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Napoleon III: The Liberal Empire

Having lost much popularity, the emperor inaugurated a more liberal domestic policy, widening the powers of the legislative assembly and lifting many restrictions on civil liberties. During the Liberal Empire (1860–70) such opposition leaders as Jules Favre , Émile Ollivier , and Adolphe Thiers were outstanding figures. A commercial treaty (1860) with Great Britain opened France to free trade and improved Franco-British relations. Imperialistic expansion was pushed by the French-British expedition (1857–60) against China, the acquisition of Cochin China , and the construction of the Suez Canal . Less fortunate was Napoleon's intervention (1861–67) in the affairs of Mexico ; the French troops finally withdrew upon the demand of the United States, leaving Emperor Maximilian to his fate.

Napoleon remained neutral in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, underestimating Prussian strength. The rise of Prussia under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck revealed a new rival for European power. To regain prestige Napoleon, at the behest of advisers, took an aggressive stand regarding the candidature of a Hohenzollern prince to the Spanish throne. This gave Bismarck the opportunity to goad Napoleon into war (see Ems dispatch ).

The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) brought ruin to the Second Empire. Napoleon himself took the field, leaving his empress, Eugénie , as regent, but he early devolved his command to Achille Bazaine . He was caught in the disaster of Sedan (Sept. 1, 1870), captured by the Prussians, and declared deposed (Sept. 4) by a bloodless revolution in Paris. Released after the armistice (1871), he went into exile in England, bearing defeat with remarkable dignity. His only son, the prince imperial (see under Bonaparte , family), was killed while serving in the British army.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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