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Napoleonic Empire 1799-1815

The various Revolutionary Governments were: the National or Constituent Assembly (1789-1791); the Legislative Assembly (1791-1792); the National Convention (1792-1795); the Directory (1795-1799); the Consulate (1799-1804); and the Empire under Napoleon (1804-1815). After Robespierre's execution in July 1794, the Thermidorian Convention (1794-1795) and the Directory (1795-1797) led to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, who took over first as Consul (1799-1804), then as Emperor of the French. The monarchy had been abolished in 1792; it was now superseded by the Empire and, however different the structures and organization of that Empire might be, the French, who had briefly been citizens, were once more subjects.

During the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, France tried to impose its model and institutions on many other European countries; but its initial desire to free "oppressed peoples" was soon replaced by a desire to conquer and annex territories, revealing the "right of peoples to self-determination" as empty words.

"I fear nothing," said Napoleon at St. Helena, "for my renown. Posterity will do me justice. It will compare the good which I have done with the faults which I have committed. If I had succeeded, I should have died with the reputation of being the greatest man who ever existed. From being nothing, I became, by my own exertions, the most powerful monarch of the universe, without committing any crime. My ambition was great, but it rested on the opinion of the masses. I have always thought that sovereignty resides in the people. The empire, as I had organized it, was but a great republic. Called to the throne by the voice of the people, my maxim has always been, a career open to talent without distinction of birth. It is for this system of equality that the European oligarchy detests me. And yet, in England, talent and great services raise a man to the highest rank. England should have understood me."

"The French Revolution," said Napoleon, "was a general movement of the mass of the nation against the privileged classes. The nobles were exempt from the burdens of the state, and yet exclusively occupied all the posts of honor and emolument. The Revolution destroyed these exclusive privileges, and established equality of rights. All the avenues to wealth and greatness were equally open to every citizen, according to his talents. The French nation established the imperial throne, and placed me upon it. The throne of France was granted before to Hugh Capet, by a few bishops and nobles. The imperial throne was given to me by the desire of the people."

The proud old nobility, whom Napoleon had restored to France, and upon many of whom he had conferred their confiscated estates, manifested no gratitude toward their benefactor. They were sighing for the re-enthronement of the Bourbons, and for the return of the good old times, when all the offices of emolument and honor were reserved for them and for their children, and the people were but their hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Under these various regimes, citizens had scarcely any say in political matters. Until 1848, only those who paid the poll tax voted, which effectively restricted the vote to a minority of citizens, and the political feelings of the masses were chiefly expressed through isolated incidents of revolt which were swiftly quelled.

Nonetheless, under the surface of political instability, fundamental changes were taking place, which laid the foundations of modern France. They concerned principally the territorial and administrative structure of the country. In 1789, France was not governed in the same way in different parts of the country. Instead, it was divided into different constituencies (baileys, governorships, generalities, provincial States and countries) which had evolved at different stages and now overlapped with each other. With such a complicated system, there were often delays and conflicts over areas of responsibility, making it difficult to govern the country efficiently. In this respect, the Revolution and the Empire were to complete the process of centralization begun under the Ancien Regime.

In 1790, the territory was divided into departments [administrative division, similar to UK counties], which in turn were divided into cantons made up of communes [smallest administrative subdivision in France] (municipalities or districts). These are still the administrative units to which power is devolved locally in France today. Napoleon completed the system, rationalizing it and making it more efficient through the Law of 28 Pluvise Year VIII (17 February 1800) which created the posts of prfet and mayor, although mayors at that time were appointed, rather than elected as they are today. Administrative authorities were thus standardized on a basis of equality and staff were thenceforward recruited by competitive examination, substituting a meritocratic system for the old system of privilege.

The Revolutionary regime and Empire also saw the birth of genuine public services and the strengthening of the role of the State in national and regional development, the creation of infrastructures and town planning. The will to unite the French people also resulted in the creation of norms and standards which would be valid all over France, as exemplified not only by the institution of a Civil Code, but also by the systematic registration of property and the decision to opt for a metric system of weights and measures. The metric system is now universally used in France and widely used in the rest of the world.

France ceased to be an empire in 1815, but freedom and democracy were not reinstated. The monarchy was restored with the accession of Louis XVIII. He was succeeded by Charles X in 1824 and, following the 1830 Revolution in July of that year, Louis-Philippe reigned for 18 years. The 1848 Revolution instituted the Second Republic which, like the First, ended in a coup d'tat, this time by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851. The Second Empire he created lasted from 1852 to 1870.




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