Joseph Fouché: France’s First Police Minister

On 20 July 1799, Joseph Fouché, 1st Duke of Otranto (1st Duc d’Otrante) became the first Minister of Police, but he had not started out to be the head of Napoleon Bonaparte‘s security. He was born in a small village near Nantes known as Le Pellerin and was schooled at the college of the Oratorians, a Roman Catholic Society of apostolic life of Catholic priests that was founded in 1611. Eventually, he transferred to Arras and in 1789 began studying for the priesthood when he encountered Maximilien Robespierre, who would go on to become one of the best-known figures of the French Revolution. Their meeting resulted in Fouché becoming a Jacobin. Thus, when the college of the Oratorians dissolved in May of 1792, he gave up the church having never taken his vows. A few months later, soon after the Tuileries was stormed on 10 August, he was elected a deputy in the National Convention and was one of the deputies who voted for the immediate death of Louis XVI.

Joseph Fouché

Joseph Fouché. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

After the Convention decreed war against Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, Royalist peasants revolted in Brittany and La Vendée. The Convention wanted the revolt crushed and sent Fouché and a colleague to the area. The men were appointed to the position of représentant en mission, a position that gave them “unlimited powers.” In his position, Fouché was zealous and vigorously executed his duties earning himself both a reputation and a promotion for his work.

In the autumn of 1793, Joseph Fouché joined with a French politician named Pierre Gaspard Chaumette in the Nièvre department. It is unclear who “converted” who, but “a radical policy [of] combing elements of social levelling, national defence and dechristianization [ensued].”[1] A bust of Brutus was unveiled at a celebration for the Cult of Reason, there was also a pulpit attack against “religious sophistry,” and Fouché ordered all priests to marry. In addition, “ecclesiastical vestments were burned, religious images destroyed and the Bishop of the Allier, followed by thirty of his clergy, persuaded to resign their functions.”[2] As Fouché embraced atheism wholeheartedly, other things occurred. Besides banning religious services from being held anywhere other than a church, he ordered that all cemetery gates were to have inscribed on them, “Death is an eternal sleep.”[3] In addition, all churches were pillaged and anything of value discovered was sent to the Convention, as demonstrated by a note Fouché sent to them:

“You will see with pleasure two beautiful crosses of ornamented silver, and a ducal crown in red. The gold and silver had done more harm to the Republic than have the fire and iron of the ferocious Austrians and cowardly English.”[4]

Pierre Gaspard Chaumette. Author’s collection.

A few months later, in November, Fouché was sent with the French actor, dramatist, and revolutionary, Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois to Lyons to execute the reprisals of the Convention against those who had revolted there. These “messengers of death” formed the Temporary Commission for Republican Supervision and began systematic terrorizing residents by introducing “a contingent of almost two thousand of the Parisian Revolutionary Army.”[5] At the same time, there began to be claims that Fouché was making money in Lyons. The idea of profiting in the midst of turmoil had not yet occurred to anyone because those who dominated at this time were considered honest and not the least indulgent towards thieves, so, it was hard to imagine that anyone would take advantage of the situation. The allegation that Fouché was making money occurred because his wife was found “hiding her coffers under her skirts like a tender hen on her nest.”[6] The discovery happened when the carriage she was taking to Paris overturned in Vaise. She would have been roughly dealt with if d’Herbois had not immediately intervened and used all his forces to protect her. Her carriage was repaired, and she and her “coffers” were sent on their way unaffected by the incident.

Joseph Fouché - Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois

Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joseph Fouché remained behind in Lyons for some time after his wife left. While there, he continued meting out punishments and “launching new thunderbolts against the Lyonnais aristocrats.”[7] This included mass slaughters of political opponents by lining them up in front of huge ditches and shooting them with cannons. Because of Fouché’s vigor in upholding his position, he soon earned the title, “butcher of Lyon.”

When Robespierre fell, Fouché founded himself in trouble. Denunciations arrived from everywhere claiming that he had abused his power. For instance, residents of Lyons wanted him punished for everything he had done to make them suffer. He was ultimately arrested but was soon released. However, because of all the controversy surrounding him, he knew it was wise to keep a low profile and he successfully rode out the storm of opposition against him. One newspaper claimed,

“Fouche, who … hoped to reconcile himself with the nation, gave to his administration a very mild character, although he secretly protected the Jacobins, and with difficulty escaped himself from the vengeance of the wily Directory—.”[8]

His next move came when he assisted the politician Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras. Joseph Fouché became Barras’s protégé after providing him with important information about the Babeuf Conspiracy (a coup led by François Noël Babeuf to overthrow the Directory). Fouché also later aided Barras in the Coup of 18 Fructidor (a seizure of power by members of the French Directory in September 1797), which resulted in Fouché being appointed Minister of Police in July of 1799. However, On 9 November 1799, he helped Napoleon in the Coup of 18 Brumaire, to ensure that he would preserve his post and remain in Napoleon’s favor.

Joseph Fouché - Paul François Jean Nicolas

Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fouché had a wide range of duties as Minister of Police. He protected Napoleon and strengthened both their positions because he detected and prevented Royalist and Jacobin conspiracies. He was also always countering any opposition against Napoleon. Censorship was overseen by Fouché too. This meant books that Napoleon disliked, or thought were anti-French, Fouché banned. Fouché’s police force also maintained order and tranquility at home when Napoleon was abroad fighting. However, despite Fouché’s protection, Napoleon worried about him and his loyalty. One historian wrote:

“[Napoleon] took care to keep Fouché near him; not that his confidence in the latter was so great — on the contrary, but the extent and power of the revolutionary secrets of which the minister had made himself master rendered his services indispensable. His presence in power rallied to the First Consul the revolutionary interests which had been alarmed at the dangers with which the Republic was threatened.”[9]

Among the plots that Joseph Fouché successful suppressed was the “Conspiracy of Daggers” (Conspiration des poignards) that was set to occur when Napoleon exited the Paris Opera House on 10 October 1800. There was also a plot against Napoleon that occurred a few months later on Christmas eve, called the “Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise.” Another plot was set to occur in the spring of 1802 against Napoleon and was called the “Plot of the Placards,” but, supposedly, this time Fouché saved the Jacobins from Napoleon’s wrath.

Napoleon in the Tuileries study, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joseph Fouché was not above abusing his power as Minister of Police. For instance, he kept dossiers not just on spies, dissidents, or people in power but also on Napoleon himself. Fouché also had his tentacles in everything ranging from concocting false stories to having his spies infiltrate salons to fomenting plots. His many intrigues worried Napoleon, and because he distrusted Fouché and thought he might threaten his power, Napoleon decided he had to get rid of him. The moment to do so came in 1802, after Napoleon was declared First Consul for life. However, Fouché so intimated Napoleon, he decided against dismissing Fouché face-to-face and instead sent a servant to deliver the news, which Napoleon softened by doing away with the Minister of Police and reassigning Fouché’s duties to the Minister of Justice.

His dismissal did not mean that his involvement in intrigues stopped. In fact, he supposedly continued to obtain more information than his replacement. When a conspiracy to overthrow Napoleon’s military regime (known as the Pichegru Conspiracy and also called the Cadoudal Affair), happened, Fouché attempted to ingratiate himself once again with the First Consul. One way that he achieved this was through the arrest of the Duc d’Enghien. In 1804, after the First French Empire was declared, Napoleon realized he was still vulnerable and had Fouché reinstated in the reconstituted Ministry of Police and then later in Internal Affairs. Because Fouché’s police agents were omnipresent it inspired fear and that supposedly resulted in an absence of conspiracies after 1804.

As Minister of Police, Fouché’s reputation as a consummate policeman expanded, but despite that, his achievements appear to have been somewhat dubious. There are many examples, but one is the “Conspiracy of Daggers” where an agent provocateur (a person who induces others to break the law so that they can be convicted) infiltrated the group and worked in conjunction with the perpetrators to arrange the plot. There was also a kidnapped senator who was freed by Fouché in a fake but dramatic rescue staged to enhance Fouché’s reputation and make him look like a hero. Lastly, he received most of the credit for solving the Christmas eve Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise, but it was actually solved by the prefecture of police not Fouché.

Fouché’s police force was not the type of police force that is in place today. Instead, they were tasked with policing and preventing intrigues and plots rather than solving crimes. His main policing method also included gathering details, assembling facts, and keeping dossiers about individuals, plots, or political movements. It would take some years before ordinary crime was looked at by police, and, when it was, it involved a criminal turned criminalist. His name was Eugène-Françis Vidocq, and he is usually considered the first modern detective because he was among the first in France to take an interest in fighting crime, even though his methods generally involved him disguising himself and earning the confidence of criminals.

Even though Napoleon reinstated Joseph Fouché in 1804 as Minister of Police, he continued to distrust him. In fact, Napoleon’s own system of espionage was ordered to watch and scrutinize Fouché’s actions that were cunning as he either outsmarted those watching him or set traps to fool them. He hoped that by doing so it would enhance his reputation and increase his importance with Napoleon, but Fouché’s tactics did nothing to relieve Napoleon’s worry. Thus, in 1808, after hearing rumors that Fouché and his once bitter enemy, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, were meeting, Napoleon became concerned, immediately returned to Paris, called the men to his office, and forced them to swear an oath to him. He then ended the affair by telling Talleyrand, “you are nothing but a shit in a silk stocking.”[10] At the same time, Napoleon realized he had nothing to incriminate Fouché, which made him feel stuck. To demonstrate how he felt about Fouché a nineteenth-century newspaper noted:

“Bonaparte dreaded him, suspected him, hated him, but thought him necessary. He was one of those instruments that serve, but hang heavy on the hand that makes use of them, and destroy them when it wishes to dispense with them.”[11]

Joseph Fouché - Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The year 1808 was the year that Napoleon gave Joseph Fouché the title of Duke of Otranto, but a year later, he and Fouché were once again at odds. Fouché knew that Napoleon wanted peace and secretly made overtures with the British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. When Napoleon learned what Fouché had done, he was so enraged, he dismissed him from office on 3 June 1810, and became further enraged when he learned Fouché had not returned important documents. Nonetheless, Napoleon did not stay mad with Fouché because he was back in favor by 1812, and, in 1814, Napoleon ordered Fouché to return. He arrived on 10 April, several days after Napoleon had abdicated at Fontainebleau. Napoleon then went into exile on Elba, and during that time, Fouché, who had begun serving as a Senator in the early 1800s, attempted to achieve a reconciliation between France and Louis XVIII through Louis’s brother, the Count of Artois. Achieving no satisfaction that was beneficial to himself, Fouché then conspired to overthrow the Bourbons.

Napoleon left Elba in March of 1815, which caused Louis XVIII to worry for his safety and he offered Fouché a job as Minister of Police, but he refused and for a third time, he began to serve Napoleon. Nevertheless, the cunning Fouché was taking no chances with his future. He began to secretly negotiate with an Austrian statesman and made other contingencies just in case Napoleon failed. When he did, Fouché, who had once terrorized Bourbon supporters, now switched sides to serve the Bourbons, graciously accepting the position as Louis XVIII’s Minister of Police. Fouché then initiated a campaign against any real or imaginary enemies of the Bourbons, including anyone who might attempt to return Napoleon to power. Because of his ever-shifting alliances and loyalties, one person described Fouché thusly:

“Despised by all for his tergiversations, he nevertheless was sought by all on account of his cleverness. He repaid the contempt of his superiors and the adulation of his inferiors by a mask of impenetrable reserve or scorn. He sought for power and neglected no means to make himself serviceable to the party whose success appeared to be imminent. Yet, while appearing to be the servant of the victors, present or prospective, he never gave himself to any one party. In this versatility he resembles Talleyrand, of whom he was a coarse replica. Both professed, under all their shifts and turns, to be desirous of serving France. Talleyrand certainly did so in the sphere of diplomacy; Fouché may occasionally have done so in the sphere of intrigue.”[12]

Fouché’s heyday of importance was fading. He was eventually appointed the French ambassador of Saxony, and, then, in 1816, his services were deemed useless and no longer needed. His inability to remain loyal to any one party or any one person was thereafter frequently talked of, and, a few years before his death, one newspaper commented:

“Fouche looked only to himself; and as his first idea in 1794 was to recover the place in Society, which he had forfeited for his crimes, so his last thought in 1815, was reconciliation with the Court which he had so grievously offended. In one word, Fouche having become a rich and important personage, under the auspices of usurped dominion, was desirous to complete his title after the fashion of legitimacy. Accordingly, he betrayed his country, abandoned his friends; signed the warrants for their death and the lists of their proscription; and succeeded, as such persons usually do, for a time. But at last he found himself alone in the wilderness he had created. … He was the minister of Louis XVIII; but he had been the Judge of Louis XVI; and he is now wandering over the face of the earth perhaps less respected than any one of those whom he had, but a few weeks before, delivered to the vengeance of the Court.”[13]

Joseph Fouché

Joseph Fouché, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joseph Fouché, the man once described as having “the soul of a demon and the face of corpse,”[14] died from consumption while living in Italy in self-imposed exile. His death occurred in late December (some say 25 December and others 26 December) 1820.  A French newspaper founded in Paris on 24 November 1789, called Le Moniteur Universel, reported his last words to his wife were, “Maintenant, vous pourrez rentrer en France[15] (“Now, you can return back to France”), and, she left soon after heading there. Another French newspaper, also founded in 1789, the Journal des Debats, provided a tersely worded paragraph about his demise.

“Fouche, the Duke of Otranto, died here to-day, in the Hotel de Cavanna. His funeral will take place on the day after to-morrow. The service will be performed in the Cathedral of the City.”


  • [1] Norman Hampson, A Social History of The French Revolution (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013), p. 201.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Joseph Fouché, Memoirs of Fouché v. 1 (Paris: Merrill & Baker, 1903), p. xvii.
  • [5] David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 237.
  • [6] Paul Barras, Memoirs of Barras, Member of the Directorate v. 1 (New York: Harper & brothers, 1895), p. 209.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 210.
  • [8] Chester Courant, “A Brief Sketch of Fouche,” June 4, 1816, p. 4.
  • [9] J. Fouché, xxxii.
  • [10] Phillip G. Dwyer, Profiles in Power, editor Keith Robbins, (Longman, 2002), p. 120.
  • [11] The Advocate: or Irish, Industrial Journal, “The Character of Fouche,” May 19, 1852, p. 11.
  • [12] Hugh Chisholm, The Encyclopaedia Britannica: A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information v. 10 (New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910), p. 736.
  • [13] Chester Courant, p. 4.
  • [14] The Graphic, “Book the Third,” May 9, 1874, p. 454.
  • [15] Rand Mirante, Medusa’s Head (Archway Publishing, 2014), p. 227.

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