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The New Regime: Transformation of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s.

In his latest work Isser Woloch argues that the French Revolution laid the groundwork for a new civic order that provided a long-lasting foundation for French public life (15). Woloch defines this civic order as "the values, policies, and institutions at the juncture of state and civil society - the framework, in other words, for the collective public life of the French people" (14). Working from sources in the National Archives, the author draws his evidence from extensive, and largely untapped, government documents. While he recognizes that such an approach privileges the "official mind," Woloch's reading of the sources implies nonetheless that policy-making was an interactive process (17).

The author evokes this new order by focusing on various issues of policy and administration. He moves from a discussion of rural administration, to treatment of organization in electoral politics, and on through road repair, primary education, and public assistance. He considers various aspects of the judicial system and finishes with a discussion of conscription. While this study by no means constitutes an exhaustive survey, it does provide a wide sampling of areas in which government and people came regularly and repeatedly into contact, and, as the author demonstrates, into conflict.

Woloch captures the combined sense of wonder and bewilderment that all those who participated in the Revolution must have felt. Establishing the new regime was not without problems as repeated political upheaval and a shaky economic situation resulted in policy shifts that confused and disaffected the population. To his analysis of these difficulties, Woloch adds the compelling argument that the commitment of the various revolutionary governments to certain principles - in particular, the supremacy of law and the consent of the people - undermined their attempts to create a strong, centralized state.

Whether discussing the way in which rural mayors were able to forestall policy changes by withholding the consent of their communes or how juries were able to soften the effects of a relatively severe penal code by considering extenuating circumstances, Woloch demonstrates repeatedly the power that the French people had in affecting policy. And in most instances, governmental authorities would not impose their policies if it meant violating the principles of the revolution.

The one exception, conscription, proves the general rule. It was only Napoleon's willingness in this matter to depart from legality, through a combined use of armed force and heavy fines, that made conscription a cornerstone of the new civic order, something "as routine as Easter communion, the harvest festival, and taxes."

As Woloch suggests, establishing the new regime was a process that would involve much time and negotiation. In this sense, The New Regime complements Eugene Weber's argument that only in the Third Republic would peasants truly become Frenchmen. Yet, as Woloch demonstrates, the groundwork for that transformation was laid during the Revolution. His research opens up an avenue for future scholars to investigate the local perspective, a tantalizing project given the indications already present in The New Regime.

Victoria Thompson Xavier University

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Author:Thompson, Victoria
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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