French Revolution

Within the context of the period 1789-1889, how far did the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte overcome the long term of social and political divisions in France? During the beginning of 1789 Louis XVI was formally known as the ‘King of France’. When the National Assembly was created in 1789 Louis’ power began to deteriorate. This was because the National Assembly was seen as the new ‘leader’ of France, a government that decided all of France’s fate. Louis was not in favour of having his powers limited and he attempted to dissolve the assembly.

This clash between the political powers started to cause problems. The King’s powers diminished until they were words rather than actions and a fight for power began between the two parties. On September 9th the King was refused the right to dissolve the Assembly, there was nothing Louis could do to banish this government. On September 30th the King was also denied the right to create or prevent legislation from being passed. There was becoming a great political division in France, the Monarchy against Democracy.

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The Monarchy was becoming overrun with Democracy; even Louis’ charge of the people was being undermined through the voting system. Louis XVI was executed on 21st January after being imprisoned by the government on the 16th; this was the sign that it was the end of Monarchy. After the execution of Louis XVI a government called the Committee of Public Safety (April 5th 1793) took over the ruling of France. It consisted of 12 members, including Robespierre who later became ‘leader’ of the CPS. The Terror’ happened after the execution of the king, ie. mass executions occurred after the king, but there was no one to blame but the CPS at the time, so socially it became a more terrifying environment to live in than it was during the reign of Louis, because people became torn between wanting their old Monarchy back, and supporting the revolution, a great split in the social economy of France. Throughout the era of Robespierre significant events occurred, one being the Terror, the cause of thousands of deaths.

Amongst this period revolutionary tribunals were created to try those suspected of counter revolutionary activity, the beginning of more social terror. Suppressing ant-revolutionists was seen to be Robespierre’s main aim. He became very pro-revolutionary and created decrees and laws that allowed him to silence any anti-revolutionaries who might try to damage the revolutions progress. This meant that the community of France became afraid to speak their opinions even more so than when they were under the ruling of Louis XVI – the opposite effect the government promised them.

Instead of a democracy like the people wanted, they ended up with a dictatorship. At the time anyone who thought the revolution wasn’t working in favour of the people and wanted back the Monarchy could be arrested, if they were seen to be anti-revolutionists they would have been tried and executed without hesitation. Robespierre’s pro-revolution campaign became so severe that the people of France were too afraid to leave their homes. Robespierre also introduced the ‘Carmagde’; it was a uniform that was a visible representation of the division between pro and anti revolution.

First it was just to suppress the opposition but it started coming to the point were he was suppressing revolutionaries in the fear that they may turn and become followers of the Monarchy. One of the reasons people supported the removal of the King was because they wanted more opportunity to speak and be to heard, a democracy, something which was promised by the government, yet never followed through. The first people to fall in the Terror were the autocracy, who were trying to restore the Monarchy.

The law was then changed to allow the arrest and execution of suspected anti-revolutionaries, so from then on people only had to be suspected of anti-revolutionary activity to be executed, creating more fear amongst the French people and limiting their freedom of speech in fear of losing their lives. Equality that the people had hoped for was non-existent. More people were repressed than ever, creating a greater separation between pro revolutionaries, and anti-revolutionaries.

It came to the point where an individual who seemed to be too popular amongst the people was executed because the revolution was meant to be about people as a whole. Something which Robespierre contradicted by turning the country into a dictatorship, a country really ruled by only one man, him. Robespierre became so pro-revolutionary even the government became too afraid to speak aloud because if it somehow was portrayed as negativity towards Robespierre, and therefore the revolution they were removed from the government and most likely executed or imprisoned.

It started to affect the country politically, politicians always voted the same as Robespierre and the others disappeared. Divisions within the same party were beginning to rise. Robespierre was losing the support of his own government as well as having to keep the opposition quashed underground. It became clear there was a real dislike towards Robespierre and yet he excelled in remaining in his position, even without the support of his party. Privial law, June 10th 1974. This law forbade offenders to speak a defense in court. They were not allowed any support within the courts.

This meant they were immediately found guilty and executed; a quicker way for Robespierre to make sure the revolution was still safe. These acts and laws began to show people that Robespierre was so power hungry that under his authority freedom of speech would never be allowed. There were even divisions in the CPS. Because of minister executions the government was becoming weak and brittle to the point were anything military could happen and France wouldn’t be ready because the government was just too weak to make serious decisions or support the army.

Within the CPS the members began to realise that Robespierre was becoming too power hungry and without immediate action they would all be executed or would have to leave in fear of their lives. Robespierre’s arrested was ordered and he was guillotined, bringing the Terror to a sudden halt. There had been a growing tension within the government towards the end of Robespierre’s reign showing a political division and different views of which the CPS all had but could never really show during the days of the Terror.

Some historians said that Robespierre started the Terror originally to restore order amongst the people including events such as the riots in Paris and to force underground any opposition there may have been during that period. The terror was successful to some extent. It created the Maximus Laws which helped keep food for everyone at a reasonable price therefore no one went hungry, it stopped the rioting amongst the people too so it created stability. The main aim was to restore order and in that it was a success.

Robespierre managed to rid the opposition so there were no longer any political divisions within France and social wise it made France stronger. This success cost the lives of 17,000 people, most of which were likely to be innocent for the crime they were tried for. 500,000 were imprisoned for their non-compliance with the revolution. The Directory was the replacement for the CPS, with a total of 5 members (the remaining members of the CPS) simply a restructure of the government. The Directory at first put forward great political ideas for the people, such as bringing annual elections; they were beginning to finally hape the country into democracy rather than the dictatorship it had become. The introduction of parliament houses came about; Council of Ancients were the upper house and the Council of five hundred was viewed as the lower house. Democracy was gradually being created and the voice of the people was being freed. Improvements to the country’s ruling were becoming very pronounced. The public was given back their civil liberties and rights as a member of the country. However, the Directory began to create faults, they removed the Law of Maximums that caused great inflation throughout the country.

In an attempt to solve this inflation the Directory attempted to change their currency (not denomination) in hope to solve the inflation, but to their dismay they failed. By 1797 the state of France was dyer due to its bankruptcy and massive debt. This became a disaster to the social divisions in France; classes became indifferent because all had to pay the same taxes, which the higher class were very displeased about. The people of France were yet again, worse off than when they were under the power of Louis XVI.

During the influence of The Directory there were two main social divisions amongst the people, the Royalists (Right) and the Republicans (Left). Royalists were the people who wanted the Monarchy back or at least wanted to instate a Prime Minister; they wanted someone with complete control of the country, similar to the reign under Robespierre but with a fairer leader who would listen to the public’s voices. The Republicans wished for a more stable government to rule France, something similar to The Directory but with stronger members, more organisation and structure.

The one similarity the two socialist groups had however was that neither liked the control under The Directory because it didn’t have one leader, and it was too small to be classified as a real government. Neither of these oppositions were opposed or threatened like they would have been during the time of Robespierre because The Directory at this stage was still too weak to fight back and therefore this was where the corruption began. Napoleon was critical in unifying the divisions within France and his Laws are still the basis of what French law is today.

In November 9th 1799 Napoleon overthrew the Directory. The Directory had left great division within social France, many were unhappy, demanding the Monarchy to return or even someone that would uphold the same position as Robespierre but would use it fairly. Napoleon answered their pleas, making himself lead Consul and ending the French revolution. However, some groups were unconvinced. 1904 Dec 2nd, Napoleon was made Emperor of France. ‘I intend to keep the revolution’s useful changes, but not to abandon the good institutions that were mistakenly destroyed. Napoleon’s intentions for France were not to create an entirely new system of laws, nor to revert back to the ancien regime. He instead, restored some of the laws which he believed were vital with running the country, keeping some of the laws which the revolution had created, but not all, and creating some of his own which he believed would make the country stronger, and it did. One of the main laws, which Napoleon created, was ‘Code Napoleon’, (A simpler set of rules which people could understand), this focused on mainly the legal system.

This code basically created equality to all workingmen. Social division between all workingmen was equalised because all were given the same rights to working conditions. A success because up till Napoleon nothing existed to help with equalising the working class, let alone the entire country. Napoleon believed all men were equal no matter their status. All were men of their house, and he believed that this code was the way forward. He also reinstated the church as a ‘State Church’, appointing bishops and priests.

The government made all payments, pleasing all social France because those who felt disappointed about losing their church had gotten it back, and others, atheists, did not mind so much as they were not having to pay for this through their taxes. This won Napoleon the loyalty of the church, gaining support from all different parties of France. However, he did not have the support of the women, even though this was not important during this period because women didn’t have the legal right to vote. If this were the case he would have lost a significant amount of support because he removed all power from women.

Something which the church supported because it returned traditional values and stability back to French families so it would filter down to the next generation – gaining the support of the people who wished for the Monarchy to return – and stabilising the social divisions within France by gaining the support of the different groups and giving them something which they could unite on, the support of Napoleon. This helped squash the divisions within France socially and politically, mainly because Napoleon had the support of the entire military as well as the main support of the people.

Opposition never rose during the early period of Napoleon because of the sheer power he held. It wasn’t until other countries got involved that the overthrow of Napoleon began. Napoleon was seen as the saviour of France after Louis XVI and Robespierre. The people felt Napoleon listened to their needs and had finally created an extremely stable government. However, his lust for power became too much and he had to abdicated after losing the battle at Waterloo. Louis XVIII was introduced to the leadership after Napoleon’s first abdication, introducing the Bourbon Monarchy.

At first the people were unwilling to accept this turn in the French’s political system after all the troubles they had previously with Louis XVII, Robespierre and the Directory. Most wished for Napoleon to return or to keep his system of running the country. Even though Napoleon had been banished from France his lust for the country brought him back to try return to his position of Emperor, forcing Louis XVIII to go into hiding. The alliance between Russia, France and Prussia wanted to be sure that Napoleon never succeeded in regaining power again and he was imprisoned.

The 100 days created a greater tension between Napoleon’s followers and the Bourbon Monarchy followers. His intention to dissolve divisions within France may have initially succeeded, but due to his power hunger, the 100 days reversed what he had created, creating tension in France. It was then people realised the way forward to stability was to be to follow the Bourbon Monarchy. Louis XVIII was returned to the throne but France was humiliated by what he had done when Napoleon returned. The French simply wanted some stability, as Napoleon had begun to create previously.

People believed that this reign under Louis would be more successful as more people were willing to accept the subtle revolution to restore stability. It became a success, so even though after the 100 days, the Bourbon Monarchy was successful in creating a stable France and smoothing over the social divisions that existed under Louis XVIII’s first reign. The support of Charles X differed from Louis XVIII because of a lack of trust. Charles was deeply involved politically where as Louis attempted to stay above party politics. The people grossly disliked Charles when he reated a coronation for himself, which was under the Ancien Regime. This was seen as anti-revolutionary and people grew worried their stability would go backwards to the times of Louis XVII. Under his first year of leadership he even introduced the compensation, which allowed the emigres to return. Most of the public objected to this, especially the pays legals that were the small minority that were given the vote who were losing their money. However, the emigres thought the money was not enough, and so Charles failed to fully gain their support.

Another reason for the failure of Charles’ monarchy was because he was more open minded and accepting of opposition against the revolution, causing the people to lose their trust in him, thus creating wider gap and more tension between sympathisers of the revolution and the royalists. In 1830 however Charles X was overthrown by the ‘July revolution’. Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans reigned over France for 18 years (1830-48). He was seen as the obvious choice, both by the working people and the people most knowledgeable in the running of the country.

Louis was never popular with the working class and depended on the vote of the bourgeoisie, which was his downfall. At first he attempted a more liberal approach to France – he was trying to listen to the people and create the stable government they wanted, not a complete monarchy. He was favoured for his simple approach, staying out of complex matters, but his ‘laid back’ approach meant that there was substantial opposition rising. This, and the fact the working conditions were deteriorating and inflation becoming unsteady led to his popularity falling severely. There were also rising problems within his government.

The royalists were complaining about how the monarchy should be continued by bloodline and the republicans who didn’t feel the monarchy was strong enough to create stability. Agitation rose because people were being heard less because of these problems and Louis was forced out of power, again leaving division in society between the higher and lower class because they were not recognised by Louis and therefore, again, not sorted out. The 2nd Republic was the next founded government between the 1848 revolution and the coup of Louis Napoleon, lasting 3 years when Louis Napoleon was elected prime minister.

The main movement that the 2nd republic was best known for was the Constitution of 1848 where someone was assigned president of the republic and therefore the country and served a 4 year term, however in the constitution they were not allowed to be re–elected. This gave people more of a say in how the government was run because the president was elected. Therefore there was unification amongst the people when deciding in the running of the country. There was also unification politically because there were no real divisions apart from the campaigners that produced no real tension within the government.

Louis Napoleon came into power in 1852 with a landslide victory because he was seen as the ‘least bad’ candidate of the campaign as he seemed to be for the middle and working class. He was also associated as the man who would restore order and end instability in France, due to his blood connection the legend Napoleon I. People grew impatient that none of his laws were passed within his four years of presidency and it was difficult to continue passing because, due to the constitution set down by the Second Republic, each president was only allowed to serve one term each in their presidency.

It caused unrest because none of their demands were being met and there was also political tension because Louis was determined to spend more than a term in presidency. However, the constitution eventually was amended. Due to this he created his own government and included the ‘Code Napoleon’ that infuriated the Catholic Church. So the political tensions were beginning to create divisions within the supporters of Louis. Louis then came up with a solution to regain the support of the church. He created ‘Loi Fallaux’ in 1851, which meant that the church had a larger role within education, easing the dislike the church were creating for Louis.

In 1860 he allowed more freedom of speech, including from opposition when debating in the houses, and he relaxed censorship enabling everyone to express their true views. On 2 December 1851, Louis-Napoleon finally dissolved the National Assembly and established a centralized and authoritarian regime which some people felt uncertain about, which caused tension as to whether the country would go down hill politically again. However, towards the end of his reign he attempted to defend Austria from Prussia, with little success. This event was his demise.

He was captured during the battle of Sedan by the Third Republic and exiled to England. Throughout the revolution of 1798 there was an obvious split between the people, left – pro revolution, right – anti revolutionists. The right had been in power almost continuously till 1870, however, over the period of 1815-1870 the ‘Right’ party became divided within themselves. Some for Bourbon Monarchy, others for power under someone like Louis Philippe and another was the continuation of someone similar to Napoleon, like his nephew. This was a problem for society as well as the increasing pressure between the right and left parties.

The Paris commune: this was when Prussia invaded France, gradually moving towards Paris. The walls around Paris were fortified and food was collected, but there was still a food shortage. It was in this time that the people of France decided that there should be an independent government for the city, resulting in the Paris Commune, Theirs being in charge, then allowing Prussia to invade the city but leave as a term of the agreement – something that the working class was very displeased about. Many of these people formed the ‘National Guard’.

There was a real division amongst the people when there was question of whether the Commune was the right thing to do. Eventually people distrusted the Paris commune and thought that it didn’t work in the people’s best interests and therefore sided with the National Guard, which then eventually drove Thiers and the commune from the city in 1871. During the Franco-Prussia war 1870, when Napoleon III was captured the ‘left wing’ took the opportunity to seize power in the capital and declared the new regime, the 3rd Republic, which was led by Theirs, who came back after being driven out of Paris.

Soon after a general election was held, showing that there was a strong rising opposition within the right wing, [‘and it seemed a question of time before the republic would be replaced by a monarchy of some kind’-France: Third Republic 1870-1914, Keith Randell. Pg. 3]. There was increasing tension between the two social groups and a race to see who could hold their place as the leading party of France. During this the right wing was still separated within itself but as the republic continued they began to see how the republic wasn’t such a bad way to rule the country after all.

So in the following election it was no surprise that that over 80% of the seats (house of commons) were filled with supporters of the regime, unifying right and also subduing the tension between right and left. However the 3rd republic’s reign was very short as the right side grew larger in numbers and over the next 15 years the 3rd Republic was riddled with scandals and affairs and it wasn’t till much later on that the Republic was finally established. So overall, Napoleon was seen as the icon of France as he created the backbone of today’s French legal system.

Where the others before and after him failed to create a strong stable government, he managed to suppress opposition successfully and he created equality for the workingman and also forced opposition underground successfully. Others may have succeeded in this such as Louis XVIII for a while, but none managed to carry it on for a long period of time, showing Napoleon managed to overcome the majority of problematic divisions set with France, but not managing to sustain them entirely.





4) Randell. K, France: The Third Republic 1870-1914, Edward Arnold, published: 1986

5) Randell. K, France 1814-70 Monarchy, Republic and Empire, Edward Arnold, published: 1986

6) Zamoyski. A, 1812 Napoleon’s fatal march to Moscow, Harper Perennial, published: 2005

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