After the February Revolution of 1848 Louis Napoleon returned to France. He gathered a following, was elected to the national assembly, and in Dec., 1848, defeated Louis Eugène Cavaignac in the presidential elections by an overwhelming majority. Although assisted by Cavaignac's unpopularity with the working classes, Louis Napoleon's success was largely due to his name. He vaguely promised support to all interests, and he evoked French nostalgia for past Napoleonic glory. As president of the Second Republic, he was limited by law to one term. He soon began to strengthen his position and took special care to conciliate the powerful conservative forces. The strong Roman Catholic opposition was allayed by allowing (1849) a French army to restore Pope Pius IX to Rome and by assenting (1850) to an education bill, presented by Frédéric de Falloux, which greatly favored the church.
After the defeat in the assembly in July, 1851, of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the president to serve for more than one term, Louis Napoleon began plans for a coup. The masterly coup of Dec. 2, 1851, was largely engineered by Louis Napoleon's half-brother, the duc de Morny. The legislative assembly was dissolved and its meeting place occupied by the army, universal suffrage was established, and a plebiscite authorizing the revision of the constitution was announced. An attempted uprising was brutally repressed. To assure a majority in the plebiscite Morny used tactics of intimidation and strict electoral management.
Victory would, in any case, have been the probable outcome. The Bonaparte name promised glory, order, and a possible solution of France's political division. The plebiscite registered overwhelming approval. The new constitution (Jan., 1852) gave the president dictatorial powers and created a council of state, a senate, and a legislative assembly subservient to the president. Subsequent decrees barred republicans from the ballot and throttled the press.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.