French Elections, 1789-1848

By Crook, Malcolm | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview
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French Elections, 1789-1848


Crook, Malcolm, History Today


As France's voters prepare to elect a new legislative assembly this month, Malcolm Crook reflects on the apprenticeship of democracy in the first half-century after the Revolution.

When the French people go to the polls this month, to elect a new Legislative Assembly, they will be participating in an electoral ritual that has endured for over 200 years. To be sure, not all adult males had the opportunity to vote before 1848 and women had to wait until 1944 before they were awarded the suffrage. Yet France was the first country in Europe to stage a democratic experiment, by offering the franchise to a majority of a dult males during the 1790s. Britain, despite its longstanding parliamentary tradition, was much slower off the mark. Even in the American Republic some states maintained substantial restrictions on the suffrage until the late nineteenth century, besides withholding the vote from slaves. The French elections of 1993, which coincide with the bicentenary of the first republican constitution in 1793, thus present an excellent vantage-point from which to review the French apprenticeship in democracy from 1789 to 1848.

The Revolution of 1789 heralded the arrival of modern citizenship in France. Yet, ironically, it was the ancient regime monarchy which initiated the process by recalling the Estates General on a very broad franchise. The Estates General was a medieval parliament that had not met since 1614 and the retention of its archaic division into the three orders of clergy, nobility and third estate, was a major stubling block when it reconvened in 1789. Elections were still conducted by order but tradition was breached because, within each estate, most adult males were able to participate in the preliminary rounds of voting. This innovation made a huge impactt upon the tiers etat, where all tax-paying commoners were given a vote.

In the spring of 1789 roughly half of this almost universal, male electorate attended the polls. However, elections in the bailliage and senechaussee constituencies were indirect and, in some cases, selection for the tiers passed through four stages before a deputy was finally appointed to attend the Estates General. Inevitably this procedure enabled wealtheir and more articulate members of the Third Estate, from the professional middle classes in particular, to take control of the assemblies and dominate deputations of the tiers. Lawyers and former officials filled the parliamentary assemblies of the ensuing decade and they have been dubbed |the perpetual politicians'. By contrast, in the more direct elections of the other two orders, numerous parish priests and lesser nobles to the fore, to play an equally crucial role at Versailles, where the Estates General met in May.

The Estates General was quickly transformed into a National Assembly, in which the separate orders disolved and deputies co-operated to create a new order. Yet the old Estates left an indelible mark upon the emergent electoral system. Throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic decades that followed, elections above the local level remained indirect; only in 1848 was a restored, democratic electorate allowed to choose national deputies first-hand. Moreover, until the midnineteenth century, elections continued to be conducted at assemblies, rather than by means of the individual ballot with which we are familiar. The result of this procedure, which involved the preliminary election of assembly officials, was that electoral behaviour exhibited a collective, even corporate character, up to and including 1848. Indeed, during the Revolution votes were sometimes cast verbally and it was the eve of the Great War before voters began to mark official ballot papers in the privacy of a booth.

The pursuit of absolute majorities, via exhaustive balloting, was another time-honoured practice which is still echoed today in the French second-ballot system. A final curiosity was the refusal to sanction declared candidatures ( a half-hearted and short-lived experiment in 1797 apart), or to permit canvassing for votes.

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