In France, the February 1848 Revolution and the establishment of manhood suffrage created the circumstances in which, according to Karl Marx, ‘a grotesque mediocrity’ was able to seize power. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the first Napoleon, had previously defined his political ideas in a series of widely read pamphlets, including, most notably, Les Réflections Politiques (1832), Les Idées Napoléoniennes (1839) — based closely on Napoleon I’s writings and on Las Cases’ Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène — and L’Extinction du Paupérisme (1844). Vague and full of contradictions, these writings, reflecting the utopian optimism of the 1830s/40s, were to serve as his ‘guiding ideas’, inspiring a ‘mission’ defined as ‘a devotion first to the Napoleonic dynasty, and then to France… giv[ing] her influence abroad and prosperity at home’. Only the Bonaparte dynasty, he assumed, could effectively represent the twin principles of popular sovereignty and order, the principles of 1789 and of the First Empire. Taking advantage of the heroic myth created by his uncle, as well as of the desperate desire for order and prosperity amongst wide sections of the population, following years of economic and political unrest, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of the Republic in December 1848, with 5,534,520 votes (74.2% of those cast), compared with 1,448,302 for the Republican General Cavaignac. He was well placed to use the administrative and military resources of the state to mount a coup d’état in December 1851. 1 The coup was followed by a period of rule by decree, of dictatorship in the ancient Roman sense of the word, when the normal rule of law was suspended with the assent of the population, given by plebiscite on 21 December 1851 (Figures 1.1 and 1.2).
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