How did the government policies of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era shape French national identity?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The French Revolution began the establishment of social and economic rights for all citizens, affording them voice and some control over their political destinies. The Napoleonic Era established the Civil Code, the first modern legal code. This was a code that influenced many European countries.

Prior to the Revolution of 1789, there were three estates in France:

  • The First Estate - The clergy
  • The Second Estate - The nobility
  • The Third Estate - All other French citizens, which was composed of the middle class (otherwise known as the bourgeoisie, which included¬†bankers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and professors), the peasants who worked on the lands of the nobility, and the city workers. Only the Third Estate paid taxes.

Here are three ways that the French Revolution and Napoleonic Era shaped the national identity of France:

1. The establishment of democratic policies.

The government that was formed did not adhere strictly to the French Revolution's ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity; rather, all citizens began to have some control over their individual political destinies. People began to be afforded equal representation and they possessed social and economic rights, rights that are the foundations of democracies.

2. The introduction of secularism

Secularism was instituted into the government. Before the Revolution, the clergy of the Catholic Church wielded great power and influence. Religious rule was eliminated after the Revolution. Thus, public and political decisions were no longer influenced by religious beliefs.

3. The institution of the Napoleonic Code 

During the Napoleonic era, the Napoleonic Code was established, which introduced an organized legal system into the government -- a system the Revolution had not provided. The Napoleonic Code provided the French government with its first orderly and consistent set of laws that covered colonial affairs, the family, property, and the rights of the individual. This code prohibited judges from making decisions independent of any clearly defined system. It also affected other areas:

It codified several branches of law, including commercial and criminal law, and divided civil law into categories of property and family. The Napoleonic Code made the authority of men over their families stronger, deprived women of any individual rights, and reduced the rights of illegitimate children (https://www.boundless. com/world-history/concepts/the-napoleonic-code-0-17755/).

In short, the Napoleonic Code replaced the many fragmented laws of pre-revolutionary France that were not reformed, and it recognized the principles of civil liberty for some along with the non-religious character of the state.

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