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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 371-373
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Contending with the Droit d'Aubaine :
Foreign Citizens in France before 1819
As the French rethink their theories of citizenship and nationality, as well as their republican values, under the pressure of recent waves of immigration and the so-called affaire dufoulard, Michael Rapport's and Peter Sahlins' analyses of the treatment of foreigners in the early modern period seem particularly timely. In the light of resurgent xenophobia, these books allow us to ponder the critical roles that foreigners have played—wittingly or not—in the history of the French nation. Rapport describes their active contributions to the revolutionary state between 1789 and 1799, while Sahlins argues that one of the fundamental fiscal policies regulating the rights of foreigners in France, the droit d'aubaine, allowed the absolutist monarchy to represent and reaffirm its sovereignty over a kingdom that otherwise lacked a uniform and unifying jurisprudence.
In Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France, Michael Rapport gives a meticulous and well-documented account of the treatment of foreigners (mainly in Paris) during the revolutionary period. Responding to the "revisionist" approach of historians such as François Furet, Lynn Hunt and Sophie Wahnich, Rapport purposefully moves away from their analyses of revolutionary culture and language to investigate the ways in which the cosmopolitanism of the Constituent Assembly and the subsequent xenophobia of the Convention and the Directory were played out in practice. As he studies "how foreigners actually fared, as opposed to their treatment in revolutionary rhetoric" (14), he reveals important gaps between this empirical data and both the cosmopolitan and the nationalistic dimensions of revolutionary ideology: both, in fact, were curtailed or superseded by a pragmatic understanding of the nation's most urgent interests.
Chapter one offers a valuable summary of the treatment of foreigners under the Ancien Régime, when individuals' utility to the state was frequently of greater significance than their place of birth. Theoretically, by law, all foreigners were subject to the droit d'aubaine: they were unable to inherit or bequeath property in the kingdom. Moreover, they could not hold office or religious benefices; they had to post bond before trial; were subjected to bodily restraint and suffered from special taxes and other commercial and financial restrictions. In practice, however, diplomatically useful, highly skilled or otherwise desirable individuals [End Page 371] received special concessions that allowed them to skirt the incapacities in question. In many ways their condition was not too different from that of other French "naturals," whose status also depended to a great extent on individual forms of privilege.
Four more chapters and an epilogue on the Napoleonic regime trace with great care the history of the revolutionary period. Although placed within a somewhat repetitive temporal and thematic framework, these pages are clearly structured and easily readable. Rapport catches his public's attention as he quotes gripping anecdotes from the lives or deaths of foreigners such as Thomas Paine and Anacharsis Cloots. More important, the book systematically maps changes and continuities in the treatment of foreign soldiers, clergymen, ambassadors, political exiles, radical thinkers, artists, students, merchants, manufacturers, financiers and—to a lesser extent—poor migrants between 1789 and 1799. For all these men and women, nationality became a more important issue over the course of this ten-year period since surveillance laws were implemented upon the outbreak of war and in response to the numerous domestic crises. Similar measures of control had been passed in the past, but according to Rapport the intensity with which this revolutionary legislation was enforced was altogether new.
Still, as under the Ancien Régime, the distinction between citizens and foreigners was not always as meaningful as it seemed on paper; for many it was...