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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2.6 Enlightenment, revolution and reform – the departments

Old Regime France was a confused welter of overlapping administrative, judicial and fiscal divisions and authorities (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2 The French provinces, 1789. Photo: John Paxton, Companion to the French Revolution, Facts on File, New York and Oxford, 1988. Reproduced by permission of John Paxton

There were 83 new administrative units created in January 1790 by decree of the Assembly, most of which exist to this day. They were subdivided into districts, and these in turn into cantons and communes (or municipalities).

Figure 3
Figure 3 The departments of revolutionary France, 1790. Photo: Franklin L. Ford, Europe 1780–1830, 2nd edn, Longman, Harlow, 1989. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education Limited

Exercise 6

Look at Figure 3, a map showing the departments (départements). These were the 83 new administrative units created in January 1790 by decree of the Assembly. Compare Figure 3 with Figure 2 (a map showing the 35 provinces of pre-revolutionary France). State what significant differences you notice. Give examples.


There are two main differences. First, the departments are of roughly equal size, in contrast to the haphazard former provinces, such as the Bourbonnais and Auvergne. Second, a department is usually named after a geographical feature, normally a river or mountain. For example, departments named after rivers include Gironde, Somme, Seine et Marne, Moselle, Upper and Lower Rhine (Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin). Departments named after mountains include the High, Low and Eastern Pyrenees (Hautes-Pyrénées, Basses-Pyrénées and Pyrénées Orientales), Vosges, Jura, Higher and Lower Alps (Hautes-Alpes, Basses-Alpes). The departments were established on the rational and scientific basis of equal size, and were named not after historical or traditional associations but in accordance with natural features.

Power was decentralised and allocated to elected constituencies. Administration was entrusted to officials elected by local taxpayers, to a general council in the department and to a mayor in each commune.