Development of modern France was not calm

History is a study which not only tries to understand the past, but also considers how we currently exist after a lot of historical changes. How we capture such historical development impacts our understanding of the current world and its trajectory. Therefore it is very important to think about history.

Currently we live in a society where democracy is the supreme value. But how was such a society created? It is my research area, French parliamentary history, which examines this question.

A parliament is a place where laws are made and various issues in society are discussed and agreed. It is a foundation of democracy. A parliamentary system centering around the national assemblies has developed in each country in Europe in its own way. Firstly, let us briefly summarize modern French history.

The French Revolution began in 1789, and the republic was established. Universal male suffrage by direct election was introduced for the first time in the world at a national level in 1848. France pioneered democracy which led to the modern time, as you may have learned in the world history class, etc.

One of the major triggers of the French Revolution could be the assembling of the Estates-General. It was a consensual decision-making institution consisting of representatives of three classes of clergy, nobility, and commoners.

This immediately became the National Constituent Assembly. As the name shows, it implemented the constitution in 1791. In 1792, the throne was abolished and the First Republic started.

However, amid the radicalization of the revolution, the First Republic had to experience massive bloodshed. It was the famous Napoleon Bonaparte who finally put down the revolution. When he became emperor in 1804, the First Republic came to an end and the First Empire started.

The Empire proceeded by expanding territory, but in the end, it collapsed after being defeated by other countries, including the U.K. The throne was restored in 1814 and 1815. From then until the Revolution of 1848, the two final French kingships, the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, continued.

Through the Revolution of 1848, the Second Republic was established. However, when Napoleon III ascended the throne in 1852, the era shifted to the Second Empire.

This empire collapsed owing to the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After that, the Third Republic was formed. It was also called as “the golden age of parliamentarism.” However, this also came to an end in 1940 after occupation by the Nazis and the establishment of the Vichy government, which was cooperative with Germany.

In 1946, after the war, the Fourth Republic began. However, after that, amid the confusion which started from the Algerian uprising, through the coup led by Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic was established. The regime enhanced the authority of the president and continues today.

As such, French modern history is characterized by frequent replacement of regimes. This can also be seen as a history of exploring how politics should be. The way of politics does not have one form, but can be understood in various forms. Moreover, by encompassing various opinions, it can be strong but also vulnerable. We, as citizens, who are indispensable in a democratic society, should be thinking about this.

From such perspective, when we look deeper at French parliamentary history, we in our time gain various implications from it.

“Establishment of universal suffrage = achievement of democracy”?

I previously mentioned that France introduced the world’s first universal male suffrage. Does this mean that it made many people interested and participate in politics? It was not so simple.

First of all, in order to run for parliamentary member, it cost them 30 thousand francs in the currency of that time, according to one account. This corresponded to as much as 18 times the annual income of laborers.

Moreover, even if they became a parliamentary member, they did not receive any remuneration before the Third Republic, except for a short period during the Second Republic. So, it was almost impossible for the masses to aim to become a member of parliament.

In addition, even if they became electors, many people were illiterate and could not write down the name of the candidates on the voting paper.

Furthermore, many people were not familiar with elections. They did not know how to vote when they received the right to vote. Therefore, sometimes they went to local influential figures or politicians, who were familiar with politics, to ask whom they should vote for or how to spell the person’s name. Naturally the persons who were asked could tell the people to vote for them. Those people were in a situation where they could not yet be aware of, or could not genuinely express, their own political opinions.

World history textbooks, etc. just state that universal male suffrage was introduced as an achievement of the Revolution of 1848. From this, we get the impression of a happy ending as if democracy had been achieved. However, history is not that simple.

In the first place, it is important to note that females were not included in the universal suffrage at that time. In addition, although universal male suffrage was introduced, the parliamentary member candidates were limited, and the voters would vote for someone they were told to or someone they just knew. In such situation, we cannot simply think that democracy had spread.

Holding multiple mandates is also a way of democracy

In France they have a convention of holding multiple mandates concurrently, which is rarely seen in the rest of the world. For example, politicians have been allowed to work as a national parliamentary member while working as a prefectural or city assemblyman at the same time. Why is that?

Holding multiple mandates began to be seen gradually from the July Monarchy in the first half of the 19th century. One of the circumstances behind it is that the wave of industrialization reached France, and from this time the railways were laid. In other words, because it became easier to travel by rail, it became possible to assume mandates both in Paris and in the provinces.

After that, from the Second Empire to the Third Republic in the latter half of the 19th century, many parliamentary members started to hold seats in the regional assemblies at the same time. During the Third Republic, 60-70% of the parliamentary members also had a position such as regional assemblyman or mayor. Some parliamentary members held as many as four positions at the same time.

However, this only explains the physical possibility of holding multiple mandates. Some readers may think that it might go against democracy if multiple assembly seats can be assumed by one person. Indeed, we have often found such criticism since the 19th century. Still, holding multiple mandates has never been legally prohibited, with some exceptions.

In fact, in 19th century France, besides the opinion that it goes against democracy, there were those who said that, on the contrary, it was the result of democracy.

The elections at that time did not have a candidacy filing system like we have now. In other words, in theory, voters could write anyone’s name. Indeed, such votes were actually recorded on more than a few occasions.

In France at that time, there was an opinion that the free choice of the parliamentary member by voters as such is the very nature of democracy. If they establish a certain limit to prevent this holding of multiples mandates, it would create restrictions against the will of the voters. Thinking like this, holding multiple mandates is an indication of democracy.

As previously said, voters at that time were able to vote for anyone they liked. So, for example, a mayor of a town gained votes because his name is known to the town residents. As a result, just because a person was a local politician of a region, this person attracted votes from the local constituency and would be elected as a national parliamentary member.

Thus, holding multiple mandates became a tradition of France. Until the law to restrict it was implemented in 1985, it continued almost without restriction.

As you can see, the history of holding multiple mandates in France is material to get us thinking about democracy.

How democracy should be differs according to each person’s idea and opinion

As previously mentioned, democracy does not have one form. It can be understood in various ways. Depending on that, how it should be also differs. Moreover, how it should be is determined by each of us citizens.

How is our current society? The majority is absolute, and it ignores or excludes the minority. It is troublesome to argue because moving on smoothly is thought to be the first and foremost, or there is irresistible peer pressure, etc.

This might be depriving each of us of thinking, while causing a major obstacle for creating a better democratic society.

Moreover, when we are immersed in such daily events, it is difficult for us to notice an obstacle and a problem.

Suggestions from history lead us to relativize what we currently take for granted. They bring us the perspective to realize the problem and to notice that it is important for each of us to think hard about it.

I hope you will also study history from such a perspective.

* The information contained herein is current as of July 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.