Active and passive citizens

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In France

Citizenship during the French Revolution

During the French Revolution, a distinction was made for a time between active and passive citizens. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly was chosen by a process of indirect election; the Electors of the Assembly were themselves elected by "active" citizens, male citizens whose annual taxes equalled the local wages paid for three days of labour. This disfranchised about half of the male citizens of France. Even higher economic requirements for the Electors and the members of the Assembly left only about 50,000 eligible men in a country of some 25 million people.


Slavery, throughout the Revolution, remained common in the colonies. The abolition of slavery in the colonies would have affected planters who were represented in the assemblies by deputies, particularly the Lameths. The coloured free saw that their rights were being taken from them and finally on this date in 1791 the assembly decided to withdraw their civil rights. However after the Haitian Revolution[dubious ] and new freedom of blacks in French colonies, in 1794 radical Jacobins reinstated the rights of blacks. Furthermore slavery was abolished in all French colonies, and free blacks of those colonies were made electable to the French government as colonial representatives.[1] Along with this the rights for free association for workers and the right to strike were also taken away. After a series of strikes on June 14, 1791 in workshops located in Paris, the Loi Le Chapelier was passed. The intention was to establish a free labour market by forbidding associations by workers and also the formation of trade unions.

Voting Rights

It remained that all had the right to contribute towards the making of the laws, but on December 22, 1789 voting rights only extended to property owners. This reflected a belief that only those who had a stake in decisions made for society as a whole and those who had shown they could manage their own affairs should be eligible for political involvement. Three categories were created to divide the citizens of France: Passive Citizens, Active Citizens, and the Electors. The only members of society that could vote were the members that paid a certain amount of taxes.

Passive Citizens

Passive Citizens were those who had no property rights or voting rights. They were entitled to protection by law with relation to their belongings and their liberty, but had no say in the making of government bodies. This group totalled around three million men within France.The constitution of 1791 reduced the women of France to passive citizens.

Active Citizens

Active Citizens numbered around four million men. They were literate adults who could use reason. They needed to speak French and have been a resident for more than one year. They had a stake in the government bodies. They paid taxes equal to about three days work a year, a sum of about 1 ½ and 3 livres. These men met in primary assemblies (assemblees primaires) to nominate electors and members of the councils in their municipalities. Active citizens (and their sons over the age of 18) were also, in that period, the basis for the French National Guard, the military bastion of the middle class.


Roughly one in every hundred active citizens became electors. Electors paid taxes equal to 10 days work a year: typically 5 to 10 livres. There were about 50,000 electors in France at the time. These electors also met in assemblies where they nominated deputies, judges, and member of other departments.

System of Elections

This new system of elections and electoral rights managed to remove common people from political involvement. The laws were applied to all equally, with the idea that everyone had passive citizenship rights. There was no expectation that passive citizens would become active citizens. Because of the belief that women could not use reason to deliberate, active citizens could only be men.

Vincent Ogé argued that coloured people or "gens de couleur" owned properties and should be considered for active citizenship. Unfortunately, the assembly felt that this would disrupt their trade overseas and they could not do anything that would hinder that trade.

Passive citizens could be aware of political arena by reading newspapers and even by attending political meetings. Political groups and clubs arose as the Revolution progressed. These groups began to hold organized demonstrations and circulated petitions. Newspapers of the time had a lot of political influence.

The Constitutional committee felt that qualification by property ownership would result in passive citizens competing to become active citizens. They felt that the passive citizens would fight with more eagerness to become rich in hopes of owning property and becoming active citizens and maybe even electors.

This system of representation by the amount of taxes paid left society in the hands of the rich. Camille Desmoulins said it best, “ […] but what on earth is meant by this expression ‘active citizens’ which we hear repeated so often? Active citizens are the men who stormed the Bastille, those who work the land, whereas the idle members of the Court and the clergy, despite the vast estates which they own, are nothing more than vegetables, vegetables like that tree in scripture which bore no fruit and which was therefore condemned to be thrown into the fire and burned.”

In modern usage

In the 20th and 21st century debates on illegal immigration, "passive citizenship" refers to the limited rights enjoyed by non-citizens in another country of current residence: they cannot meaningfully state. Furthermore, it also refers to the lack of participation of registered citizens in the benefitting of their native state's people.

Additional reading

  1. Mcphee, Peter (2002). The French Revolution;; 1789-1799. Oxford: Oxford University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Soboul - The French Revolution 1787-1799 Brown - Cultures in Conflict - The French Revolution