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Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

France at the beginning of 1870 - The Ollivier Ministry - Diminution of the Imperial Prestige. - Assassination of Victor Noir by Prince Pierre Bonaparte - Riots in Paris - The Prince tried and acquitted. - Strangeness of the Political Situation - The Emperor resolves to submit the new Reforms to the Popular Vote - Resignation of Count Daru and M. Buffet - Views and Feelings of the Emperor- Form of the Plébiscite - A large Majority vote in the Affirmative - The Army Vote - Considerable Minority vote in a hostile sense - Alarm of Napoleon. - Lull in European Affairs. - Offer of the Crown of Spain to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern - Speech of the Duc de Gramont in the French Chamber - The Circumstances of this Candidature examined - Prince Leopold directed by his Father to decline the Offer - The French Government endeavours to obtain a Pledge from the King of Prussia that the project shall not be revived - The King refuses - Excitement at Paris - Warlike Declarations in the French Chambers - Approved by the Majority - Fruitless opposition of the Left - Count Bismark causes to be published a draft Treaty prepared by M. Benedetti for the annexation of Belgium to France - Painful Sensation produced in England - French Explanations. - England resolves to stand by Belgium - Speech of Lord Russell - The Government prepares a Treaty guaranteeing the Independence of Belgium - Proposes it separately to France and Prussia - Treaty accepted by both Powers. - Tardiness of the French Movements - Positions of the French Army - Organisation and strength of the German Armies - The Emperor's plan of campaign - Affair of Saarbrück - Combat of Weissenburg - MacMahon's rashness in not concentrating - Battle of Wörth - MacMahon falls back on Châlons - Battle of Forbach. - Ferment at Paris - Change of Ministry - The Count de Palikao placed at the head of affairs - Vigorous Measures - General Trochu appointed Governor of Paris. - Proclamation of the King of Prussia - Bazaine in command at Metz - Advance of the German Armies - Battle of Borny - Battle of Vionville - Bazaine occupies the lines of Amanvillers - Battle of Gravelotte - The French Eight driven back - Bazaine retires under the guns of Metz.
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At his usual New Year's Day reception (January 1, 1870) the Emperor Napoleon expressed himself to the diplomatic body as highly satisfied with the relations existing between his Government and all foreign Powers. He added, "The year 1870, I am sure, cannot but consolidate this general agreement, and tend to the increase of concord and civilisation." So it might easily have done, had not the rise or fall of his own prestige, and that of his family, been matters of much greater importance in the Emperor's mind - notwithstanding these fine words - than the peace of Europe and the happiness of France.

M. Ollivier, having succeeded in inducing several public men of a higher stamp than had ever before served the Emperor - notably Count Daru and M. Buffet - to join him in the effort which he declared himself resolved to make, to give real political liberty to France, appeared before the Chamber with his Ministry fully constituted on the 3rd January. But these honest politicians of the Left Centre - these men of honour and character and known antecedents - must have felt considerable surprise, not to say mistrust, when they found what sort of persons they were associated with in the Government, in what hands the vast executive force of the Empire really lay. Marshal Leboeuf was continued in the post of Minister of War; and courtiers like Marshal Taillant, the Duc de Gramont, and General Fleury, knew the Emperor's secrets and influenced his determinations much more than his responsible ministers. M. Ollivier himself was a vain, impetuous man, abounding in self-confidence, but lacking in self-respect, - who was dazzled by the attentions shown him by the Emperor, and believed that he had converted his master to Liberal principles; whereas his master did but make a tool of him all along, and in the end caused him to lose the respect of all.

Although the country was materially prosperous, the popularity, and therefore the stability, of the Empire had greatly diminished in the last five years. With the temper that rules in the breasts of French politicians, the aggrandisement of a neighbouring state is necessarily regarded as a check to the policy, and a kind of outrage to the feelings, of France. Even so comparatively moderate a writer as Jules Favre appears to think that if the candidature of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern had not been withdrawn when it was, the elevation of a Prussian prince to the throne of Spain would have constituted a real casus belli for France. The line of thought would seem to be this: Prussia, by annexing a number of provinces without our consent, and not offering us a share, has brought herself relatively nearer to us in power than she was before, and has thereby done us a grievous wrong; if now the ambitious House of Brandenburg, not content with this provoking increase of power, should try to seat one of its princes on the throne - even though it be but a revolutionary throne - of Spain, we Frenchmen will not submit to it; our feelings will boil over; and we must go to war rather than allow it. To such a temper, the annexation of Schleswig and Holstein in 1865, and the absorption of Hanover and other states by Prussia in 1866, were so many distinct checks to the Emperor's policy and to the Empire itself. Poland, in a previous year, vainly lifting her hands towards France, her ancient ally and deliverer, had been crushed down by the Muscovite; another blow to the Empire. But most of all the Mexican expedition, with all its tragic, afflicting, or humiliating circumstances - the death of Maximilian, the insanity of the Empress, the dictated evacuation - must have tarnished, wherever the facts were known, the lustre of the Imperial regime. It is true these things were little felt by the working and trading millions, to whom "peace was their dear delight;" yet even to them a little " glory " now and then was necessary, in order to embellish their existence; and, moreover, the Emperor was a man of ideas, knew the French people, and could calculate the force of epigrams and the undermining power of a hostile sentiment. Certainly he could not afford, nor could the Empire afford, to lose any more prestige. Yet at this very moment an incident of the most damaging and discreditable character covered the name of the Bonapartes with infamy.

Prince Pierre Bonaparte, one of the sons of Lucien, Napoleon's elder brother, was a man of savage passions and dissolute life, who, after having brought the name of the family into disrepute in several parts of the globe, settled down in Paris, married the daughter of an ouvrier, and took a house in the Rue d'Auteuil. He got into a controversy with a Corsican, and also with a Paris journal; insults were showered on both sides; and the Prince sent a challenge to M. Rochefort, the editor of the French paper. Another editor, M. Grousset, who had been coarsely attacked by the Prince in a Corsican paper, resolved to challenge him, and with that intention sent to him as his representatives M. de Fonvielle and M. Victor Noir. Knowing the desperate character of the man, the emissaries went to the house armed. What then followed was thus described by the survivor, M. de Fonvielle. Being shown into an upstairs apartment, where they were presently joined by the Prince, they handed to him M. Grousset's letter. The Prince crushed the letter in his hands, and returned it with insulting expressions to the bearers, asking them whether they shared the opinions of the wretches from whom they came. " We share those of our friends," replied Victor Noir. At this the Prince, advancing a step, struck Victor Noir on the face with his left hand, and drawing a revolver from his breast fired at him point blank. Noir pressed both hands against his breast, and rushing out of the room had only strength left to descend the stairs and reach the street, where he fell dead. The Prince then turned upon Fonvielle, and fired at him two barrels of his revolver, but without effect, Fonvielle the while vainly endeavouring to discharge his own revolver at his assailant. If this account be correct, the Prince was guilty of one of the most brutal murders ever committed. If his own story be accepted as true, he was guilty of, at the very least, an aggravated manslaughter. He said that after reading Grousset's letter, he remarked that he would fight with Rochefort willingly, but not with one of his workmen. His left hand being raised in an energetic attitude, he declared that the tall man (M. Noir) struck him a heavy blow on the face; after which he admitted that he fired point blank at his antagonist. With regard to the blow, no evidence was forthcoming but the Prince's own statement, no mark of any kind was afterwards found on his face, and the tightly kid-gloved hand of the corpse of M. Noir was afterwards pointed to in disproof of any such violent action. When this dreadful affair became known, M. Ollivier, as Minister of Justice, ordered the arrest of Prince Pierre Bonaparte, and his removal to the prison of the Conciergerie. In Rochefort's paper, the Marseillaise, of the next day, there appeared an article printed in very large type, inclosed in a black border, and couched in the most furious language. It was read with eagerness by great multitudes in the streets of Paris. Prefixed to M. Fonvielle's narrative of the transaction were a few lines of introduction by M. Rochefort, hi which he said, " I had the weakness to believe that a Bonaparte could be anything else than an assassin! I dared to imagine that a loyal duel was possible in this family in which murder and ambush are traditional and customary. Our co-editor, Pascal Grousset, shared my error, and to-day we weep for our poor friend Victor Noir, assassinated by the bandit Prince Pierre Bonaparte. For eighteen years France has been in the bloody hands of these cut-throats, who, not contented with shooting down Republicans with grape shot in the streets, entice them into filthy snares, to kill them within four walls. Frenchmen! have you not had enough of this?" For writing this effusion, besides one scarcely less violent on the next day, Rochefort was prosecuted for the offence of contempt of authority, and condemned par contumace to six months' imprisonment, and a fine of 3,000 francs. He afterwards appeared in his place in the Chamber, and dared the Ministry to arrest him. M. Ollivier, to avert a violent scene outside the Chamber, gave way for the moment; but that night Rochefort was arrested by a number of sergens-de-ville, and hurried off to the prison of Ste. Pélagie. His adherents raised an émeute, which they would gladly, had circumstances been propitious, have converted into a revolution; barricades were constructed in several streets, arms seized, and gas-lamps extinguished; but the party of order turned out in great strength, and, without the assistance of the military, the riot was put down. Pierre Bonaparte was tried before a High Court of Justice, summoned to meet at Tours for the purpose; and after his own statement had been heard, and the counter-statements of Fonvielle and Grousset, he was - acquitted! The whole transaction, with this amazing failure of justice to " crown the edifice," must have been damaging to the Empire; and would have been far more so but for the almost maniacal violence of Rochefort and his friends, which caused a sort of reaction in favour of the Napoleons to set in in the minds of many.

The position of the Government was a strange and precarious one; no one seemed exactly to understand it; with the exception of the extreme parties - the courtiers on one side, and the " Irreconcilables " on the other - all the actors on the political stage were moving, they knew not precisely whither. M. Ollivier on one occasion (February 23) announced that the Government disapproved of the system of official candidatures, and would no more use pressure at the elections. No intelligence could be more unwelcome to a large proportion of the members on the Right, who had owed their seats to Government pressure, and knew that without it they had no chance of being reelected. A split therefore began to develop itself in the ranks of the majority. But the Emperor still continued to support Ollivier, and to play his Liberal game. His instincts and opinions were without doubt genuinely Liberal; and his life was consumed in the attempt to reconcile the gratification of these instincts with the conservation of his dynasty. And yet there must have been something in the apologetic tone which Ollivier often assumed in the Chamber - as if the Emperor had been hitherto treading the paths of illegality, but henceforth, under the incorruptible guidance of his chief minister, would march on without swerving in the groove of constitutionalism - which must have been not a little galling to Napoleon's pride. The Emperor resolved to teach his Liberal supporters a lesson, and at the same time to reimpress a large and awkward fact on the minds of his enemies - namely, that he and his system were the choice of France; that they had been so in past years no less than at the present time; and that, according to the view which he took of his own position, the popular ratification constituted the supreme sanction both of the act by which he had originally seized on power, and of the changes in the direction of liberty which he had now been for some time introducing. He instructed M. Ollivier (March 21) to prepare a Senatus Consultum for the redistribution of powers between the two branches of the Legislature, so that the Senate - the less popular body - should be curtailed of many privileges which it had before enjoyed; while the Corps Legislative - the more popular body - would have its powers extended, especially by giving it the right of originating all money bills. M. Ollivier obeyed, and introduced the measure into the Senate on the 26th March. But a few days later he was startled on being informed by the Emperor, that since, in his opinion, the new constitutional changes involved a departure from the basis which the popular vote had ratified in 1852, he was resolved to submit them also to the ordeal of universal suffrage. Ollivier remonstrated vainly against this decision; the Emperor stood firm; and the minister, either not seeing or not wishing to see the vast difference which his consent made in his position, agreed to continue at the head of affairs, and arrange the machinery oî the plebiscite.

But Count Daru and M. Buffet, more clear-sighted and self-respecting than their flighty colleague, refused to have anything to do with a plebiscite. For the meaning of it was simply this - that the popular vote covered everything, and was itself the source of right and legality, - that France had no right to liberty and just government unless the masses voted to that effect, - and that, similarly, the plebiscite of 1852, having sanctioned a system which arose out of perjury and violence, had made that system immaculate and unquestionable. In taking office, Count Daru and M. Buffet had never intended so to commit themselves; and they now accordingly resigned their bureaux. The Duc de Gramont, a courtier, received the charge of the Foreign Office, in succession to Count Daru.

In resorting again to the device of a plebiscite, we cannot doubt that the Emperor had one main object in view - increased stability. The tide of Liberalism, he felt, was continually pushing him onward; piece by piece, the system of administration on which he had ruled France for eighteen years was giving way to its assault; and then, as he had once before said to M. Ollivier, " one always falls on the side on which one leans." Feeling the advances of age - conscious that his powers both of body and mind were being undermined by a harassing and incurable malady - he became more than ever desirous to secure the peaceable transmission of power to his son. If all France could be got to ratify the changes which were now being made in the system of government, as decisively as it ratified his assumption of power after the coup d'etat of 1851, surely the dynasty might then breathe freely. One would have thought that the friendship and the pledged word of two or three leading generals would have offered a more substantial security for the succession of his son than the illusory test of a plebiscite. Perhaps, however, the Emperor had by this time half convinced himself that a popular vote, taken on a matter which the masses cannot properly judge of, was an honest and lawful mode of devolving power, and also a mode which imparted a peculiar strength and durability to the decision arrived at. The following was the formula submitted for the acceptance of the French people: " The people approve the Liberal reforms effected in the Constitution since 1360 by the Emperor, with the cooperation of the great bodies of the State, and ratify the Senatus Consultum of the 20th April, 1870." In an Imperial proclamation circulated in France in support of the formula, the Emperor said, " By balloting affirmatively, you will conjure down the threats of revolution, you will seat order and liberty on a solid basis, and you will render easier for the future the transmission of the crown to my son. Eighteen years ago you were almost unanimous in conferring the most extensive power upon me. Be now, too, as numerous in giving your adhesion to the transformation of the Imperial regime.... To the request which I address to you, to ratify the Liberal reforms that have been realised during the last ten years, answer ' Yes.' " The vote was taken in all the departments of France, and separately in the army and navy, with the following result: Oui, seven millions of civilian votes, and three hundred and nine thousand in the army and navy; Non, one million and a half (within five thousand) of civilian votes., and fifty-two thousand in the army and navy.

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