The Rights of Man and of the Citizen, French history.

Last evening somebody commented that it is odd the way the French regard France as “le pays des droits de l’homme” – the land of the rights of man.

Well, the French did write a very important document called “Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen” (declaration of the rights of man and of citizens) in 1789, and it is on this that they base their claim.

However, it does indeed need clarifying. What, exactly, are “the rights of man” ?

They are defined as “natural law”, that is law that is not governed or influenced by religion or authority. Their Revolution (1789-1799) was based on this. In other words :-

– the non-absolutism of the monarch
– religious tolerance
– the right to be tried by law
– the right to own property
– freedom of speech
– the right to “promotion” instead of inherited promotion
– the right to humane treatment

So, although France did indeed draw up this document, it needs to be said that most of these rights already existed in Great Britain, in Prussia,  (today’s Germany and Poland), Flanders (Belgium and Holland) and in the USA.

It also needs to be added that this “Declaration des Droits de l’Homme” was all very fine, but it did not include women, children, slaves, foreigners, servants, non-tax payers of any kind, men under the age of 25, or men who did not own land.

A quick time-line:-

1215, England: The Magna Carta. This document, drawn up under the reign of King John, reduces the monarch’s authority and entitles all “free men” (ie not serfs) to be tried by law.

1628, England: The Petition of Rights, Charles I. Religious tolerance is established. The king marries a Roman Catholic (Henrietta Maria) and also offers protection to Protestants (Huguenots) in hiding in La Rochelle

1642, England: the English Civil War. The precedent that a monarch cannot govern without Parliament is established

1689, England: the Bill of Rights under William and Mary sets out constitutional and civil rights for all (not children)

1712, Prussia: Frederick the Great rules with an enlightened absolutism (ie the king cannot make arbitrary laws), greatly supports religious tolerance and passes laws by which prisoners are to be treated humanely

1776, USA: Thomas Jefferson advocates free speech, human rights, religious freedom (ie not just religious tolerance)

1789, USA: The Bill of Rights, Madison

1789, France: the French Revolution

There is not the room here to go in to a proper discussion, and I don’t have time, though it would be fun. Meanwhile, just out of curiosity:-

votes for women:
New Zealand: 1893
Australia: 1894
Finland: 1907
Norway: 1913
UK: 1918
France: 1944
Switzerland: 1977
(ignoring various suffrage movements, the first of which was in France in 1780, and ignoring partial laws etc)
SLAVERY abolished:
UK: 1833
Spain: 1834
France: 1848
USA: 1865
(same footnote as votes for women).

My conclusion is that France is not really The Land of the Rights of Man at all, but that it did trigger an entire revolution  …. and so it has gone down in French history books as such.


Interested in France ?  Visit to book your holiday near la Rochelle, or e-mail  [email protected]


Posted on 05/06/2012 by Catherine
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