Top 10 Facts about Napoléon III
As one of the less known political figures of France, Louis-Napoléon – aka Napoléon III – is often mistaken with his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte. Napoléon III’s reign is far from being ridiculous in comparison to that of his illustrious uncle’s, however. Here are 10 interesting facts which punctuated the life and reign of Napoléon III.
1) From President to Emperor
Napoléon III is the only French politician who was both the President – of the Second Republic – and the Emperor of France. It all started in the most democratic way. Future Napoléon III launched an electoral campaign in order to become the first president elected in a universal male suffrage – which at the time was a consequent improvement towards full democracy. Obtaining 71% of the votes, Napoléon III became the President of the Second Republic, officially known as “Prince-President”.
However, his ambitions were far from being reached. Since his presidency was legally limited to one term, he planned a coup to extend this term, in 1951, which was granted to him. One year later, much on his impulse, the idea of a new Empire started to crawl in the people’s mind. A referendum was set in place, the Empire was reinstituted, and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte took the official title of Napoléon III, Emperor of the French.
The return of the Empire and the end of the Republic did not mark the return of an authoritarian regime, however. First, the instability of the Second Republic made it a much more authoritarian system. Also, the Second Empire saw a period of major life improvement for the French, and the rise of social requests.
2) The future Emperor, dressed as a woman
Long before he became an Emperor, as he was 22, Napoléon III was living in Italy, as his family was exiled there. As he was staying in Florence, Louis-Napoléon was already much interested in women, and was known for his many conquests – a reputation he was to keep his entire life. In 1830, Louis-Napoléon fell desperately in love with a beautiful noble woman: Countess Baraglini. The woman, however, being already married, never replied to the many love messages sent by the Frenchman.
To give flowers to her, in person, he supposedly decided to dress up as a woman, in order to be able to get close to her! As he got to her, he threw himself at her feet to show is love and acted in a very dramatic way, even threatening to kill himself, should she refuse his advances. Despite her laughter, the official lover of the countess erupted into the room and kicked him out – literally.
Now outside, the shameful man became the target of mockeries on the street. At this point, this ridiculous scene – although probably distorted by gossip and myths – was far from advocating the splendor that was to be associated with Louis-Napoléon, years later.
3) The Haussmannian transformations
The reign of Napoléon III was a time of vast urban transformations, especially in the capital, Paris.
Upon sitting on the throne, Napoleon III realized Paris was still stuck in medieval times. Overcrowded with an ever rising population density, the walled town was extremely unhealthy.
The narrow streets, lined with old depleting buildings, were too small for the population to easily circulate. Apartments were filthy, the tiny yards were open-sky toilets, and diseases often spread fast. With the constant need for wider roads – to let carriages and then cars to go through – and as London became the leading city in Europe with its very advance industrialization, Napoléon III decided in the 1850s that Paris needed to be revamped profoundly.
Also willing the capital of his Empire to be grandiose for the upcoming World Expos and secretly believing that wide avenues were better to control crowds and avoid a new revolution, all evidence supported that the time was perfect for historical changes.
He mandated Baron Haussmann to conduct the project. In the span of twenty years, Haussmann completely transformed the city. Destroying almost 40,000 buildings, creating vast green areas and parks, planting trees, piercing wide avenues, he also massively modernized the lifestyle by providing current water at all floors, city lighting, and a huge underground sewage system with boulevard-wide collectors.
A strict code limiting the height of buildings – still applicable today – and clearly harmonizing façades was put in place. The huge construction works drastically changed the quality of life of the Parisians, and disease cases started to drop fast with the improvements. Several World Expos took place in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. The city had then become the number one rival to its British counterpart.
You wish to see the Haussmannian transformations clearly? Why not book one of our landmarks guided tours on Paris’s right bank to walk the streets the Baron pierced? Click here to learn more.
4) The beginnings of Credit and Finance
Many major changes occurred during the reign of Napoleon III. The Emperor wanted to lead the country towards its industrial revolution. Indeed, much affected by the Revolution of 1789, and by the quick succession of regimes that occurred ever since, France was much behind its European counterparts in terms of economic development.
In line with the medieval system, French banks, mostly held by personal fortunes, seldom granted loans to industrial directors and to the public, which limited companies creations and expansions.
To counteract this trend, Napoléon III decided to create the Crédit Foncier de France – French Property Credit – a mortgage bank. Other banks were created as well.
This vast opening of credits lead to a major industrial and investment boom in the country. Mining, ship construction, railroads, and building engineering were the industries that most benefited from the change, thus physically transforming France from a backwards land to an up-to-date industrial power.
Most of the banks created at the time still exist today, under their original form or not. The financial changes, and the sudden and fast growth of the already centuries-old Paris Stock Exchange – driven by speculation, investment and the fierce competition with London – marked a major transformation of the many to come with the Industrial Revolution.
5) The Series in Compiègne
Once the Empire was safely set, Napoléon III and Empress Eugenia had in their hearts to make the French Court the most sumptuous of its time. The past glories of Louis XIV and Louis XVI in Versailles, clearly marked the road…
In 1856, a new type of mundane event was created, and would become the signature of Napoleon III’s Court: the Series. Aristocrats, artists, writers, and celebrities of the time were invited to spend one entire week at the Imperial Palace of Compiègne (North of Paris).
Each “Serie” lasted a week and the Series followed one another over a period of three to six weeks. For each Serie, about 100 people were invited by a personal invite sent by the Imperial couple.
Since the Series was the one important event of the mundane Empire life, there are many anecdotes on what people were prepared to do in order to get the precious document that gave the right to board the train from Paris to Compiègne…
Each participant was accommodated in the Palace, depending on their status: the most important people in the social hierarchy had the most beautiful apartments, and the closest to the Emperor’s. The service was exceptional and it is believed that it was in Compiègne that the ordering card – used today in luxury hotels to order services and food directly from your room – was invented as a wish from Empress Eugenia.
During the Series, the Etiquette was very limited and freedom, proximity and a laid-back style was the norm. During the week, activities such as balls, theater plays, banquets and walks in the nearby forest were appreciated moments to get close to the Emperor and his wife.
6) La Paiva, La Castiglione , and the Emperor
The names La Paiva and La Castiglione are forever attached to Napoléon III’s reign. These two women, who reached to highest spheres of aristocracy, were called “Great Horizontals” – understand here high-class “filles-de-joie”!
La Castiglione – originally Virginia Oldoini, who took the nickname of Countess of Castiglione, in reference to the name of her street – became Napoleon III’s lover before the relationship lead to a nationwide scandal.
La Paiva – Esther Lachmann, too, had a short relationship with the Emperor. She left in her trail a sumptuous mansion near the Champs-Elysées, which was affectionately nicknamed by literary figures “Le Louvre du Cul” – “The Louvre of Sex”.
7) The seduction of Empress Eugenia
Napoléon III met his future wife, Eugenia, in 1849, as he was not Emperor yet. Immediately seduced by the gorgeous Spanish countess, he started to court (date) her. More than two years later, as he became Emperor, and as most counsellors advised him to choose the daughter of a reigning family in Europe to ensure the continuity of his dynasty, he chose Eugenia to be his new Empress.
Eugenia, however, was very pious. Napoléon III, renowned for his loose morals, and his many conquests, had some doubts about their compatibility. One night, as he was courting Eugenia standing beneath her windows, she supposedly even responded “The road to my bed passes by the Chapel”!
Eventually, the pair finally got married, in 1853, and the beautiful Spanish countess became Empress Consort of the French.
8) The sumptuous life of monarchy
The Second Empire also was an important time for the arts. The new reigning family wished to get back to the splendor of the Court in Versailles. The Imperial Court chose to settle in the Palace of Tuileries which thus becomes the new Imperial Palace.
With the changes in the political structure, and the new Imperial home, new trends emerge in architecture and furniture. Fabrics on the furniture, draping of the rooms, and padding and cushioning of the chairs to ensure a better comfort, become the new norm in the Second Empire Style. Remains of the past come back, especially furniture of the Marie-Antoinette era, the Emperor’s family literally worshipping her.
In addition to the new fashions in interior design, Empress Eugenia also launched new clothing trends, among which the most impactful was the crinoline. The crinoline was a form of underskirt which supported the ladies’ dresses to give a more important volume to them.
9) The Garnier Opera House and Napoléon III
One of the most magnificent and prestigious building left from the Napoléon III era is, without a doubt, the grandiose Paris Opera House.
Built upon the Emperor’s request, after he barely escaped a bomb attack on his way to the old opera house nearby, the new Opera was integrated late in the Haussmannian transformations, and its construction mandated to young architect Charles Garnier after a public contest. Designed so that the Emperor could come directly from the Palace with his car, and so he could actually enter the building without getting out of the car, the Opera was also made so it could be the centerpiece of the Paris World Expo of 1867.
The history of the Garnier Opera house is complicated, which you can read here.
During its construction, Napoléon III asked Garnier while visiting the site “What style is that?” Garnier, taken aback, replied “well, it is in the Napoléon III Style”!
From then on, this style was recognized as such.
There are many anecdotes on the Garnier Opera House, but one reflects well the personality of Napoléon III. In the amphitheater, the two imperial boxes – which face each other – are flanked with statues of women. However, from the Empress’s box the statues flanking the Emperor’s box are fully clothed, while the statues surrounding the Empress’s box as seen from the Emperor’s box are naked, testifying once more of the seductive personality of the Emperor.
Napoléon III never saw the Opéra finished as the Emperor, because the building opened in 1875 only after the Empire collapsed.
10) Napoléon III is buried in England
After the defeat against Bismarck in 1871, Napoléon III is made prisoner. The people in Paris, fiercely opposed to the Prussian War and thus, blaming the complications caused by the defeat on the Emperor, started revolting.
Empress Eugenia was then forced to flee to her friend’s side, Queen Victoria, in England. Released by Bismarck, Napoléon III went to England, and the exiled family lived there for a while.
Hit by strong bladder pain, Napoléon III underwent several operations and eventually succumbed to death in his exile country, before he could make the triumphant come-back he dreamed of. The year was 1873.
The Emperor was buried in a British abbey near Farnborough, were monks still take care of his grave today. Empress Eugenia took nearly 50 years to join him. She died in 1920, and was also buried in Farnborough.
Many requests to bring the Imperial Family back to France were made since that time, but none were successful.
Although less renowned internationally, the reign of Napoléon III is far from less grandiose than that of his uncle, Bonaparte. These 20 years of Empire resurgence, marked in their own way the arts, urban layout, architecture, infrastructures and economic system of France.
I’ll leave you with this thought by Napoléon III: “Governing no longer means dominating people with strength and violence. It means leading them to a better future, all the while talking to their mind and their heart.”