The "French Republican identity" was born during French 3rd Republic (1870-1940), founded by political figures such as Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta.

It is indeed the 3rd French republic which built an ideology of a "one and unique" France, a search for homogeneization (in contrast with the liberal values discussed in the above paragraph) embodied in many symbols such as the National anthem, the flag, the so-called "panthéonisation", Marianne, etc., mainly transmitted through the mandatory, free and secular public schooling (law by Jules Ferry, 1881).

The same state of mind was to be applied to the management of the French colonies at the time, which we still find today with the attitude toward legal immigrants in France (and which contrasts with the attitude toward legal immigrants in the U.S. or Great Britain, cf. French "assimilationnism" vs. anglo-saxon "multiculturalism").

Question: What are the intellectual roots of this "French Republican identity" pursuit.

It seems to me these intellectual roots are figures such as Rousseau, Robespierre, Ernest Renan (figures which have therefore either socialist or nationalist romantic tendencies/obedience).

As for the possible Robespierre influence, there might be a relation with the "Republican Religion" (so-called "Culte de l'Être suprême") he imposed in 1794.

  • 2
    You are introducing a lot of very complex issues here. Your first sentence, for example, contains five words, all of which, any serious student might want from the outset to define - ritualistic, assimilationist, spiritualist, collectivist, and national-communautarist. A better place to begin, in all of this might be to attempt an answer to the question "What is republicanism?" And I wouldn't place much value on documents that purport to be "Declarations of Rights" etc. They tend to be written by politicians rather than philospohers of government.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 8:57
  • @WS2 To what I learnt, the French revolutionaries were Republicans who already debated about which form of republicanism should be advocated for (some with material-equality before political freedom, some for political freedom before material equality, etc.). And when one of those groups gained power (the Montagnards) they wrote a Constitution which gave sovereignity to the people and not to the nation.
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 9:44
  • "Art. 3. Le principe de toute Souveraineté réside essentiellement dans la Nation. Nul corps, nul individu ne peut exercer d'autorité qui n'en émane expressément." (Declaration of 1789)
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 9:44
  • 3
    Please pick one question (not several). Condense your question to two or three paragraphs of about five to ten sentences. Define every abstract term you're using, and if it isn't totally necessary for the question leave it out.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 14:45
  • 1
    @MCW Isn't it a trifle naive to suggest that questions on politics have "answers"? Discussion seems to me the essence of the way political questions are addressed.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 16:43

2 Answers 2


I will focus this answer on the last question of your post: So why did they nonetheless applied these collectivist/spiritualist/communautarist/etc. ideas through this institutionalized (as described above) "French Republican identity"?

The answer to this, besides X or Y person who promotes this organisation of the society, is to be found in the political context of the Third Republic.

First, it is important to note that until the Third Republic, no stable Republic had been established in France: The First Republic lasted 1792 to 1804 but in reality, it ended with Napoleon taking control of the Premier Consul mandate in 1799. Second Republic lasted only... 1848 to 1852 in a period of troubles, and had no time to establish itself after the monarchy before Napoleon III conquered the throne. So the Third Republic had the necessity, compared to the USA or UK that had more stable regimes, to establish itself firmly.

Second, the Third Republic came in a trouble period, just after the Second Empire, during a military defeat against Prussia and with the uprising of the Commune of Paris: a lot of events that could be somehow compared to Russia's 1917 situation: such a situation led to French people killing ferociously other French people. To have a stable Republic after that, you need to glorify values of unity instead of values that could be contested (Religion? Mainly accepted but the Commune de Paris contested it. One leader? All were contested somehow. Colonies? Seen by some people as the product of the Second Empire. The Army? Seen as a danger before and during the Third Republic, as well as a bunch of "fat generals"). No, there were no specific value on which to unify French people in 1871, so the Third Republic needed to create them from scratch*: the "Republican values", France as a nation instead of local regions, school as a tool of social ascension, and revenge on the Prussians.

To conclude, the reasons for which those values were promoted is that the Third Republic was not supposed to be a stable regime at its start, and that French history of the 19th century showed to people of that time that some values (individual glorification of an emperor, European expansion) had to be abandoned for other values (a united, nationalist country). This was the deep conviction of the new Republican leaders, whatever their political tendencies were. Of course, from today's point of view, we know that promoting these values to a climax has other drawbacks (militarism, excessive secularization).

  • When I say "from scratch", this is not the criticism. It just says that the values of regime before


Two things about this answer:

  • The way I formulate my answer, it might lead people to understand that this was some sort of "meta" politic that people of that time made. Something along the lines of: "Let's promote this and this value, because it will unite the nation, otherwise we're sucked". That is not the case. The real move during the first years of the Third Republic, was that political leaders did believe in the values they promote: they believed these values were "good" according to the morale, that they could succeed in creating a united nation, so they promoted these values.
  • About the differences between the foundation text of the "The values of the Declaration of the Rights of Man" : yes, there were in this text some values that could lead to a more individual nation, as seen in the USA. But in fact, these values were never followed in that interpretation, not even during the First Republic. Because of ideology and historical context (attacks by European monarchies), first steps of the First Republic (=the 1789 Revolution) saw vast amount of forces spent into building a united nation, in which everyone accept the Convention' decision. This is for example the war of Vendée. When the Third Republic, again, historical context played a major role: the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Prussia triggered a revenge willingness that would be justified by stating that "France was a one and united nation" and thus could not stand to loose a portion of its people and territory (Alsace-Lorraine). Again, there is a mix between pure ideology and people believing in it, and interests of people (sometimes the same) to promote the ideology.
  • Another factor was that the foundation text was written in 1789, and Third Republic appeared nearly a century after (in contrast with USA): the Third Republic had to build itself on and again contemporary challenges: proto-marxism at the Commune de Paris, antisemitism, the already important role of press....

Proto-marxism is a good example: The Commune de Paris could be considered as a "pre-communist" movement. In 1789, such ideas would have been favoured because they would be in front of a situation of aristocracy with too many privileges (or at least perceived privileges). But in 1870, they faced the bourgeoisie which was more acceptable for the "classic French". So the Third Republic bloodily destroyed the Commune de Paris, when the First Republic could have found an agreement....

  • Thank you for your exhaustive answer. “you need to glorify values of unity instead of values that could be contested”, but precisely they emphasized a kind of spiritual identity over secular, philosophical ideas (those of the French and American declarations)
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 11:03
  • It seems to me Americans are more united around these secular, philosophical ideas from their Declaration (property rights, pursuit of happiness, etc) than the French whose national unity is based upon atheist symbols (the French anthem, Marianne, the French Republican history, etc.)
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 11:09
  • Maybe I'm not correct using the word "secular", but I understand it as a synonym of "atheist". Am I correct? What I mean is that the Third Republic used secular/atheist values instead of religious one because the religious one (catholic) was contested in the 19th century by atheists (moderate or extremists such as during the Commune) and also there were some protestants believers. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 12:23
  • "Maybe I'm not correct using the word "secular", but I understand it as a synonym of "atheist". Am I correct?" Yes
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 12:30
  • 1
    @Starckman I don't know such historical traces (speeches...). They might exist or not. Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 17:25

One possible answer is that France has always, historically, been a state-prone centralized country, with a unity imposed top-down (Nora, 2010). (It doesn't go in contradiction with totalMongot's answer, both might complete each other).

It is true that the ideology of the "one and unique" France was launched by and during the 3rd Republic (1870-1940), together with its many symbols, principles and laws like the laïcité (French secularism) and the free, mandatory and secular Republican school, enacted by Center-left Republicans, founders of this Republic, such as Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta, so-called "moderate Republicans". The goal was to build a collective identity stemmed on the Revolution, and at the same time being moderate enough in order to ensure sustainability of this new Republic (after successive failures of the two previous Republics):

When the Republicans came to power at the end of the 1870s, they were faced with a dual task: on the one hand, to accentuate the conflict in order to emerge from the ambiguity and make their vision of French identity as a political collectivity born of the Revolution; on the other hand, to be a "tempered Republic" (Ferry, in Girardet, 1985, p. 250) in order to be able to establish itself over time. This ambivalence explains the internal tensions of French republicanism, particularly between heirs of the Jacobin tradition and anti-Jacobins (Furet, 1986).

(Auberot, 2011)

But it nonetheless already existed centuries before.

History of the unified France

The centralization and the cultural unification of the country as imposed by the rulers started during the Middle Ages and continued during the reign of Louis XIV (newspapers article, written by Laurence Moreau, published by "Le Point"):

Once removed, the monarchical principle has continued to permeate the relationship of the French to power to this day. The president of the Fifth Republic, even though he is elected by the people for a limited period of time, has such power that one could speak of a "republican monarchy." Centralization was not born with the Jacobins and the Terror, but was initiated by Cardinal Richelieu in the sixteenth century and then reinforced by Louis XIV. The aspiration to create a country unified by language, religion and morals did not emerge during the revolution, but as early as the Middle Ages. In the ninth century, the Strasbourg oath established the principle of "one country, one language". In the 16th century, the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts ousted Latin from the administration in favor of French and local languages. Under Louis XIV, French was already the language of power and prestige.

And indeed, the traces of a well-defined identity are already found in the historiography of the 16th century, and is backed by a true dynastic, administrative, and territorial long continuity.

From the XVIth century, at the time of the wars of Religion where the first form of a history of France is constituted, one could find all the major themes which will not leave it any more: the French exceptionality, the French antiquity, the French unity...

(Nora, 2010)

During the years 1792-1793, the 1st Republic (1792-1804) reinforced the idea of a unified country:

It is at this moment that the whole symbolism of unity is constituted. The Salut Public ("Public Salvation"), the "fatherland in danger" have for example stimulated this already well anchored legal need to guarantee the unity of the nation, this autarkic reflex of "alone against all", on which rests a lot of the national imaginary.

(Nora, 2010)

In the "Report on the necessity and the means to annihilate the patois and to universalize the use of the French language", presented at the National Convention of 4 June 1794, Henri Grégoire, member of the Comité d'Instruction Public wrote about the necessity to centralize the country culturally, through the so-called "language of freedom", French, in replacement of all the dialects (30 dialects at the time, when 0.1% of the French inhabitants spoke French):

One can standardize the language of a great nation... This undertaking, which has not been fully executed among any people, is worthy of the French people, who centralize all the branches of social organization and who must be jealous to consecrate as soon as possible, in a Republic that is one and indivisible, the unique and invariable use of the language of freedom.

This policy of cultural homogenization, which was applied to the colonies and later since the 1950s is applied to the immigrants, is done under the principle of "universality" of the Republican principles (the ones written in the 1789 Declaration and the French secularism laïcité), of which the French Republic is itself the defender and the French nation the incarnation (Streiff-Fénart, 2009).

The 2nd Republic (1848-1852) adopts as official motto in 1848, because of the Republican Socialist Louis Blanc, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", with "Fraternity" added to the principles "liberty", and "equality", since only the two latters existed in the French Declaration of 1789. The theorization of this three-part motto only appeared at the end of the Montagnard period of the Revolution, and was theorized by Robespierre.

During the 3rd Republic, the three-part motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" is adopted as an official symbol of the Republic, and on July 14, 1880 it appears on the pediments of all public institutions.

The one and unique France was reaffirmed by the establishment of the 5th Republic (1958-today), founded by De Gaulle, which by the way limited the power of the parliament and reinforced the power of the executive (the President, his/her Prime minister, and the other ministers). The first article of its Constitution (1958) makes the top-down unification of the country very clear, "indivisible" is the very first adjective modifying the word "Republic":

Article 1: France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.

An adapted way of understanding the "French Republican identity" is to perceive it as part of the larger modèle républicain ("Republican model").

Analysis of today's "Republican Model"

The "Republican Model" is made of several components: the idea of "individual-citizen", the French free, mandatory and secular school, and the laïcité (French secularism).

  • Individual-citizen

In France, the state has a direct relation with the so-called individu-citoyen ("individual-citizen") (Streiff-Fénart, 2009). This idea of "individual-citizen", a very politicized member of a society, is found in Rousseau (The Social Contract, 1762):

The citizen is an eminently political being (the city) who expresses not his individual interest but the general interest. This general interest is not limited to the sum of the particular wills but exceeds it.

It started from the French Revolution in 1789, which is key in the creation of the citoyenneté ("citizenship"):

Partly anticipated by the thinkers of the Enlightenment and then completed according to the situation, a process of revolutionary acculturation is put in place that transforms the subject into a citizen and, sometimes, into a female-citizen. (...) To be a citizen, it is necessary to participate in the life of the Nation, therefore: to vote, to pay its taxes, to fight for its defense and its security, external or internal. To these conditions of exercise will not be long to be added cultural behaviors: a language and new clothes prohibiting the old marks of social hierarchy and proclaiming the patriotism and the attachment of the citizen to the new values, the assistance to revolutionary festivals to the ritual at the same time civic and educational.

(Duprat, 2015)

Robespierre played a role in the theorization of these Republican festivals and saw as instrument for instruction (Duprat, 2013). Robespierre also defended that the education of children should be communal and forged on the model of the republic of Sparta, to which Henri Grégoire opposed (Plötner, 2003).

Today's French citizenship is defined this way by the political scientist Olivier Ihl:

The French tradition is an abstract conception of citizenship which consists in considering all citizens beyond their singularity, in the framework of a unitary state.

  • The school

The school in France is a vector of the French Republican identity, and had at the beginning a military dimension defended by Léon Gambetta, which later gradually eroded, to reappear recently in the form of the Universal National Service:

The second consequence of French laïcité, of even greater magnitude, is that the republican civil religion has established a link between the Enlightenment, reason, democracy, and education, which in the final analysis makes primary instruction the basis of the essential national identity. No country has put so much of itself into school.

(Nora, 2010)

  • Laïcité (French secularism)

As alluded in the quotation, the concept of laïcité (French secularism) is by itself a fundamental vector of the French identity.

Secularism is above all a "civil religion", the one that the republican state has constructed both as the cement of its legitimacy and of national identity. Although secularism is constitutionally defined by the principles of neutrality, separation and freedom of conscience, the sum of these principles does not account for the formidable symbolic power that underlies secularism as a civic identity.

(Chelini-Pont, 2005)


Although many of the ways today's France is unified can be traced back in the theorization and action of the rousseauist tradition and its followers (this answer mentioned the Montagnard Robespierre, and the socialist Louis Blanc), embodied in the "Fraternity" value of the Republic's official motto, it would be partial to see the actual "French Republican identity" as the sole oeuvre of rousseauism. Indeed, other actors who participated in its implementation were not rousseauists (we mentioned Henri Grégoire and De Gaulle, and center-left Republicans Ferry and Gambetta). That is not to mention the influence of Ernest Renan, of whom ideas now belong to the French right-wing nationalist tradition. Therefore, the "French Republican identity" would be better seen, as stated at the beginning of this answer, in continuation of a centuries-long history of top-down unification of the country, going beyond the succession of the political regimes and polical ideologies.

Response to comments

"Your quote on Henri Grégoire Report of 4 June 1794 completely undermines the entire thesis of this answer. That he even need to speak on the topic itself speaks to the absence of such a cultural and linguistic unity leading up to 1794."

My answer, as my question, does not talk about actual organic unity of the French people, but about the efforts to create one common unique identity.


Auberot, J. (2011). Identité nationale et laïcité en France. Revue japonaise de didactique du français, 6(2), 9-25.

Chelini-Pont, B. (2005). Laïcités française et américaine en miroir. Cahiers de la recherche sur les droits fondamentaux, (4), 107-118.

Duprat, A. (2015). Citoyenneté et régénération (1789-1794). Parlement[s], 22(3), 49-56.

Nora, P. (2010). Les avatars de l’identité française. le Débat, (2), 4-20.

Plötner (2003). De l’abbé Grégoire à la Réunion de l’Ouest, deux approches républicaines de la vulgarisation des savoirs. In Andries (ed). Le Partage des savoirs xviiie-xixe siècles (pp. 163-180). Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon

Streiff-Fénart, J. (2009). Le “modèle républicain” et ses Autres: construction et évolution des catégories de l’altérité en France. Migration Société, (2), 215-236.


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