French Elections, 1789-1848

As France's voters prepare to elect a new legislative assembly this month, Malcolm Crook reflects on the apprenticeship of democracy in the first half-century after the Revolution.

When the French people go to the polls this month, to elect a new Legislative Assembly, they will be participating in an electoral ritual that has endured for over 200 years. To be sure, not all adult males had the opportunity to vote before 1848 and women had to wait until 1944 before they were awarded the suffrage. Yet France was the first country in Europe to stage a democratic experiment, by offering the franchise to a majority of adult males during the 1790s. Britain, despite its longstanding parliamentary tradition, was much slower off the mark. Even in the American Republic some states maintained substantial restrictions on the suffrage until the late nineteenth century, besides withholding the vote from slaves. The French elections of 1993, which coincide with the bicentenary of the first republican constitution in 1793, thus present an excellent vantage-point from which to review the French apprenticeship in democracy from 1789 to 1848.

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