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You may know that the First Republic in France resulted from the French Revolution. But France has had five republics. And there were two empires and four revolutions. Why so many? Here is a brief guide, with some events omitted.

A republic is a political order whose head of state is not a monarch, a monarch being an absolute or ceremonial head of a state government: a king or queen, a prince or princess, an emperor or empress. It also describes a state in which power lies in the body of citizens who are entitled to vote for representatives responsible to them.

First Republic (1792-1804)

france, french revolution, national convention, robespierre, reign of terror

The National Convention. The Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to maintain public order and Maximilien Robespierre became its leader, effectively controlling France. During the Reign of Terror that followed, over 40,000 ‘enemies of the revolution’ were executed, until Robespierre’s own execution in July 1974.

The First Republic was proclaimed on 21 September 1792 by the newly established National Convention. This was in the third year of the ten years of the French Revolution which had started in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the Ancien Régime, the monarchic dynasties that had ruled France since the 15th century up until the last Bourbon king,  Louis XVI (‘L’état, c’est moi’ – I am the state).

By the late 1780s, France was in desperate financial trouble and Louis XVI, who believed he ruled by divine right, brought together the Estates General to try to solve France’s problems. The Estates-General, which met only rarely, was made up of assemblies of the First Estate, the clergy, the Second Estate, the nobility, and the Third Estate, the commoners, though in practice they represented the bourgeoisie. However many members of the Third Estate (who were to call themselves the Communes or Commons), met on their own and demanded a new constitution. The communes re-formed themselves into a National Assembly on 17 June 1789. Events followed quickly.

First the Tennis Court Oath (link) on 20 June, when all but one of the assembly believing themselves to be locked out of the meeting of the Estates-General, pledged not to separate until a new constitution was agreed. This was the first time that French citizens had formally stood in opposition to the king. When King Louis XVI refused the Assembly’s request to remove troops from Paris, public outrage precipitated the storming of the Bastille (which was seen as a symbol of the abuses of the monarchy) on 14 July, marking the beginning of the Revolution. The draft Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen followed in August.

‘The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression’ – National Assembly

The epic march to the Palace of Versailles in October by women protesting over the high price and scarcity of bread, forced the king and his family to return to Paris, effectively ending the independent authority of the king. The assembly, which had reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly, became the effective government of France, and King Louis XVI was forced to recognise its authority.

The First Republic saw the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793 (‘Louis must die that the country may live‘ – Robespierre), and the infamous Reign of Terror (link) from September 1793 to July 1794, the period of violence incited by conflict between rival revolutionary political factions.

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