With an impending constitutional republic, the National Assembly of revolutionary France was charged with determining which minorities were entitled to equal rights. Some minorities had a significantly more difficult time than others. One area of particular debate was religion.
Should these religious minorities, many of whom were unable to freely worship in pre-revolutionary France, be permitted full citizenship?
Initially Protestants were denied equal rights and freedom to worship as they saw fit. Prior to France’s Revolution, each province of France had been ruled differently, with one similarity. Wherever one went, Protestants were discriminated against.
This discrimination extended to elections and public posts, effectively making Protestants a second class citizen. It’s important to remember that Protestant inequality was not from a formal constitution, but rather from a monarchical decree. Protestant’s experience with legal rights boiled down to a cycle of gaining rights through different edicts, to ultimately losing said rights, to regaining rights again from the National Assembly.
A strong argument for extending legal rights to Protestants was that, unlike Jews, practitioners of Protestant faiths were still French. The individual still spoke French and adhered to the same social customs as other French natives. Additionally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen sought to provide liberty to all men, not exclusively Catholics.
Pierre Brunet de Latuque, a lawyer from the Bordeaux region of France, argued strongly in favor of incorporating rights for Protestants. Brunet challenged, “If private interests were not constantly distorting the sovereign principles of justice, those who seek by such criminal grounds to exclude Protestants from public positions would better enter, Sirs, into the spirit and even the text of your decrees…” Brunet continued to state that following prior decrees to the letter would severely hinder France as many qualified men were Protestant.
Separate from other Protestants, Calvinists faced unique challenges on their road to equality. Calvinists first gained the right to worship freely with the Edict of Nantes. King Henry IV issued the Edict as an end to the war of religion between Catholics and Calvinists in 1598. This freedom lasted only until 1685 when Louis XIV initiated a campaign to convert all Calvinists. After 100 years of their worship being illegal, Calvinists found reprieve in 1787 through Louis XVI’s Edict of Toleration.
While Calvinists experienced a victory with the Edict of Toleration, no political rights were granted. Furthermore, years of economic dominance in the textile industry led many French citizens to be critical of Calvinists. Yet if the Declaration of the Rights of Man and citizens were truly the inspiration for change, then Calvinists were due rights. Count de Clermont Tonnerre gave an impassioned speech in 1789 in defense of incorporating Calvinists (and all Protestants) into political equality. The argument stated, “either you admit a national religion, subject all your laws to it, arm it with temporal power, exclude from your society the men who profess another creed and then, erase the article in your declaration of rights; or you permit everyone to have his own religious opinion and do not exclude from public office those who make use of this permission.”
The Jewish question in France lasted until 1791; it was then that Jews were able to celebrate freedoms guaranteed under a new constitution. Discussions surrounding what to do with the Jewish population had persisted as remarks concerning non-Catholics did not apply to Jews, but were strictly applied to Protestants. Struggles faced by Jews prior to 1791 were countless as the French populace sought to virtually exclude Jews from society.
Having already lived for hundreds of years as a persecuted group, the Jews in pre-revolution France were restricted from holding respectable labor positions, buying land or property, or even living among the regular population. This created a self perpetuating issue; the lack of labor opportunities forced the Jewish people to rely on usury (money lending) as a means of providing for themselves. Usury practices caused disdain towards the Jews. Just as with the Protestant struggle for rights, Jews faced a battle against a Catholic majority that, for the most part, did not want Jews at all.
Unlike the Protestant (and Calvinist) minorities, the Jewish people were not viewed as French. Judaism provided its own rules, customs, and even language that many Jews were loyal to. The common belief stated Jews attempted to be a separate people, therefore the French constitution should allow them to be separate people. Count de Clermont Tonnerre again made a case in defense of the persecuted minority. According to the Count, Jews should be treated as individuals and not as a community; naturally, each individual was due the same rights as any other free man in France.
Hunt, Lynn, ed. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.