The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

18
Aux Urnes, Citoyens! The Transformation of French Electoral Participation (1789-1870)

Melvin Edelstein

The bicentennial of the French Revolution provides an opportunity to explore the Revolution's impact on electoral participation. Our subject is the emergence of democracy. The decade of the 1790s marked the origin of mass electoral politics in France. According to Franklin Ford, the revolutionary-Napoleonic era was a "watershed" in European history because of major changes, including "the increased public involvement in politics." 1 Charles Tilly has discerned a shift from local to national politics during the Revolution, a process that had gone far by the middle of the nineteenth century. He calls this shift the "nationalization of politics." 2

Recently, however, the Revolution's pivotal role in integrating France's citizenry into national politics has been called into question, largely by historians of nineteenth-century France. Peter McPhee commented that the image of the French Revolution as a time of massive political mobilization sits awkwardly with the fact of low participation rates in national elections after 1789. 3 Comparing the first democratic national elections of August 1792 to the elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 1848, he asked a very important question that has been overlooked by historians: How does one explain the transformation from low electoral participation in national elections during the French Revolution to the high participation in national elections during the Second Republic? The participation rate of under 20 percent of adult males in August 1792 compares to 84 percent in April 1848. McPhee noted that participation in elections during the Revolution had not been high before 1792. The 1792 elections only continued a previous pattern of low participation, especially in national elections. He insists that the shift from low turnout during the Revolution to high electoral participation during the Second Republic represents a fundamental change in political behavior in France.

Rejecting modernization theory, McPhee disputed the explanation offered by Tilly and this author that increased political participation during the Revolution was the result of changes in the institutional framework, greater administrative centralization, and the development of communication networks and the mass media. Instead, he argued that the transformation of French electoral participation from the 1790s to 1848 was the result of greater involvement in a developing market economy. He discounted growing literacy

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