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Napoleon's Hold on France


Napoleon became Emperor of France in 1804 having had practical control several years before, and he remained in power until he was forced to abdicate in 1814, when the wars had gone heavily against him and his allies. Whether Napoleon’s government of France was ‘dictatorship’ or something more acceptable to modern minds, the issue of how this soldier-politician managed to remain in control of France while conscripting two million soldiers (with perhaps nearly half dying), and fighting constant wars has interested historians. Generally speaking, Napoleon used both the carrot and the stick to bind the French to him, creating stability after the upheaval of the revolution with a strong, centralised administration, recruitment which cut across faction, and professional opportunities, as well as oppression.

Centralisation and Reconciliation

In 1800 a law gave every department a ‘prefect’ instead of elected representatives, a government position appointed by Napoleon and working for central government. This created a centralised bureaucracy for tax, conscription, propaganda, surveillance and administration. Cobb called the system “bureaucratic repression”, Godechot called the men “little emperors”. Yet the administration drew on many areas of French society, and thanks to the looted benefits of conquest, was able to employ loyal people who had variously served the old regime, the revolution and / or the Directory, and who would have been enemies normally, blending old nobles and the bourgeoisie into new imperial notables. The administration was open to aristocratic survivals as much as the middle class, and fifty per cent of the prefects came from ancient regime nobility, who still held a great deal of land. Three successive constitutions had failed to end France’s factionalism, or provide a workable central government: Napoleon did.


Under Napoleon the press lost its critical faculties, and were expected to promote the Emperor; indeed, this was all he wanted them to do. To control and censor the press Napoleon slashed the number of political publications which were allowed to 13 and banned new ones, using the police to monitor what remained for dissent. Even in this few many topics were banned, and from 1809 every paper had an official censor. In the early part of Napoleon’s reign all books, papers, plays and posters had to be submitted to the government for censorship, and this situation grew more repressive as time went on. In 18010 – 11, Paris was restricted to just four newspapers, and one for every other department. Prison and exile awaited offenders. Napoleon was an avid dictator of letters and reports, and wrote a fair proportion of the articles which appeared in the official government newspaper Le Moniteur. Dissent could not be easily spread, and organised opposition was hard to stir up on a large level.

Servile Government

Under Napoleon, the upper reaches of representative government had no serious power and were reduced to supporting Napoleon. The Senate, packed with Napoleon’s supporters, did largely what it was told, cashing their pay and picking up honours. The Tribunate was heavily purged in 1802 after criticising Napoleon, and remained careful afterwards never to speak too loud, until it was shut in 1807. Napoleon thus faced little opposition from politicians until the events of 1813-4, and at the end the senate did finally try and evict their great benefactor from power. Crucially, most of these positions were filled by people who had been involved in revolutionary government, for instance, of the first hundred tribunes, and only twenty six were new to assemblies (Ellis, The Napoleonic Empire, p.30) The revolutionaries who had survived were made welcome.

Law, Police and Administration

To secure the loyalty of the legal system, and favourable judgements within, judges ceased to be elected and were appointed by the government, which then kept an eye on decisions, making expulsions when necessary. A new system of judicial tribunals were created, and imprisonment without trial was introduced, albeit rarely used. The Ministry of General Police, which was a network responsible for the overall control of laws rather than just catching criminals, were heavily involved in the surveillance of potential state enemies, censorship of all media, arrest of deserters (a problem with Napoleon’s constant demands for soldiers) and checking food prices and money exchange.

Under the control of Fouche – one of the revolution’s great survivors – and then Savary, intelligence and reports were given to Napoleon daily. Files were kept on all dissidents. It’s worth nothing that this wasn’t new: the Terror had imprisoned and executed thousands of supposed dissidents, and the royal government was far from liberal, and the Napoleon era favoured house arrest over execution within France. There were few major plots against the Emperor, but some he panicked over which may not even have been real, such as the Duc d’Enghein. Napoleon also ensured he had the spies spied on, using the prefecture of Paris to keep an eye on the General Police. France also had the Gendarmerie, a military police organisation who increasingly took over surveillance and dealing with brigands.

Agricultural Luck

There were no major advances in agriculture during Napoleon’s reign, and the role of agriculture remained at the heart of French life: most of the nation’s GDP came from agriculture, and most people were peasants working on the land. But Napoleon was lucky and had good harvests, with only two exceptions: 1802 – 3, and 1811-12. Good harvests kept prices affordable and greatly reduced the chances of peasant rebellion. In 1802-3 Napoleon had (temporarily) created peace across Europe, and rebellions were low, but 1811-12 saw disturbances which, once Napoleon suffered military disaster in Russia, turned into major unrest. He did take a small interest in agriculture, starting a successful sugar beet refining project.

Glory and Wealth

Napoleon was a successful soldier, and that meant victory after victory pushing France far beyond the natural frontiers, and until 1814 it also meant no wars on French soil. There was support for a man who could bring such glory to France, and a feeling that this glory rubbed off on supporters. War was expensive, but the early parts of Napoleon’s reign and a string of victories led to an immense influx of wealth that helped support the government. It was when this dried up after 1812 that taxes - and the proportions of military spending- rose and Napoleon began to become unpopular, as first his reputation was destroyed, and then his subjects felt it financially.

Bribery and Patronage

Napoleon knew you could bind allies, and potential allies, to you through a mixture of bribery and patronage (and the dividing line was thin.) Napoleon thus lavished money, land, titles and positions on followers, in order to keep them loyal and induce others to also support him. He also invented new awards, such as the Legion of Honour (95% of recipients were military), and created an entire new aristocracy of roughly 3600 title holders, 79% of which were military (and 22% of which were old nobles). 200 people had hereditary titles. It’s interesting to note that many of Napoleon’s military officers received grants of lands outside France, as an incentive to keep the Napoleon Empire intact. Napoleon managed to bind the warring factions of revolutionary government to him, and France, in such a way as to join pre-imperial enemies. The men Napoleon chose to be his co-consuls were Lebrun, a former royal administrator who was suspected of royalist sympathies, and Cambacérès, an ex-noble and former Jacobin.

The Bonaparte system had to unify a fractured France, and went a great way in doing so as long as Napoleon was winning. But the regime was founded on military success, and military men dominated, although the intellectual elite lined up behind Napoleon too. For those at the bottom of society, upward mobility had ceased. The key non-military men were the ‘notables’, the leading taxpayers across France. They were comprised of landowners, merchants, bureaucrats and other professionals, usually a mixture of them all. Napoleon commissioned surveys into them and then pledged to secure their land under the Concordat and the Code, and then offered their sons chances of employment in the imperial government. The theory was that if these notables were happy, they would persuade the masses.

Propaganda and Art

With the media banned from covering many areas of life, Napoleon encouraged them to fill in the gaps by promoting him and the empire, to submerge opposition and feed support. Napoleon oversaw some of this personally, as he sent out many bulletins about his progress and military adventures. As well as print, he used art to create an image of himself: many of the great French artists like David immortalised the Emperor in idealised portraits.

Accepting Parts of the Revolution

Napoleon’s government represented a return to the authoritarian leanings of the ancient regime, and Napoleon was basically a monarch who installed a new aristocracy. However, he did keep some parts of the revolution’s successes, such as the new laws he helped to establish in his name, the end of the ‘feudal’ system and the seizure and sales of church and aristocratic land. Critically he did not seek to alter land distribution: church land changes had seen 10% of France change hands, and the Concordat ensued they stayed that way. Equally, about half the church land was held by peasants, who became equally disposed to keeping the man who guaranteed they could keep them. Through cultivating the landowners who had benefitted from the changes in ownership Napoleon bound this class closer to him, enabling him to form a hereditary state.

Firm Military Control

Napoleon broke with the Revolutionary regime by combining the heads of the civil and military administrations of France in one person: himself. He thus avoided the considerable friction previous regimes had suffered, and was able to direct civilian support of his military, and military support of his civilian society, smoothly and far greater than the previous governments.

Religious Peace

Although Napoleon had little interest in his own personal faith, he knew how much a widely accepted religion could bind France together, undermining rebels and royalists, and instilling a sense of loyalty to his state. Napoleon thus made peace between France and the Papacy in the Concordat, settling both the issues of land seizures and belief in an agreement welcomed by many. While relations between Napoleon and the Papacy soured, there was none of the hostility of the high anti-clericalism of the revolution.


Harking back to the days of the Ancient Regime, the livret was a book which each worker was ordered to keep and then present to employers. It doubled as an identity card, and prevented workers from travelling far without permission, and forced them to please employers rather than try to change jobs without ‘permission’. It was also illegal to hire anyone whose livret had not been correctly signed off by a previous employer. Some manual jobs were permitted without a livret, but local authorities had to badge and record the workers.


The Napoleonic Regime was held together through a range of methods, but it only held while Napoleon was winning his wars. Once he began to lose in 1812 the system fell apart quickly, with even the senate turning against their emperor in 1814. There was no uprising against the sixth coalition’s invasion of France, and no panicked defence of Paris. The Empire was, in many ways, hollow, but it bought stability while it lasted, much more than the revolution had secured.
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