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The “masses of granite” – the new Napoleonic institutions

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The “masses of granite” – the new Napoleonic institutions
Le Premier Consul Bonaparte puis l'empereur Napoléon Ier dote la France des masses de granit
par diverses lois en l'espace d'une décennie.

The expression “Masses of Granite” (Les masses de granit) is used to describe the institutions that the First Consul Bonaparte (who later became Emperor Napoleon I) founded as he tried to strengthen the State throwing down solid foundations.

These institutions, most of which still exist today, were of fundamental importance, and each had a distinct purpose:

  • Some were State bodies: the Conseil d’État (Council of State); the Préfet (Prefect);
  • Some were economic in nature: the Germinal franc, the Bank of France; the Worker’s Record Book)
  • Some were judicial in nature (the Civil Code)
  • And others were in the social sphere (the Lycée (High School) system, the Concordat, the Légion d’honneur)

The aim of all these institutions was to ensure a stable relationship between the State and Society, and to re-establish a sense of peace and unity after the upheaval caused by the French Revolution.

The Conseil d’État – 1799

The Conseil d’État (Council of State) was created on 13 December 1799 and is still today an important institution. It was responsible for drafting proposals for laws (bills) and played a part in advising the First Consul, and later Emperor; indeed Napoleon would at times preside over the council. The Conseillers d’État (State councillors) did a great deal of work during the Consulate and the Empire, participating actively in the management of administrative reforms. The First Consul, and later Emperor, was in charge of selecting and dismissing the Conseillers d’État, of which there were between thirty and forty in office in Paris. Today there is a room in the Conseil d’État at the Palais Royal which bears the name ‘Napoleon’. It was not named in honour of its founder but rather in memory of his youngest brother, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, who would often dine there.

Discover more about the Napoleon Room on the Council of State’s website (in French)

The Bank of France – 1800  

The Bank of France was created on 18 January, and it was remarkable because the State protected shareholders (those who put their money in the bank) in the case of a crisis. The Bank had an assembly made up of the most important shareholders, but they did not all have the same voting rights. For example, a shareholder with five stocks would have just a single vote whilst another with ten stocks would be able to vote twice. Whilst the Bank did possess a certain autonomy, it was nevertheless protected by the State and occasionally acted alongside the government. Indeed Bonaparte, later Emperor Napoleon, turned to it when France was in a period of financial hardship, and when he needed to pay his soldiers.

When the Bank of France was created, Bonaparte and some members of his family became shareholders: thirty shares were bought on behalf of the First Consul.

Prefects– 1800

The office of Préfet (or Prefect) was created on 17 February 1800. Prefects were in charge of local authorities (today we would call them public services) in a particular “department” (equivalent to a county), and they were appointed and dismissed by the Head of State directly. Prefects would generally report to the Interior Minister, even though in reality they corresponded with several ministers. They had many responsibilities and were highly important figures because they acted as intermediaries between the department and the State. Prefects selected the mayors and deputy-mayors of towns with less than five thousand inhabitants, and they would guide the Emperor in making decisions regarding appointments in other towns. They helped to impose Imperial power in France. In fact, Napoleon called his prefects “little emperors”!

The Concordat – 1801

As First Consul, Bonaparte wished to re-establish religion, something that had suffered greatly during the Revolution. He began negotiations with the Vatican (the State ruled by the Pope), and this ultimately led to the signing of a concordat on 15 July 1801. Essentially, the document was a diplomatic agreement between the Papacy and the French State. Significantly the concordat did not recognise Catholicism as the religion of the State (as had been the case during the Ancien Regime – the monarchical regime that was overthrown by the French Revolution) but merely noted that Catholicism was the religion of “the majority of the French”. The Church agreed not to reclaim property that the State had obtained during the Revolution, and in return, Napoleon promised that members of the Church would receive appropriate wages. Moreover, the Pope agreed to hand over control of the Church of France to the French State. This French (as opposed to Vatican) control of the church is called “Gallicanism”.

Under the 1801 Concordat existing bishops were forced to resign, whether or not they had supported the Revolution. However, several of them refused to comply and set up a church in opposition to the Concordat, in a region of France called Angers called the “Petite Eglise” (or “Small Church”). This still exists today.

See the embroidered front cover of the Concordat on the L’Histoire par l’image website (link in French)

Lycées – 1802

Lycées were a form of educational establishment created solely for boys on 1 May 1802: Latin and Greek, mathematics, chemistry and even moral philosophy were all obligatory subjects. Each Lycée would have at least eight teachers, a Headmaster, a proctor in charge of discipline and an administrator. All these officers were appointed by the government. In 1808, just six years after being established, there were thirty-five Lycées in France.

Students wore a blue uniform with bright shiny yellow buttons engraved with the word “Lycée”. A very strict military-style disciplinary system was put in place; pupils were divided into companies, with a sergeant and four corporals. The best students would have the opportunity to be selected as a “sergeant major” for these companies.  These budding armies would regularly take to the parade ground.

The Légion d’Honneur – 1802

National honours were abolished during the French Revolution, but Napoleon decided to reintroduce them by creating the Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) on 19 May 1802. The aim was to reward the military and the civil servants for all of their efforts. The Légion d’Honneur was governed by an administrative council over which the Head of State presided. The institution had a hierarchy which spanned several ranks, beginning with Chevalier, Officier, Commandant, and finally – most prestigious of all – the Grand Officier of the Légion d’Honneur. Though there were occasional exceptions, individuals had to progress from one honour to the next – generally, it was not possible to skip a rank.

A pension called a “rente” was given to men who had been awarded an honour. On 15 August 1851, Marie-Angélique Duchemin (1772-1859) became the first woman to be decorated with the Legion of Honour. It was awarded to her by the president of the Republic, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, for her courageous fighting during the wars of the Revolution.

Take a look at one of the badges of the Légion d’Honneur

The Germinal Franc – 1803

Currency in France had been unstable since the French Revolution. France was faced with a shortage of coins, and counterfeit money was circulating. The Law of 27 March 1803 laid out regulations for a new currency called the germinal franc (the currency was named after the month in the Republican calendar during which it was created, namely “Germinal”). From then on, five grams of silver had the value of one Franc. The French felt more comfortable using their money, and counterfeit currency was removed from the circuit.

The Germinal Franc also served as effective propaganda: the coins bore the profile of the First Consul Napoleon. Later, the coins bore his profile as Napoleon I in the manner of a Roman Emperor, with the inscription “Emperor Napoleon” below it. The germinal franc was to be used until the French President Raymond Poincaré “retired” it on 25 June 1928, when he changed the basis of value from silver to gold.

Take a look at the five franc coin bearing Napoleon’s image

The Livret Ouvrier (Worker’s Record Book) – 1803-1890

Though the Worker’s Record Book was created during the reign of Louis XVI, its use did not become compulsory until 12 April 1803. It was a document that the police or municipality would provide for workers to keep a record of their career; employees had to hand it over to their boss each time they began a new job. The book acted almost as a passport and made it possible for the government to track the comings and goings of the majority of the population. If an employee did not have a record book, they would likely to be considered as a vagabond and end up in jail. The Worker’s Record Book remained a legal requirement until long after the fall of the Empire – it wasn’t abolished until 1890. The book reinforced the power that employers had over their workers; the employer could choose not to sign their employee’s book and in doing so prevent that employee from resigning. As a result, it would be impossible for the worker to find another job.

Take a look at a rare example of a Worker’s Record Book belonging to Amable Stopin  (an apprentice milliner in Paris during the First Empire).

The Civil Code – 1804

On 21 March 1804, a law enacting the Civil Code (“Code Civil” in French) was passed, and it was a testament to Napoleon’s desire to unify French law. After the Second Italian Campaign, which ended in 1800, Napoleon asked Cambacérès, the president of the Comité de Législation, to direct a commission to draw up the code. Among the most important figures involved in writing the Civil Code were Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis, Félix de Préameneu, Jacques de Maleville and François Tronchet. The Civil Code provided a unified legal framework for social relations, most notably between individuals of the same family, or from the same town. One of the most striking aspects today of the Civil Code was how it reinforced the power of the father or husband over the household; women actually lost many of the rights they had gained during the Revolution.

Nonetheless, some benefits of the Revolution were kept, such as the right to divorce, or indeed the equality of children with regards to inheritance. Other codes were put in place alongside the Civil Code, notably the Penal Code of 1810 which determined the judiciary system in France.

The Court of Auditors – 1807

The Emperor created the Court of Auditors on 16 September 1807 to keep an eye on public expenditure. Via this centralised body, Napoleon aimed to restore France’s financial credibility which had been lost during the French Revolution. The Court was also supposed to create proper financial records of public spending during the Revolutionary decade.   The institution did not have the right to examine government spending but rather was involved in the administration of its finances. The Court was divided into three chambers: the first would analyse public income; the second focused on spending; and the third looked at municipal accounts. There were three presidents, one for each chamber, and all under the orders of a ‘First’ president. All members of the Court were appointed by the Emperor. There was a five-year probation period, after which members of the court would have the job for life.


The “Masses of Granite” were designed to stabilise France after the Revolution, and they stand as testament to the excellence of the Napoleonic system. Whilst there have been developments in these institutions over time, their fundamental structure remains the same to this day, over 200 years later.

Irène Delage and Joanna Benazet, February 2016 (Translation Leyli Moridi and Peter Hicks)

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