According to Otto Dann, from antiquity, nation, in the old Latin sense, meant a people of the same origin. The most common criteria for a nation were a shared language and history;1 a “people” generally shared a background and ideals. From this emerged the leading social groups, which expressed the characteristics of the nation. Most clearly a new sense of national identity, or national consciousness, evolved and created the ideal basis for a nation-state.2 In the case of France, these binding ideals did not necessarily include language.

According to official figures in 1863, 8,381 of France’s 37,510 communes were not majority French. They included a quarter of the country’s population. Thus French was basically a foreign language to many “Frenchmen.3” Despite this language barrier, the inhabitants of France somehow achieved spiritual unity beyond political or administrative structures, a unity of mind and feelings that was a reflection of a shared culture.4 The idea of la patrie emerged to express these binding qualities among the people of France.5 It began among certain social groups, perhaps, but soon spread beyond their origins. One result of this consciousness was the people’s will to form a nation.6

Prerevolutionary France had little sense of a united people. Class divisions were strong, and those of privilege generally did not associate socially with those below them. According to B. A. Avner, “Nationalist sentiments were known, then, in prerevolutionary France, but they were shared mainly by limited circles within the elite and were subordinated to the higher value system of the Church and the monarchy. It was the Revolution that transformed them into a powerful, popular force which cut itself loose from the tenets of the Old Regime and based itself upon a new set of principles.”7 Before the Revolution, much of the national sentiment revolved around a particular social class rather than the entire nation. On the eve of the revolution, however, class divisions became less important, and the desire for a single nation emerged.