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A Bonapartiste was a person who either actively participated in or advocated conservative, monarchist and imperial political faction in nineteenth century France. The Bonapartistes desired an Empire under the House of Bonaparte, the Corsican family of Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I of France) and his nephew Louis (Napoleon III of France). The honey bee, revived as a prominent political symbol in the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte to represent the virtues of the Bonapartist bureaucratic and political system, was also adopted by the Bonapartistes.
Bonapartism had its followers, from 1815 forward, among those who never accepted the defeat of Napoleon and France at Waterloo or the Congress of Vienna. With Napoleon I's death in exile on Saint Helena in 1821, many of these persons transferred their allegiance to other members of his family. After the death of Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt (known to Bonapartists as Napoleon II), Bonapartist hopes were distributed among several different members of the family.
The disturbances of 1848 encouraged this group. Bonapartists played an essential role in the election of Napoleon I's nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, as President of the Second Republic. They gave him the necessary political support when he discarded the constitution in 1852 and proclaimed the Second Empire. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the title Napoleon III, thereby acknowledging the brief reign of Napoleon's son Napoleon II in 1815 at the end of the Hundred Days.
In 1870, Napoleon III led France to a disastrous defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War, and he subsequently abdicated. Afterwards, Bonapartists continued to agitate for another member of the family to be placed on the throne of France. However, from 1871 forward, they competed with monarchist groups that favoured the restoration of the family of Louis-Philippe, King of the French (1830–1848) (the Orléanists); and also with those who favoured the restoration of the House of Bourbon, the traditional French royal family (Legitimists). The three monarchist factions combined were likely stronger than the Republicans of the era, but they could never unite on supporting one candidate as monarch. Monarchist fervor eventually waned and the French Republic became accepted as part of French life. Gradually Bonapartism became a kind of civic faith of a few romantics rather than any sort of practical political philosophy. When Eugene Bonaparte, the only son of Napoleon III, was killed in action while serving as a British Army officer in Zululand in 1879, Bonapartism ceased to be a political force.
The current head of the family is Prince Napoleon (Charles Marie Jérôme Victor Napoléon Bonaparte, born 1950), great-great-grandson of Napoleon I's brother Jérôme Bonaparte by his second marriage. He has a son Jean (born 1986) and a brother, Jérôme Bonaparte (born 1957). There are no remaining descendants in the male line from any other of Napoleon's brothers. No serious political movement exists with the goal of restoring any of these men to the imperial throne of France.
The "Law of Succession" that Napoleon I established on becoming Emperor in 1804 provided that the Bonapartist claim to the throne should pass firstly to Napoleon's own legitimate male descendants through the male line. At that time, he had no legitimate sons and it seemed unlikely he would have any, due to the age of his wife Joséphine. To Catholic eyes his eventual response was unacceptable, since he engineered a dubious annulment, without papal approval, of his marriage to Josephine, undertaking a second marriage to the younger Marie Louise, with whom he had one son. The law of succession provided that, if Napoleon's own direct line died out, the claim passed first to his older brother Joseph and his legitimate male descendants, through the male line, then to his younger brother Louis and his legitimate male descendants through the male line. His other brothers, Lucien and Jerome, and their descendants, were omitted from the succession (even though Lucien was older than Louis) because they had politically opposed the Emperor or because he disapproved of their marriages. Napoleon had one son with Marie Louise, in whose favour he abdicated after his final defeat in 1815. Although the Bonapartes were now deposed and the old Bourbon monarchy was restored, Bonapartists recognized this child as Napoleon II. However, he was sickly, virtually imprisoned in Austria, and died young and unmarried, so there were no further direct descendants of Napoleon I. When the Bonaparte Empire was restored to power in France in 1852, the Emperor was Napoleon III, Louis Bonaparte's only living legitimate son (Joseph having died in 1844 without having had a legitimate son, only daughters).
In 1852, Napoleon III, having restored the Bonapartes to power in France, enacted a new decree on the succession. The claim first went to his own male legitimate descendants in the male line (though at that time he had none; he would later have one legitimate son, Eugene Bonaparte, who would be recognized by Bonapartists as "Napoleon IV" before dying young and unmarried). If his own line died out, the new decree allowed the claim to pass to Jerome, Napoleon's youngest brother, who had previously been excluded, and his male descendants by Princess Catharina of Württemberg in the male line (but not his descendants by his original marriage to the American commoner Elizabeth Patterson, of whom Napoleon I had greatly disapproved). The only remaining Bonapartist claimants since 1879 have been the descendants of Jerome and Catherine of Württemberg in the male line.
List of Bonapartist claimants to the French throne since 1814
Those who ruled are indicated with an asterisk:
|15 August 1769, Ajaccio
son of Carlo Buonaparte
and Letizia Ramolino
|Joséphine de Beauharnais
9 March 1796
Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma
11 March 1810
|5 May 1821|
Longwood, Saint Helena
|20 March 1811, Paris
son of Napoleon I
and Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma
|never married||22 July 1832|
|7 January 1768, Corte
son of Carlo Buonaparte
and Letizia Ramolino
1 August 1794
|28 July 1844|
|2 September 1778, Ajaccio
son of Carlo Buonaparte
and Letizia Ramolino
|Hortense de Beauharnais
4 January 1802
|25 July 1846|
1846–1873 (President of France 1848–1852, Emperor of the French 1852–1870)
|20 April 1808, Paris
son of Louis Bonaparte
and Hortense de Beauharnais
|Eugénie de Montijo
30 January 1853
|9 January 1873|
|Napoléon, Prince Imperial
|16 March 1856, Paris
son of Napoleon III
and Eugénie de Montijo
|never married||1 June 1879|
|Victor, Prince Napoléon
|18 July 1862, Palais-Royal
son of Prince Napoléon Bonaparte
and Princess Maria Clotilde of Savoy
|Princess Clémentine of Belgium
10/14 November 1910
|3 May 1926|
|Louis, Prince Napoléon
|23 January 1914, Brussels
son of Victor, Prince Napoléon
and Princess Clémentine of Belgium
|Alix, Princess Napoléon
16 August 1949
|3 May 1997|
|Charles, Prince Napoléon
|19 October 1950, Boulogne-Billancourt
son of Louis, Prince Napoléon
and Alix, Princess Napoléon
|Princess Béatrice of Bourbon-Two Sicilies
19 December 1978
28 September 1996
1 child (adopted)
|Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoléon
|11 July 1986, Saint-Raphaël, Var
son of Charles, Prince Napoléon
and Princess Béatrice of Bourbon-Two Sicilies
The following are the list of Bonapartist claimants to the Imperial throne.
- Napoleon I of France ruled 1804-15, abdicated 1815, died 1821.
- Napoleon, Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon I, styled Napoleon II by Bonapartists. Briefly reigned as Emperor in France for a fortnight in June–July 1815, after his father's abdication following the defeat at Waterloo. After the deposition and exile of the Bonaparte family in July 1815, or at least from Napoleon I's death in 1821, he was Bonapartist claimant to the throne until 1832. Died 1832, unmarried, no children.
- Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon I's oldest brother, former King of Spain, claimant 1832-44. Died 1844, two daughters but no legitimate male children.
- Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon I's second youngest brother, former King of Holland, claimant 1844-46. Died 1846.
- Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the only living legitimate child of Louis Bonaparte (though some have questioned whether he was Louis' biological son—his mother Hortense was notorious for her infidelity). Claimant 1846-73. He was President of France 1849-52, and under the name Napoleon III ruled as Emperor 1852-70.
- Napoléon Eugène, Prince Imperial, the only legitimate child of Napoleon III. Claimant 1873-79. Styled "Napoleon IV" by his supporters. Died 1879, unmarried, no children.
- Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, nicknamed 'Plon-plon', the only male child of Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon I's youngest brother, with Catharina of Württemberg (though Jerome had had another son earlier with Elizabeth Patterson). Claimant 1879-91; however, Eugene Bonaparte's will excluded him from the succession in favour of his son Napoleron Victor, leading to fierce disputes among the increasingly irrelevant Bonapartist circle. Died 1891.
- Napoléon Victor Jérôme Frédéric Bonaparte, eldest son of 'Plon-plon', claimant 1879-1926 (though many Bonapartists preferred his younger brother Louis). Until his father's death in 1891, he and his father both claimed the throne. Died 1926.
- Louis Jerome Victor Emmanuel Leopold Marie Bonaparte, son of Napoleon Victor, claimant 1926-97. Died 1997.
- Charles Marie Jérôme Victor Napoléon Bonaparte, the son of Napoleon Louis, claimant since 1997.
|Election year||No. of
overall seats won
|Chamber of Representatives|
|May 1815||Unknown (2)||Unknown||
80 / 630
|Chamber of Deputies|
|1815–1849||Did not participate (2)||Did not participate||
0 / 400
253 / 263
276 / 283
251 / 283
212 / 283
20 / 630
76 / 533
|Chamber of Deputies|
104 / 521
46 / 545
65 / 584
52 / 578
'Bonapartist' as a Marxist epithet
Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution, as well as a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and Second Empire. He used the term Bonapartism to refer to a situation in which counterrevolutionary military officers seize power from revolutionaries, and then use selective reformism to co-opt the radicalism of the popular classes. In the process, Marx argued, Bonapartists preserve and mask the power of a narrow ruling class. He saw Napoleon I and Napoleon III as having both corrupted revolutions in France in this way. Marx offered this definition of and analysis of Bonapartism in "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," written in 1852. In this document, he drew attention to what he called the phenomenon's repetitive history with one of his most quoted lines: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
For Marx, a Bonapartist regime appears to have great power, but only because there is no class with enough confidence or power to firmly establish its authority in its own name, so a leader who appears to stand above the struggle can take the mantle of power. It is an inherently unstable situation, where the apparently all-powerful leader is swept aside once the struggle is resolved one way or the other.
The term was used by Trotsky to refer to Stalin's regime, which Trotsky believed was balanced between the proletariat, victorious but shattered by war, and the bourgeoisie, broken by the revolution but struggling to re-emerge. However, the failure of Stalin's regime to disintegrate under the shock of the Second World War, and indeed its expansion into Eastern Europe, challenged this analysis. Many Trotskyists thus rejected the idea that Stalin's regime was Bonapartist, and some went further—notably Tony Cliff, who described such regimes as State Capitalist and not workers' states at all.
Bonapartism and the French right
According to historian René Rémond's 1954 book, Les Droites en France, Bonapartism constitutes one of the three French right-wing families or political groupings. It is the latest one, and developed after Legitimism and Orleanism. According to him, both Boulangisme and Gaullism are considered to be forms of Bonapartism. This, however, has been consistently disputed by Bonapartists, and by many other historians. Notable examples of the latter include Vincent Cronin, who referred to Napoleonic government as "middle-of-the-road" (Napoleon, HarperCollins, 1994 ed., Ch15, p229), André Castelot, in his Bonaparte, for whom being above and outside of party struggles was the founding principle of Bonapartism (ed. 1967, Perrin. Ch VIII, p.240) and Louis Madelin, who describes Napoleon's role in History as being the great reconciler after the divides and wounds of the French Revolution (conclusion to Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire).
Both Napoleon and Napoleon III, in their own time, refused to be classed as either Leftist or Rightist, arguing that to claim to govern a country in the name of a faction meant acting against the national interest, and one day, sooner or later, succumbing to its influence. In Des Idées Napoléoniennes (On Napoleonic Ideas), published in 1839, the future Napoleon III quoted his uncle’s words to the Council of State on this subject (in italics below), ending with the explanation :
« « You see, this is why I have composed my Council of State of constituants who were called Moderates or Feuillants, like Defermon, Roederer, Regnier, Regnault ; of royalists like Devaines and Dufresnes ; lastly of jacobins like Brune, Réal and Berlier. I like honest people of all parties ». Prompt to reward recent services, as to shed luster all the great memories, Napoleon has placed in the Hôtel des Invalides, next to the statues of Hoche, of Joubert, of Marceau, of Dugommier, of Dampierre, the statue of Condé, the ashes of Turenne, and the heart of Vauban. He revives, in Orleans, the memory of Joan of Arc, in Beauvais that of Jeanne Hachette […] Always faithful to principles of conciliation, the Emperor, during the course of his reign, gives a pension to the sister of Robespierre, as he does to the mother of the Duke of Orleans ». (Chapter III, p.31).
Today, an official Mouvement Bonapartiste exists, based in France, headed by Paul-Napoléon Calland with an unknown number of members around the world. Its official mission statement is as follows:
"[T]o defend, make known and to spread the principles and values of Bonapartism. [The movement] is based on popular support for a policy of recovery combining the efforts of individuals, associations and State services. The movement defends the Bonapartist principles on which it is founded, and which govern its internal organisation. It also defends the memory of Napoleon the Great, as well as those of Napoleon III and their sons, Napoleon II and Napoleon IV. It recognises Napoleon IV as having reigned without governing, by virtue of the plebiscite of May 1870. The movement recognises no emperor after 1879, because of the absence of a plebiscite. Republican, it gives priority to the happiness, interest and glory of peoples, and envisages the restoration of the Empire only if the foundations of the regime are republican and approved by referendum."
In 1976, when the dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, a great admirer of Napoleon, made himself Emperor Bokassa I of Central Africa, he declared that the ideology of his regime was "Bonapartism" and added golden bees to his imperial standard.
Bluche, Frédéric (1980). Le bonapartisme: aux origines de la droite autoritaire (1800-1850). Nouvelles Editions Latines. ISBN 978-2-7233-0104-6.