An historian’s perspective on the French Presidential Election.

Sidney Sussex PhD student Neil Rogachevsky is studying at the École normale supérieure in Paris on an Erasmus scholarship. His research examines the history and politics of France, particularly Napoleon III and the Second Empire. Following a disastrous war with Prussia, Napoleon was subsequently exiled to Britain. But it is Napoleon’s political mandate that concerns Neil, in particular how Napoleon claimed political legitimacy through universal male suffrage. And it is this concern with the ballot box that has led him to comment in The Atlanticon the forthcoming French presidential election.

Neil writes: 'My dissertation concerns the French plebiscite of 1870 when Napoleon III – weakened by war abroad and political opposition at home - called upon the French to approve a revised "liberal constitution". This plebiscite unleashed a torrent of political passion, as Frenchmen of all allegiances debated the record of the empire on political, social, and military questions – leaving historians an unrivalled portrait of the political culture of the Second Empire.

'While contemporary French politics are far removed from the quarrels of the Second Empire, there are some interesting resonances. In the current campaign, for instance, President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to submit some important national questions to "referendum" – that spiritual child of the plebiscite – in the process earning accusations (and some praise) as a neo-Bonapartist. In short, the meaning and bounds of "universal suffrage" is still ambiguous in France, as elsewhere. Nineteenth-century French history helps us gain some bearing on this problem.'

You can read Neil’s reflections on the presidential election by following the link to The Atlantic.

This is an archived news story, first posted in 2012.

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