This article establishes the significance of elections held in the annexed
departments of the Napoleonic Empire from 1802 to 1813. It thus represents an
original, and perhaps surprising, contribution to recent debate on the nature of
Napoleonic imperialism, in which attention has shifted from core to periphery, and
away from purely military matters. The electoral process under this authoritarian
regime has been alternately neglected or derided, especially where the newly created
departments of the Low Countries and parts of Germany and Italy are concerned.
However, extensive archival research demonstrates that it was taken extremely
seriously by both regime and voters, especially outside metropolitan France. These
‘First European Elections', as they may be dubbed, took place in regular fashion
right across the Empire and are studied here on a transnational basis, which also
involves the metropolitan departments. Though open to all adult males at the primary
level, they were not exercises in democracy, but they did create some rare political
space which local people were not slow to exploit for their own purposes. Above all,
they served as a means of integrating ‘new Frenchmen’, particularly members of
indigenous elites, into the Napoleonic system.