The proposals for constitutional reform and the establishment of a liberal Empire were put to the test by a plebiscite on 8 May 1870. Voters were asked to respond to a statement carefully worded to maximize support by appealing to liberals and even moderate republicans: ‘The People approves the liberal reforms introduced into the Constitution since 1860 by the Emperor with the collaboration of the grands Corps de l’Etat, and ratified by the senatus-consulte of 20 April 1870.’ The period immediately preceding the plebiscite saw widespread agitation, with strikes and repeated disorders in the capital. Growing conservative hostility towards Paris and its politics in the provinces partly explain the vogue for de-centralization and subsequently the ferocious repression of the Paris Commune in 1871. Policing was becoming difficult as the number of meetings, associations, newspapers and strikes grew. Taking advantage of the unease caused by this disorder, the Emperor’s proclamation on 23 April promised that a positive vote would not only sanction the reforms introduced since 1860 but ‘banish the threat of revolution’, establish ‘order and liberty on a solid base’ and furthermore ease ‘the transmission of the crown to my son’. The outcome was of such importance that Ollivier reversed his long-standing opposition to the use of administrative pressure. Prefects were instructed to deploy une activité dévorante in favour of a ‘yes’ vote.
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