The Triumph and Disaster o f Bonapartism , 1851-71: Closing the Era o f Revolutions
B onapartism is the great synthesis of post-revolutionary French political culture. All French politics since 1814 had turned on a series of restorations, of imitations of past models by self-conscious heirs. All were intended to be the final restoration, the end of the cycle. Bonapartism came closest to achieving this by its seductive eclecticism: the combination of Right and Left, of glamour and safety, of revolution and order, of democracy and authority. It attracted unequalled popular support through a charismatic leader appealing to ‘the people’. By showing that a mass electorate was not a recipe for anarchy it made universal male suffrage a permanent feature of French politics. It restored ‘order’ after violent conflict: the usual and logical end to revolutions. It constituted a strong authority that was accepted and indeed desired, because it purported to be neutral between the conflicting factions of the ‘old parties’ that had been struggling since 1814. For it was neither Red nor White, neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary. Remond considers Bonapartism as part of the Right; Girard considers it basically on the Left;3 the answer is surely that it was neither - and both. It was therefore acceptable to the mass of voters as that arbitrating power that post-revolutionary French society needed, as Hoffmann has pointed out, in order to function. Finally, it promised to establish France on an advantageous footing with the outside world - the other major problem bequeathed by the Revolution. It thus became, says Nicolet, ‘the matrix of modern France’,4
though in my opinion in more ways than he concedes. For a generation it ended the Revolution.