Origins of Nationalism in France

In terms of the origins of national identity in France it is agreed that the French Revolution was the single most important period of radical social and political upheaval and was henceforth a catalyst for the spread of nationalism in France aswell as throughout the rest of Europe. Despite the fact the French Revolution occurred over 200 years ago, in present day France, there remain various symbols of the revolution which have become deeply embedded in the national identity of the country.One of which being the tricolore flag which was created to oppose the flag of the King, which itself was a symbol of the Ancient Regime. Pre-revolutionary France was characterised by a social structure based on class and tradition, but more importantly, it was based on inequalities which were sanctioned by the force of law.

The Ancient regime in France had been based on the division of society into legal categories. Membership of the first and second estates (clergy and nobility) conferred legal and social entitlements that were not available to the Third Estate.The idea of Absolutism meant that the Monarchy was entitled to expect the obedience of the people on the grounds that the King was the agent of God’s purpose. The French Revolution was the turning point in modern history. It was the first manifestation of nationalism in the Western world; it abolished the ancient regime and thus the absolute monarchy, giving birth to the French nation in a sudden burst of enthusiasm. In 1790 all the communities of France erected an altar to the fatherland with the inscription: “The citizen is born, lives and dies for the fatherland. The revolution began a new age in French political life, the old political order in France was destroyed and replaced by a new order that was based on individual rights, representative institutions and loyalty to the nation as opposed to the Monarch.

This new era fostered new political ideals summarised in the French slogan; ‘Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite which is still to this day a symbol of French nationalism. One of the key events in the development of nationalism in France which arose with the French Revolution was ‘The declaration of the rights of man of the citizen’ in 1789.This fundamental document harboured fervour that France belonged to its people, not Louis XVI and defined the individual and collective rights of all the estates of the realm as universal. It created shared values such as liberty, property, security, resistance to oppression and civil equality which bought the French people together as nation. Napoleon Bonaparte also had a significant role in creating a national identity in France. He was considered by some to be the ‘preserver of the French Revolution’ as he introduced the Napoleonic Code which attempted to unite the country by making everyone equal before the law.It spread the ideals of the revolution including legal equality and economic freedom and therefore a sentiment of nationalism through France and the rest of Europe.

However, often the nationalism that developed in reaction to Napoleon took one of two tracks. In some cases, it was a conservative nationalism, a desire to go back to the old ways that prevailed before Napoleon took over and started making reforms. On the other hand, there was liberal nationalism. Napoleon continued to spread some of the fruits of the French Revolution but some people wanted more: they wanted true self-government.As a result of the French Revolution and Napoleon, French people started taking great pride in the history, language, culture and religion of their country which helped create a strong French national identity. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum, to display the nation’s masterpieces. Napoleon inspired national pride by reopening the Louvre in 1801 and bringing hundreds of famous paintings and other works of art to the nation’s attention.

The French nation-state unified the French people in particular through the consolidation of the use of the French language. The French language has been essential to the concept of ‘France’ even though in 1789 only 50% of French people spoke it. Conscription, invented by Napoleon mixed the various groups of France into a nationalist mould which created the French citizen and his consciousness of membership to a common nation, while the various “patois” were progressively eradicated.Secularism in France is a fundament of the French nation. It is important when considering the national identity of France as it stems from the sense of ‘religious freedom’ which was a principle laid down by the French Revolution. It also emphasises the fact that the Republic has always recognised individuals, rather than groups and that a French citizen owes allegiance to the nation, and has no officially sanctioned ethnic or religious identity.

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