Eugenie, First Lady of France

Beyond the dark legend that surrounds her, Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon IIIembodied both motherhood and Christian virtues, not without playing a political and diplomatic role.

This work, which aims to paint a political portrait of Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon IIIis part of the historiographical renewal brought about by the history of the genre. The author, Maxime Michelet, who is signing his first book here, breaks with all forms of convention and misogyny to re-evaluate the role that this first lady played as a “woman of power”.

Stranger to reason

The work opens with an excellent first chapter devoted to the dark legend of the empress, who, like any woman who exercised power, was the subject of multiple slander. Like Marie-Antoinette, frivolous and frivolous, who is also foreign, Eugénie de Montijo would be an accursed empress, who, by overstepping the boundaries assigned to her gender, contributed to the ruin of the regime.

The author thus highlights the whole element of misogyny that came to obscure the view cast by contemporaries on the one who was, in France, the last sovereign in the monarchical history of France. The collapse of the reign in the debacle of 1870 and the denigration that followed the fall of the Empire rekindled criticism against the one who was a woman, Spanish and Catholic.

In 1907, in his biography of the Empress, Frédéric Loliée wrote these particularly colorful sentences: “But, it will be said again after us: she was a woman; she felt and did not reason; she acted and did not see where her actions or rather her impulses would lead her, and, with her, the Emperor and France” (p. 36). We find here all the gender stereotypes: emotional and impulsive, women are said to be foreign to reason.

Make a dynasty

However, the Countess of Teba was indeed a woman of power, which Maxime Michelet brilliantly demonstrates, relying on extensive documentation, in particular on the Napoleon collection of the National Archives, but also on numerous testimonies from contemporaries. Her marriage to Napoleon III in January 1853 made her enter the history of France: far from being a simple romantic playlet – as the historiography suggested –, this union was a major political and diplomatic event, which brought to a close a multifaceted crisis caused by the decision to restore the monarchical form of Napoleonic power (p. 56). It was necessary to affirm the singular characteristics of a regime that was both the son of the traditional monarchy and of the achievements of the Revolution.

Like all the sovereigns who had preceded her, Eugénie de Montijo had to give France an heir. On March 16, 1856, she gave birth to a son, baptized three months later in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The ceremonial, skillfully orchestrated, showcased imperial power, embodied by Napoleon. III and Eugénie, as well as the continuity of the dynasty.

The Empress’s “consecration of motherhood” was immediately translated into legal terms: the Senatus-consultum of 17 July 1856 laid the foundations of the imperial government during the minority of the Crown Prince. A year and a half later, the 1er February 1858, Eugénie was chosen as a possible regent by the emperor. Her legitimacy was based on two dimensions, one maternal (the love that a mother has for her son minimizes any risk of usurpation) and the other matrimonial (she was “associated” with the reign of her husband).

Eugénie experienced in a practical way the reality of her functions in 1859, when Napoleon III decided to go and support Italian independence by fighting Austria. The regency that she exercised for more than two months was, however, strictly regulated: her acts, discussed in council, had to be countersigned by the competent ministers. She again exercised interim power during Napoleon’s second stay III in Algeria in 1865, and when he took command of his troops in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. She then revealed herself to be a “stateswoman” through the measures taken and the political action she deployed.

The regency was, however, exceptional. Her power was also exercised, in a more lasting manner, in other areas related to representation, during special ceremonies, or by animating one of the most brilliant courts in Europe. The empress was invested with a singular aura that made her the main attraction of official trips. For example, in the autumn of 1869, she accomplished one of the most triumphant missions of her reign by going to Egypt, to preside over the celebrations of the inauguration of the Suez Canal.

Eugénie also embodied virtue, Christian but also “royal” of charity, playing the role of mediator “between those who suffer and those who can remedy them”, between the disinherited and the powerful (p. 182). She declined the “ministry of charity” that she exercised through various foundations and works intended for hospitals and prisons, as well as through her global action in favor of children (the societies of Maternal Charity). These functions fall within the secular role devolved to the first ladies of France, these “ladies of the heart” who played the role of “mother of the people” through their redistributions.

Woman and sovereign of the Imperial City, Eugénie thus embodied the monarchical dimension of the Empire, which distinguished her from Napoleon. IIIboth hereditary monarch and elected by the people.

With her mission to create the dynasty by giving an heir to the monarch and even more generally to create a dynasty by ensuring that it is perpetuated, Empress Eugénie occupied an essential place, if not the main one, in this great failed act which is the construction of a monarchical France in the France resulting from the Revolution (p. 52).

Her power was also more informal, an influence that she exercised in various areas, notably diplomatic. Maxime Michelet questions the role she played in the Mexican expedition. He shows that she was one of the central elements that constitute the genesis of this “great thought of the reign transformed into a diplomatic and military disaster” (p. 218). Eugénie was an efficient member of a diplomatic movement of the years 1860-1862, favorable to an intervention in Central America and, through these links both with the Mexican exiles in Paris and with the emperor, she was one of the most effective interfaces.

Gallery of “powerful women”

In love with his model, Maxime Michelet seeks to show the exceptional figure that Eugénie constituted. We should perhaps refer, more than he does, to previous models of “women of power”, in order to further anchor the empress’s gesture in the continuity – or not – of the sovereigns who had preceded.

For if the Empress did indeed have a political role, it must nevertheless be agreed that it was limited to the functions imposed on her gender: in France, a woman could not hold theauctoritas, with the exception of the strictly limited periods of the regency. Eugénie did not seek to go beyond the attributions which had been conferred on her (regency, representation, social intervention), unlike other sovereigns (such as Blanche of Castile or Catherine de Medici), reputed to have “the heart of a man” in one female body (these permutations of circumstance allowing us not to call into question the paradigm of male superiority).

The author also recognizes this in conclusion: “His inscription in the City was mainly in the domain of representation, and the active inscription that may have been his resides not in his political opinions, but in his charitable intervention.” Historiography granted it a “fantasized” power (p. 301) used by some (we think of pamphleteers) as an element of political combat. With a favorable opinion of the Mexican expedition, it was made its instigator. An opinion unfavorable to the liberalization of the Empire was made the soul of the authoritarian Bonapartists.

As such, the work is particularly innovative: Maxime Michelet strives to unravel all the threads woven by historiography, moving away from misogynistic and xenophobic clichés to retrace the journey of an exceptional woman, close to us by this singular longevity which made him cross the XIXe century, from her birth in 1826 to her death in 1920. “Having listened to Stendhal’s stories during the first years of her life, she would have tea with Jean Cocteau in the most advanced years of her old age” (p. 16 ). Only a century separates us from the disappearance of the empress, survivor of a dying century, “faded brilliance of a Europe to which the first world conflict dealt a definitive blow”.