Before we go any further, let's stop and take a look at...
The New Class System
Social class played an important part in shaping French history, and thus should not be overlooked. Beside its functional aspect, it also had a
profound impact on national identity, as will be shown thereafter. First, let's take a quick glance at the Ancien Régime. Although by then no longer
feudal, the kingdom of France under Louis XVI was still a vintage monarchy, highly bureaucratic and hierarchical in nature, with complex systems of
privileges and prerogatives and so on. Underlying all this were three divisions of the realm, or Estates, as recognized by law, which constituted
broad social classes :
1) First Estate - The clergy, religious leaders and personnel of all ranks.
2) Second Estate - The nobility, aristocrats of birth or office.
3) Third Estate - The commoners, i.e. those who didn't belong to the previous two estates.
As you can see, the determining factors here were occupation and title (or lack thereof). This system involved deep-seated inequalities. For example,
the Third Estate bore the brunt of taxation; the First and Second were exempted, and collected from the Third themselves. In theory they had a voice
in the legislative assembly, but in practice the other Estates vetoed any change they tried to pass. However, with the advent of Enlightenment, they
grew increasingly conscious of those injustices, and intellectual elements called for reform.
Moreover, a shift of perception occured. Representing the vast majority of the population (more than 95%), and being the main actors of industry and
production in French society, the Third Estate came to be viewed as more than just a social order among others, but as French society itself, the
legitimate people of France, the French nation
. This is in effect the birth of French nationalism as we know it. As the Abbé Sieyès said in
his 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate?
: "The Third Estate embraces then all that which belongs to the nation; and all that which is not
the Third Estate, cannot be regarded as being of the nation." (by the way, I highly suggest you read this pamphlet if you haven't done so already, it
explains this ideology much better than I ever could with my own limited vocabulary).
Therefore, if the Third Estate is the nation, then this makes the First and Second Estates totally alien to the nation, and defines them more or less
as parasites who exploit France and suck its blood. In this new perspective, the Estates were anathema to republican ideals, and could not be
tolerated; they were abolished at the very onset of the French Revolution. Thus died the old class system. Indeed, the Declaration of the Rights of
Man and of the Citizen
stated that all men are equal in rights...but it did leave space for social distinction founded on public usefulness. A
This apparently didn't fall on deaf ears, because the committee charged with drafting the constitution established a clear distinction between active
citizens, who deserved political rights, and passive citizens, who should only have civil rights. The distribution of rights thus depended on certain
merits. And though these concepts met opposition, they proved very persistent and became staples of First Republic. This period saw the birth of new
social divisions :
1) Electors – Citizens who paid annual taxes equal to 10 days work a year, and could meet in electoral assemblies to nominate officials.
2) Active citizens – Citizens who paid annual taxes equal to 3 days work a year, and could meet in primary assemblies to nominate electors.
3) Passive citizens – Citizens who didn't meet the above requirements, and had no property or voting rights.
Quite pyramidal, isn't it? Additionally, active citizens needed to be adult, male, literate, francophone, and to have been a resident of France for
more than one year. This left about 4 million active citizens out of a population of some 25 million, and only 50,000 men eligible to be electors (by
comparison, today all regular adult citizens would be electors). The official rationale behind this division, as far as I can tell, is that they
wanted political issues to fall into the hands of educated individuals, reasonable and well-informed about the matters of the state, who could make
enlightened decisions. It also served the common good, promoting education and combating ignorance (identified as a great evil in the
) by effectively combating the ignorants. In short, elitism for a good cause. Almost cute.
Now, as I said before, this measure didn't go unopposed. To their credit, some revolutionaries reviled this distinction (as illustrated by the picture
above my post) since it just led to further inequalities and had the nerve to call "passive citizens" the men who worked straining manual labor. Also,
understand that I'm not blaming the French Revolution for being imperfect. It was their first attempt at a republic, mishaps were bound to happen and
old habits die hard. You cannot expect such inequalities to go poof overnight, it is understandable. No, my main beef with this system, and what gets
my conspiracy juices running, is not the social injustice, but rather the ridiculous cover-up story. My main beef is the dishonesty.
I immediatly call bull on the whole "informed citizen" rationale. That's a poor excuse if I ever saw one. If that was their objective, they could have
easily done so through information campaigns and media, without stripping anyone of his fundamental rights. Even back then, it was no secret that
education was mostly a matter of being born in the right place. No, the real and single determining factor here was money
. It was the root of
the system and its only concern. It was a hierarchy built on money. They didn't care one iota about how well you memorized your Rousseau, or if your
library featured Gargantua et Pantagruel
or whatever ; what they did care about was your weekly income and your bank account. This system was
the work of a group of individuals, namely the bourgeoisie, trying to carve themselves up a nice little niche of privileges and exclusive rights, and
worse of all, doing so in the name of reason and progress. It was the result of ideals twisted beyond recognition, and words abused by malicious
edit on 4-2-2014 by Cathcart because: (no reason given)
edit on 4-2-2014 by Cathcart because: (no reason given)