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Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, (French: La Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du citoyen), is one of the fundamental documents of the French Revolution, defining a set of individual rights (and collective rights of the people vis a vis the state). It was adopted August 26, 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée Nationale Constituante), as the first step toward writing a constitution.

The principles set in the Declaration is of constitutional value and may be used to oppose legislation or other government activities.

Unlike the earlier U.S. Declaration of Independence, it is intended to be of universal value. It does not only set forth fundamental rights of the French citizens but acknowledges these rights to all men without exception:

"First Article – Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common utility."


Adoption of the Declaration

At the time the Declaration was drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette and was adopted by the National Assembly, it was intended as part of a transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Many of the principles laid in the declaration directly oppose the institutions and usages of the ancien régime of pre-revolutionary France. In the event, France soon became a Republic, but this document remained fundamental.

The principles set forth in the declaration come from the philosophical and political principles of the Age of Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by le Baron de Montesquieu. It may have also been based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights developed by George Mason and on the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Substance of the Declaration

This statement of principles contained the kernel of a much more radical re-ordering of society than had yet taken place. A mere six weeks after the storming of the Bastille and barely three weeks after the abolition of feudalism, the Declaration put forward a doctrine of popular sovereignty and equal opportunity:

"Article III – The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it."

This contrasts with the pre-revolutionary situation, where the political doctrine of the monarchy was the divine right of kings.

(From Article VI) – "All the citizens, being equal in [the eyes of the law], are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents."

Again, this strikingly contrasts with the pre-revolutionary division of society in three estates (the Roman Catholic church, the nobility, and the rest of the population, known as the Third Estate), where the first two estates had special rights. Specifically, it contradicts the idea of people being born into a nobility or other special class of the population, and enjoying (or being deprived of) special rights for this reason.

All citizens are to be guaranteed the rights of "liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression". The Declaration argues that the need for law derives from the fact that "...the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights". Thus, the declaration sees law as an "expression of the general will", intended to promote this equality of rights and to forbid "only actions harmful to the society".

The Declaration also put forward several provisions similar to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, which date from the same year. Like the U.S. Constitution, it discusses the need to provide for the common defense and states some broad principles about taxation, especially equality before taxation (a striking difference from the pre-revolutionary era, when the Roman Catholic Church and the nobility were exempted from most taxes). It also specifies a public right to an accounting from public agents as to how they have discharged the public trust. Like the U.S. Bill of Rights, it provides against ex post facto application of criminal law and puts forward such principles as presumption of innocence, freedom of speech and of the press, and a slightly weaker guarantee of freedom of religion — "provided that [...the] manifestation [...of their religious opinions] does not trouble the public order established by the law". It asserts the rights of property, while reserving a public right of eminent domain:

"Article XVII - Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage, if it is not when the public necessity, legally noted, evidently requires it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity [i.e., compensation]."

Effect today

According to the preamble of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic (adopted on October 4 1958, and the current constitutions as of 2004), the principles set forth in the Declaration have constitutional value. Many laws and regulations have been cancelled because they did not comply with those principles as interpreted by the Constitutional Council of France or the Conseil d'État ("Council of State").

Many of the principles in the 1789 declaration have far-reaching implications nowadays:

  • Taxation legislation or practices that seem to make some unwarranted difference between citizens are struck down as anticonstitutional.
  • Suggestions of positive discrimination on ethnic grounds are rejected because they infringe on the principle of equality, since they would establish categories of people that would, by birth, enjoy greater rights.
  • The government was prohibited from putting legal hurdles on the formation of associations (nonprofit organizations), because freedom of assembly is seen as a basic right.

See also

Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13