Napoleon III had firmly believed in his historical destiny. His role initially was that of a ‘charismatic’ leader, a ‘dictator’ at the centre of an authoritarian political system drawing its legitimacy initially from the reestablishment of social order, together with the manipulation of a mass electorate. This led to him being described by historians in the 1930s and 1940s as a precursor of fascism. However, in comparison with twentieth-century dictatorships, his was much less brutal. The Second Empire lacked both the bureaucratic machinery of the ‘totalitarian’ state and its determination to invade the private space of its citizens and to ignore the ‘rule of law’. Over time, the regime became less rather than more authoritarian, accepting, in particular, the need to concede a growing share of power to the social elites it had briefly managed to exclude in December 1851. In establishing the Liberal Empire Napoleon III was pushed further than the couronnement de l’édifice he had originally envisaged. The regime nevertheless appeared, following the May 1870 plebiscite, to have successfully achieved a difficult process of transition. The institutions created as part of a violent counter-revolution had been adapted to meet the needs of a changing society with different political aspirations. The new regime, bearing many similarities to the presidential system of the Fifth Republic established by General de Gaulle, was probably viable.
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