The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire, 1852-1871

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The Second Empire lasted longer than any French regime since 1789, yet most historical accounts of the government of Napoleon III have been overshadowed by knowledge of its disastrous and tragic end. As Professor Plessis shows in this detailed thematic study, such an approach ignores the major social, economic and political developments of a period which witnessed the gradual acceptance of universal suffrage, the establishment of large-scale industrial capitalism, a massive improvement in communications and the birth of impressionism in art. The transition of French society from that familiar to Honore de Balzac to that dissected by Emile Zola was nonetheless a fitful process, spasmodic and irregular, and the role of the imperial government in that process of modernization equally uncertain. The paradox, emphasized by Professor Plessis, of a dictatorship that progressively liberalized itself, and was indeed resoundingly endorsed by the electorate only months before its fall, is not the least perplexing phenomenon of an age in which stagnation and innovation were constantly juxtaposed.