The coup d'etat of Claude-Francois Malet
His otherwise clever plot had a fatal flaw
These days we take instant communications for granted, but in the days before the telephone and the telegraph a well-placed, but false, piece of news could bring down an Empire. At least, that is what Claude-Francois Malet reckoned, and he very nearly succeeded.
A change of leader is announced
Early in the morning of 23rd October 1812, a fully-attired French general arrived at the Popincourt barracks in Paris. He introduced himself as General Lamotte and announced that Napoleon was dead, having been killed during the siege of Moscow, 600 miles away. He said that a Provisional Republic had been declared and that the National Guard must assemble immediately in the Place Vendôme. He produced a sheaf of papers that included a promotion for the commandant to whom he reported the news and orders for the release of two generals who had been imprisoned for falling foul of Napoleon, namely General Ladurie and General Guidal.
General Ladurie was delighted to find himself recalled to favour and proceeded to resume his old duties by giving orders to his troops. General Guidal, however, decided that his first “duty” was to get himself his first decent restaurant meal since his incarceration.
“General Lamotte” had little trouble getting people to believe him, given his perfect uniform and all those pieces of paper. Orders were given and many people leapt into action to seize important buildings in the city and arrest anyone who might oppose the new Republic.
The plot breaks down
However, one thing “Lamotte” had forgotten was to provide himself with documents that proved his own status. When one officer, a General Hulin, grew suspicious and asked to see Lamotte’s orders, the latter had no response to offer other than to shoot Hulin in the head. Shortly afterwards he was recognised by an officer who shouted out, “That’s not Lamotte, it’s Malet!” There had indeed been a real General Lamotte, who had been exiled to the United States and was therefore unlikely to have just hot-footed it from Moscow.
Claude-Francois Malet, born in 1754 and therefore 58 at the time of the coup attempt, was a brigadier general in his own right who held strong revolutionary views. He had therefore fallen out of favour with Napoleon and been imprisoned as a result. While in prison he had hatched a plot with a fellow prisoner, the Abbé Lafon. Lafon was a royalist, so he had nothing in common with Malet apart from a hatred of Napoleon. However, he was an expert forger who was able to supply Malet with the papers that he was later to use to support his claims.
When all the pieces were in place they climbed the wall of the prison. Lafon promptly disappeared and only turned up again after Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and the monarchy was restored. Malet went home, where his wife had hired the necessary uniform from a theatrical costumier.
The end of Claude-Francois Malet
Conspirators who plan to overthrow a dictator cannot expect to escape with their lives should their coup fail, and Malet was no exception. Justice also demanded that most of the officers he duped into joining him should face the firing squad. This may sound like rough justice, but it should be remembered that Napoleon had an heir, the so-called “King of Rome” who was only one year old at the time, and the officers in question had taken the word of a single general rather than relying on the procedure for succession that Napoleon had decreed.
As it was, despite Malet taking full responsibility for his actions when court-martialled, around 15 supposed co-conspirators were executed along with him, within a week of the coup having begun. Malet was allowed the right to issue the command to the firing squad to perform his own execution.
Despite the elements of farce that surrounded Malet’s failed coup, there were serious lessons to be learned. One was the fact that the whole Napoleonic edifice revolved around one man. Once Napoleon himself was taken out of the equation, the state could easily be taken over by the next strong man who came along. For a few days, with only one shot fired, this was precisely what happened. Had Malet been more careful in his planning, or had not been known to certain people in Paris, he might just have got away with it.