This article analyses how the world exhibitions were instrumentalised for national identity-building in 19th-century France. It argues that they probably strengthened a broadly consensual conception of a superior French culture and civilising mission. In contrast, it is doubtful whether the Second Empire and the Third Republic succeeded in hijacking them to sustain their political visions of the French nation. The exhibitions crystallised criticism of the two political systems, and vociferous debates about their nature and ideological content took place in the Republic. They also helped to strengthen other, sometimes conflicting identities, such as region and class, emphasising the cultural and political diversity of France.