Why France should bring back ‘Socialist Emperor’

Historian Dimitri Casali has launched a petition for the remains of Napoléon III to be returned to his home country. Here, he reveals more about the emperor France forgot

27 November 2019
By Brian McCulloch

He was the emperor who saw the first department stores open in France, expanded the nation’s rail system, was partly responsible for the first woman to sit the bac and was behind the grand reconstruction of Paris – but today he lies forgotten in an English abbey.

The remains of Napoléon III are in a crypt in , alongside those of his wife Eugénie and son Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, an officer in the British army killed during the Zulu wars.

The sarcophagus of Emperor Napoleon III in Hampshire

Now historian Dimitri Casali has launched a petition for his remains to be returned to France.

He said: “I had just finished a book about Napoléon III when I realised he has almost been written out of French history.

“He was the first elected president before becoming emperor, yet there is not one square or street or boulevard in Paris named after him. Napoléon III is ignored and is not even taught in school.”

Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoléon I, was elected president in 1848 after the revolution that overthrew King Louis Philippe.

He staged a coup in 1851 as the constitution limited his time as president to one term, and declared himself emperor after a referendum.

In 1870, he lost a war with Prussia, with a tactically inept army which he led in the field, being completely surrounded at Sedan and leading to his surrender.
After a year, he was allowed into exile in England. In the meantime, the Paris Commune was declared by revolutionaries before being crushed by the French army before the Third Republic was established.

“So much of his time in power from 1848 to 1870 was a success and he laid the foundation of the French state as it is today,” said Mr Casali. “It was under him that France had its industrial, agricultural and financial revolutions. 

“He could arguably be called the Socialist Emperor, because under him fundamental liberties such as the right to strike, education for boys and girls, and even things like the first rent-controlled housing schemes for workers were established. He transformed Paris, yet has been rubbed out of the history books.”
The petition has received 4,500 signatures and Mr Casali said he hoped that a future government would take note.

“President Macron has apologised for France’s colonial history, which he called a crime against humanity, so we will get no joy from him,” he said.

Napoléon III instigated a disastrous attempt to install a friendly empire in Mexico, and oversaw the creation of the Indo-China colonies.

Most of the roads and railways were laid out under the Third Empire and he had an active role in building infrastructure for economic growth.

The Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord stations in Paris were built by Napoléon III and the rail network expanded from 3,500 to 20,000 kilometres.

New shipping lines were created and ports rebuilt in Marseille and Le Havre, connecting France to the Americas, North Africa and the Far East. The number of steamships tripled, giving France the world’s second-largest fleet.

He also backed the creation of the Suez Canal, which was opened by Empress Eugénie.

Commercial innovations he encouraged included the first department stores.

Bon Marché opened in 1852 and Au Printemps in 1865.

He was also passionate about preserving the nation’s heritage – buildings saved during his reign included Notre Dame Cathedral, Mont-Saint-Michel and Carcassonne.

Napoléon and the Empress Eugénie gave greater access to public education for females and in 1861 the first woman in France received a baccalauréat.
The call to return the emperor’s remains to France has split descendants. Some say the Empress Eugénie’s wish that they be kept in England should be respected.

Prince Jean-Christophe Napoléon, current pretender to the imperial throne who works for a hedge fund in London, did not respond to an interview request from Connexion.

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