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The French Army and the Plebiscite of 1870

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In May of 1870 the beleaguered French Emperor Napoleon III called Frenchmen by universal suffrage to ratify the liberal changes effected in the imperial constitution and inaugurate the liberal empire. After much internal debate, the emperor decided that army personnel would vote as well, (this for the first time in the Second Empire), and their dual role as participants in the election and guarantors of public order became a subject of great controversy. My paper will consider specifically how the French army behaved in this plebiscite campaign, and argue that the army was torn between rival impulses. On one hand there was strong antipathy to the liberal empire and voting in the army. But, the army, out of choice as well as necessity, could not completely keep itself apart from the ‘liberal drift’ of the regime. In everything from punishing insubordination and keeping the peace during the plebiscite campaign, the army ultimately went along with the new liberal approach.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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