The France of 1799 was totally different from that of 1789. In just a decade, the Revolution had created a completely new state. From an absolutist monarchy it had passed to a republic. There were no longer subjects, but citizens. Society, previously led by aristocracy and clergy, now had its main engine in the bourgeoisie. So unrecognizable was the nation and so original was the way in which it had organized that it had to go back to classical Rome to name its new institutions: Senate, Consulate, Tribunate, Prefecture …
Laws and the economy, art and science, education, the army, the role of the Church, territorial administration … all aspects of the state had changed compared to the Old Regime. And, inevitably, the model of this comprehensive renewal was taken as an example in those other latitudes where the sovereignty of the people in collective affairs, political freedom and equality before the law was also pursued. France was opening after the revolutionary gale and the world watched her fascinated.
The hour of the bourgeoisie
The establishment of the republican regime in 1792 had abolished the caste privileges prevailing since the Middle Ages. With the fall of the maximum exponent of this feudal structure, the king, arbitrary rights disappeared, such as the overwhelming political weight of the nobles over the rest of the population. Tithes, that part of the harvest that was destined as a tribute to the Church or the Crown, were also abolished, and the primacy of the eldest sons in the inheritance of the properties was eliminated.
The great beneficiaries of these changes were those who had caused them, the bourgeois. In practice, the improvement in their situation manifested itself in a class-favorable redistribution of political power and private property. Possession of property, free of seigniorial conditions, made any economically independent Frenchman a voter and a possible member of the state government: a citizen.
The fraternal ideology of the Revolution was felt in full force in the treatment of people by the law.
The same egalitarian concept was introduced into the tax machinery. After the Revolution, the tax system was governed by equitable contributions from citizens, proportional to their income. The new economic order, fruit of the concept of a participative nation, was reflected in an institution founded by Napoleon: the Bank of France. Still today it embodies the French state in monetary, credit and public treasury matters.
Heaven, earth and man
The Revolution also rethought the competences of the Church and the State, in the past intertwined. For a time it separated the latter from religion, on the basis of the freedoms of worship, conscience and expression. Proof of this new approach was the civil rights that were granted to Protestants and Jews, previously marginalized. Or, after the concordat signed by Napoleon, the equal treatment established between Paris and the Holy See.
In the administrative field, already in 1790 the territory had been reordered in a hundred departments that swept the old division into lordships. The departments were governed by a general council and a president, two titles of republican resonance. In the Napoleonic era – or of revolutionary consolidation – they added a prefect to their organization chart. He was a delegate of the central government, which in this way united the bureaucratic fabric of the country, radial and with an axis in the capital. Present-day France maintains this provision.
How could it be otherwise, the fraternal ideology of the Revolution was felt in full force in the treatment of people by the law. Equality before justice, the presumption of innocence, the attendance of a lawyer in the courts or the right of habeas corpus (of individual freedom and protection against arbitrary arrests) were evident manifestations of the profound transformation experienced by the state in issues procedural.
The echoes of the Revolution fostered liberal platforms that, at one time or another in the 19th century, expressed their demands.
Symbols were important. The signs of the past era had to be erased from the collective unconscious. The tricolor flag that added the red and blue of the Parisian coat of arms to the white of the Bourbons had been adopted, and La Marseillaise had been given the character of a national anthem. The same year of the composition, since the king was not valid as a figure with which to represent the state born of the Revolution, the country was incarnated in Marianne, a healthy-looking girl wearing a Phrygian cap. He was the personification of the French Republic.
On the other hand, the Gallic experiment had a notable influence on other countries. He did it through war, with the Napoleonic conquests, or as a model to be followed by those peoples who wanted to shake off a crown or become independent from a metropolis. The European bourgeoisie took good note of the progress made in France. The Spanish colonies in America also learned the lesson.
Somehow, the cycle started in France in 1789 continued to be projected in the 20th century with the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 or the Mexican one of Zapata and Pancho Villa. And the Bastille trail continues until today, when modern democracies recognize themselves as daughters, or at least granddaughters, of the French Revolution. The same is true of some recent indigenista demands and of all demands for self-determination and social justice.
Even the international concert that the UN embodies can be considered indebted to the ideology of freedom, equality and fraternity. The Declaration of the Rights of Man adopted in 1948 had a valuable draft in that of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Not surprisingly, historiography marks the revolutionary cycle as a division between Modern and Contemporary Age, between that of absolutism and that of the equality.