The Orsini Affair
The Orsini Affair
Excerpt from The unexpected heir: the life of Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte
by Leonardo Ferrari
By 1858 the emperor Napoleon III had completely consolidated his power. In his ten years in charge of France he had managed to eliminate most of the internal opposition through new reforms aimed at satisfying the various social classes or more simply with more violent solutions such as exile or imprisonment. His foreign policy (although recent studies tend to underline a certain indecision or ambiguity in some of his decisions, especially regarding the so-called Italian question) had managed to establish good relationships with England and Austria, the two great European powers that had the most reasons to fear the return of Bonaparte family to the throne of France.
The birth of his heir Louis-Napoléon two years earlier had then secured the future of his dynasty and eliminated any risk of a dynastic struggle between the various members of Bonaparte family after his death.
Propaganda image of the Bonaparte dynasty's continuation with the Emperor, Empress, two Ladies-in-Waiting,
and the infant Prince Imperial in Eugenie's lap
Here is when Felice Orsini enters in the scene. He was an Italian expatriate and by 1858 he had become an extremist among extremists. A former member of the so-called Mazziniani (followers of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini), his revolutionary activity began during the revolutions of 1848 in the Papal States and in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
At the beginning of 1849 Orsini was elected deputy in the Constituent Assembly of the Roman Republic, in the college of the province of Forlì and he was commissioned to face difficult situations in various cities that were part of the young republic. However his new political career was quickly ended when the intervention of the French army in support of the Pope forced him to flee near the end of the same year.
Even after this failure, Orsini continued with his revolutionary activities in territories under the Habsburg dominion, especially Lombardy and Tuscany. The turning point came in 1854, when he was arrested in Hungary. Although the exact details of the mission for which he was sent there are still unclear, what really matters was his almost immediate arrest and his escape to England after his evasion from the prisons of the castle of San Giorgio with the help of the wealthy Emma Siegmund.
Soon his escape made him a small celebrity in the English political environment, with far-left circles praising him as a hero and revolutionary fighter. The release of his bibliographic works Adventures of Felice Orsini in 1856 and The Austrian Dungeons in 1857 increased his popularity even more but at the same time marked the end of his relationship with Mazzini who suspected Orsini was more interested to his own personal glory than to the liberation of Italy.
It is difficult to say how exactly this fallout influenced Orsini’s subsequent decisions, as this was the same time period when he met Simon François Bernard, a French fourierist  who had fled to England after having supported the failed socialist revolution in Paris of June 1848.
These two individuals shared a reputation as dangerous radicals among the most dangerous radicals and a firm belief that moderation was wholly useless in pursuing a revolutionary purpose (in Orsini's case this may also have been partly caused by the refusal of the prime minister of Piedmont Cavour to meet him after his escape from the Austrian authorities) and their meeting was therefore inevitable.
We don’t know exactly what they discussed or how much influence Bernard really had on Orsini's decisions, as neither of them kept any written records of their private meetings and conversations and the confessions obtained during the Paris Trials are of dubious quality, often full of contradictions and probably the result of torture and coercion.
What we know for sure is that between 1857 and 1858 these two individuals met in London and began to identify Napoleon III as their main enemy. As a socialist, Bernard despised the general idea of a monarchy and hated the new emperor for having put an end to the second French Republic in 1852, while Orsini still resented Napoleon III for having crushed the Roman Republic in 1849. He also believed that the ambiguity of the monarch towards Italy was just a deception to take time and to restore the alliance of the first Napoleon with the Habsburgs
It was clear that something needed to be done and soon, especially after the birth of the future Napoleon IV.
Bernard was still in contact with some of his supporters who had managed to escape the crackdowns of the previous years, but he was unable to return to France since he was too well known for his revolutionary activities and opposition to Napoleon III even before he became emperor. He offered his network of contacts to Orsini and to other Italian radicals (Carlo Di Rudio, Antonio Gomez and Giovanni Andrea Pieri) who were unknown or at least not considered a danger by the French authorities.
The four conspirators, having secretly arrived in France towards the end of 1857 with forged British passports, had only to wait for the right opportunity to strike the emperor.
On January 14, 1858, it was announced that Napoleon III and empress Eugenie would have gone that evening to the Opera Le Peletier to attend Gioacchino Rossini's William Tell. It was the perfect occasion for an assassination attempt on the monarch.
The plan of the four conspirators for that evening was to take advantage of the crowd wings around the imperial carriage and to attempt to kill its occupants by throwing bombs against it.
This uncomplicated plan almost immediately encountered obstacles that evening when Pieri couldn’t even get close to the carriage or throw his bomb because he stopped by a guard who recognised him as a man he had arrested years before and was suspicious of his nervous attitude. .
The execution of the plan itself suffered numerous unforeseen events, mainly due to the poor organization of the conspirators. The first bomb was almost completely useless against the steel plates of the carriage. The following two bombs damaged heavily the carriage, but the occupants suffered no harm. For a brief moment, it seemed that the most hurt member of the imperial family would have been the empress who had been thrown unharmed on the sidewalk, albeit covered with the blood of the people outside the carriage who had been collateral victims of the explosions.
For Orsini, it would have been logical to flee since he had been wounded in his cheek by one of his own bombs and the whole city was now well aware of what was happening.  Unfortunately, he still had a bomb to throw. The other three explosives had damaged the windows of the carriage enough to allow this last bomb to break the right glass and explode inside the carriage.
The power of the explosion, combined with the presence of nails and other pieces of iron inside the explosive, gave Napoleon III no chance and killed him instantly.
Orsini had just committed the first regicide in France since 1793. Although his plan was successful, Orsini's dream of a third French Revolution would not come true.
Artistic depiction of the attack against the imperial carriage
Excerpt from The rise of the Second Empire by Marc Dubois
Pure chaos. This is the best definition for the situation of the French government in the morning of January 15, 1858. Orsini's attack had beheaded the French government. The emperor was dead and the empress was in critical conditions after having been hit by the shrapnels caused by the last explosion.
The most immediate consequences of Orsini's actions were the beginning of a series of anti-Italian riots in Paris and in other parts of France by supporters of the late emperor and the immediate order by Justice Minister Ernest de Royer of a series of arrests of all the people who may have supported Orsini  or more simply could have taken advantage of the situation, including former president Adolphe Thiers who was arrested in the early hours of January 15, 1858. While this type of purge had already taken place under Napoleon III, especially after 1852, it is indicative of the terror that the French political class felt for the risk of a new revolution. Both the Left and the Right were victims of this crackdown: supporters of the Bourbon monarchy, republicans, socialists and anyone who had been critical of the government in the past could be investigated for any reason at best and arrested for no apparent cause at worst.
Since the heir to the throne was a less than two years old child, it was necessary to name a regent that would have ruled France in his name until he would have reached the major age. With the emperess in a coma and thus unable to take care of her duties, the French succession laws clearly stated that the role should have been fulfilled by one of Napoleon III’s closest relatives: either Jerome Bonaparte, the last living brother of the first Napoleon and former king of Westphalia, or Joseph Bonaparte, son of Jerome and cousin of the late emperor.
In reality, neither of the two options was particularly attractive to the various ministers. Joseph, 74 years old, was considered simply too old and the general belief was that he would have died in a few years, thus restarting the crisis. On the other hand, Jerome was extremely unpopular for his anti- clerical views and for the accusations of cowardice that hung over his head since the Crimean War. 
Jerome Bonaparte and Joseph Bonaparte
There was another reason: the cabinet needed to quickly find a regent for Napoleon IV because the government could not function without it. One of Napoleon III's first actions after his appointment as emperor had been to nominate himself both head of government and head of state of France. Every single minister had to report to him and they needed his approval for every decision. In normal times, Royer's decision to order such a large number of arrests without consulting the rest of the cabinet would have been seen as an attack to the imperial authority and likely would have caused his dismissal. This expecially because the various ministers were only briefed during the emergency meeting following the assassination of Napoleon III after the arrests had already started.
With the emperor being placed in a closed coffin in the Notre Dame Cathedral, this total crackdown was welcomed with widespread approval by the rest of the cabinet.
It is important to note that we do not have any documentation about that reunion, a unique case since the various ministers often took notes during the various meetings. This fact could be easily understood because the content of such conversations could have been considered treason by Joseph Bonaparte and his few supporters. This could also have started a civil war if the cabinet’s decision had been discovered before the ministers had found enough support.
A thing was clear for all of the members of the cabinet: it was a better option having a regent who was a woman and possibly braindead for the rest of her life rather than having Jerome anywhere close to the imperial palace.
 Fourierism is the systematic set of economic, political, and social beliefs first espoused by French intellectual Charles Fourier (1772–1837). Based upon a belief in the inevitability of communal associations of people who worked and lived together as part of the human future, Fourier's committed supporters referred to his doctrines as Associationism.
 This is the POD. In OTL he decided to flee, leaving behind his last bomb and his gun. He was arrested the following day.
 The same happened in OTL before Napoleon III put an end to the riots. ITTL he is dead so both the riots and the crackdowns are worse than OTL.
 Indeed his own soldiers nicknamed him "Plon Plon" ( "Fear Lead") for his alleged cowardice in battle and his early return to France turned the public opinion against him.