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France: Election of President

France: Election of President Under the second republic of 1848, France for the first time chose as its head of sta te and chief executive a president elected by universal manhood sufferings. The First Republic of 1792 had experimented with several forms of collegial executive, and even Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul had shared power (at least in theory) with two others. But the constitutional committee of the national constituent assembly in 1848, partly out of regard for the failure of the earlier forms and partly inspired by the American example, by late May 1848 had decided in favor of a presidential exe cutive, to be elected by the same democratic suffrage that had produced the national assembly itself.

The election of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte as a deputy in four by- elections on June 4 raised a new issue, however; alarmed, the Executive Commission decided to arrest the pretender should he return to France from England, but the national assembly voted to admit him. Louis Napoleon, however, decided to resign his seat and bide his time. The Parisian insurrection of late June, while turning the assembly against socialist theories and radical activists, left intact the committee's commitment to political democracy. But when Louis Napoleon again won even more impressively in five by-elections on September 17, there was no new attempt to obstruct the man who was obviously already a strong candidate for the presidency itself, and he calmly took his seat. Despite a new attempt, led by the young Jules Grévy (later to be president of the Third Republic), to create not an elected pre sident but a premier chosen by the assembly, the deputies, after a grandiloquent speech by Alphonse de Lamartine in favor of popular election, overwhelmingly rejected the Grévy amendment. The constitution adopted on November 4 therefore included the provision for a president to be elected directly by all Frenchmen 21 years of age or older, but also contained several precautions against any abuse of presidential power. The constitution prohibited a president from succeeding himself immediate ly after one four-year term (the provision that in 1851 would become the pretext for Louis Napoleon's coup d'état), required him to take an oath to uphold the constitution, and provided that any attempt to dissolve the legislative assembly would result in the automatic deposition of the president. The constitution also provided that should any candidate fail to win an absolute majority, the national assembly would choose the president from among the leading candidates. Louis Napoleon had few supporters in the assembly, which presumably would favor General Louis Eugêne Cavaignac, whom it had kept in power as chief executive since the June Days.

The assembly decided to proceed immediately to the election of the president, on December 10 and 11. Although it was apparent that Louis Napoleon and Cavaignac were the leading candidates, there was considerable room for maneuver among the competing political forces. Most of the moderate republicans favored Cavaignac, but Lamarti ne stood also and the radicals and socialists put forward Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and François Raspail. Proposals by some monarchists to offer the candidacies of the legitimist pretender, the Comte de Chambord, or as an Orleanist a son of Louis Philippe or Adolphe Thiers, were soon abandoned as unrealistic; but the leading organization of the combined monarchists, the R‚union de la Rue de Poitiers, or the "party of order," was unable to decide between the republican Cavaignac or Louis Napoleon, both of whom members detested or distrusted. Both Cavaignac and Napoleon stood above all as men of order, but the general was inept in his appeal for conservative support, most of which in the end went to Bonaparte.

The result was a massive victory for Louis Napoleon, who was elected with 5,534,520 votes, a majority of 74 percent of those cast. General Cavaignac came in a distant second, with 1,448,302 votes, or 19.5 percent. Ledru-Rollin, whom Thiers had expected to garner mor e than two million ballots, attracted only 371,431; Raspail received 36,964 and Lamartine, who had been the most popular member of the provisional government, now was the choice of only 17,914 voters in all of France. Louis Napoleon won in all but four departments, two in Brittany and two in the Midi, where Cavaignac was victorious. The prince also had strong support in all social classes, from the peasantry who provided most of his majority to the notables, the various levels of the bourgeoisie, and even the workers in many cities, including Paris, where he received his largest majorities in the working- class areas. The election was an overwhelming defeat for all of the republican candidates and in a sense a victory for the Napoleonic legend, incarnate in the little-known nephew of the great Emperor.
Frederick de Luna


de Luna, Frederick A. The French Republic under Cavaignac, 1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Tudesq, André Jean. L'Election présidentielle de Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, 10 décembre 1848. Paris: A. Colin, 1965.

Price, Roger. The French Second Republic: A Social History. London: B.T. Batsford, 1972.

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