on the benevolence of politicians. He was to nominate the members of the council of state, whose duty it was to prepare the laws, and of the senate, a body permanently established as a constituent part of the empire.
One innovation was made, namely, that the Legislative Body was elected by universal suffrage, but it had no right of initiative, all laws being proposed by the executive power. This new political change was rapidly followed by the same consequence as had attended that of Brumaire. On 2 December 1852, France, still under the effect of Napoleon's legacy, and the fear of anarchy, conferred almost unanimously by a plebiscite the supreme power, with the title of emperor, upon Napoleon III.
The Legislative Body was not allowed to elect its own president or to regulate its own procedure, or to propose a law or an amendment, or to vote on the budget in detail, or to make its deliberations public. Similarly, universal suffrage was supervised and controlled by means of official candidature, by forbidding free speech and action in electoral matters to the Opposition, and by a gerrymandering in such a way as to overwhelm the Liberal vote in the mass of the rural population. The press was subjected to a system of cautionnements ("caution money", deposited as a guarantee of good behaviour) and avertissements (requests by the authorities to cease publication of certain articles), under sanction of suspension or suppression. Books were subject to censorship.
In order to counteract the opposition of individuals, a surveillance of suspects was instituted. Felice Orsini's attack on the emperor in 1858, though purely Italian in its motive, served as a pretext for increasing the severity of this régime by the law of general security (sûreté générale) which authorised the internment, exile or deportation of any suspect without trial. In the same way public instruction was strictly supervised, the teaching of philosophy was suppressed in the lycées, and the disciplinary powers of the administration were increased.
For seven years France had no democratic life. The Empire governed by a series of plebiscites. Up to 1857 the Opposition did not exist; from then till 1860 it was reduced to five members:
Darimon, Émile Ollivier, Hénon, Jules Favre and Ernest Picard. The royalists waited inactive after the new and unsuccessful attempt made at Frohsdorf in 1853, by a combination of the legitimists and Orléanists, to re-create a living monarchy out of the ruin of two royal families.