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18th century : the French Revolution

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Révolutionnaire, illustration : Hugo Crampont

In 1789, the people of France started the Révolution which abolished the privileges enjoyed by nobles and aristocrats.

The kingdom became a Republic. The people were no longer the king’s subjects. They wanted to be treated as citizens.

Indeed, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen founded the basic principles of the Republic and outlined the "Constitution", the big book defining a citizen’s rights and duties.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is an ideal in three words and the motto of France. It can be seen engraved on the façade of public buildings or printed on French postage stamps.

The Constitution states that France is a Republic, one indivisible nation, even though its land is divided into "départements" . The “Prefect” represents the State and is responsible for implementing the decisions made in Paris.

After the Revolution, state education had to be secular and thus independent from the church. So gradually, as well as their regional languages, the French had to speak French, the language of the Republic: it was made compulsory in school and in the army.

Napoléon , who became Emperor in 1804, was the country’s great organiser. He modernized the administrative and legal systems and famously created the Civil Code, the Bank of France, the universities, the schools...

The Revolutionary metric system!

Although the decimal metric system is now used almost universally, before the Revolution each region in France had its own system of measurement for everything from the weight of apples to the length of a piece of cloth.

Assiette, Bicenteanire de la Révolution - Photo : G. BrameThe old systems were based on common sense: men used their bodies as a measurement: foot, thumb... (the French for thumb, “pouce”, also means an inch). They also used everyday items such as a basket, but the problem was that all baskets weren’t the same size!

The increase in trade and other exchanges with neighbouring French départements and then with other countries made a common system of measurement essential. So the Republicans adopted a single system of weights and measures which became compulsory in 1840. The French, stuck in their old ways, took over 50 years to get used to the new system.

Today the decimal metric system (length, area, volume, weight...) is used by most countries in the world. Thus, all scientists, from NASA downwards, use the same system of measurement.

Since the United Kingdom joined Europe in 1973, the British inch and foot have had to be converted into centimetres in order for us to participate in the single market. The mile and the pound weight also have to conform to European law.

The baguette : the bread of equality

It’s hard to believe but it’s true: on November 15th 1793 (26 Brumaire Year II on the Revolutionary calendar) the government decreed that everyone in France should eat the same bread.

Fête du pain, Paris, mai 2009 - Photo : G. Brame

It was up to bakers to bake this bread of equality. No longer would white bread be for the rich and bran bread for the poor. In 1856, Louis-Napoleon in turn attempted to regulate the size and weight of bread.

It was after the Second World War that every French baker began to make baguettes. Today, depending on the region, the baguette is called flûte, petite.... It is about 70cm long and weighs around 250g.


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