Inspired by the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the spirit of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 marked the beginning of a new political era. Since then, it has never ceased to be a reference text. The Fifth Republic explicitly states its attachment to it, citing it in the preamble of its Constitution, and the Constitutional Council recognized its constitutional value in 1971.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen came into existence in the summer of 1789, born of an idea of the Constituent Assembly, which was formed by the assembly of the Estates General to draft a new Constitution, and precede it with a declaration of principles.
There were many proposals. The Constituent Assembly tasked five deputies – Démeunier, La Luzerne, Tronchet, Mirabeau et Redon – with examining the various draft declarations, combining them into a single one and presenting it to the Assembly. Article by article, the French declaration was voted on between 20 and 26 August 1789.
In its preamble and its 17 articles, it sets out the “natural and inalienable” rights, which are freedom, ownership, security, resistance to oppression; it recognizes equality before the law and the justice system, and affirms the principle of separation of powers.
Ratified on 5 October by Louis XVI under pressure from the Assembly and the people who had rushed to Versailles, it served as a preamble to the first Constitution of the French Revolution in 1791. While the text was subsequently flouted by many revolutionaries, and followed by two other declarations of the rights of man in 1793 and 1795, the text of 26 August 1789 was the one to survive, and inspired similar texts in several European and Latin American countries throughout the 19th century; it is on this one that the French constitutions of 1852, 1946 and 1958 were founded.
The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, signed in Paris on 10 December 1948, just like the European Convention on Human Rights, signed in Rome on 4 November 1950, have the same origins.
The representatives of the French People, formed into a National Assembly, considering ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man to be the only causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of Governments, have resolved to set forth, in a solemn Declaration, the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man, to the end that this Declaration, constantly present to all members of the body politic, may remind them unceasingly of their rights and their duties; to the end that the acts of the legislative power and those of the executive power, since they may be continually compared with the aim of every political institution, may thereby be the more respected; to the end that the demands of the citizens, founded henceforth on simple and incontestable principles, may always be directed toward the maintenance of the Constitution and the happiness of all.
In consequence whereof, the National Assembly recognises and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on considerations of the common good.
The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man. These rights are Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression.
The principle of any Sovereignty lies primarily in the Nation. No corporate body, no individual may exercise any authority that does not expressly emanate from it.
Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These bounds may be determined only by Law.
The Law has the right to forbid only those actions that are injurious to society. Nothing that is not forbidden by Law may be hindered, and no one may be compelled to do what the Law does not ordain.
The Law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to take part, personally or through their representatives, in its making. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.
No man may be accused, arrested or detained except in the cases determined by the Law, and following the procedure that it has prescribed. Those who solicit, expedite, carry out, or cause to be carried out arbitrary orders must be punished; but any citizen summoned or apprehended by virtue of the Law, must give instant obedience; resistance makes him guilty.
The Law must prescribe only the punishments that are strictly and evidently necessary; and no one may be punished except by virtue of a Law drawn up and promulgated before the offense is committed, and legally applied.
As every man is presumed innocent until he has been declared guilty, if it should be considered necessary to arrest him, any undue harshness that is not required to secure his person must be severely curbed by Law.
No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.
The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.
To guarantee the Rights of Man and of the Citizen a public force is necessary; this force is therefore established for the benefit of all, and not for the particular use of those to whom it is entrusted.
For the maintenance of the public force, and for administrative expenses, a general tax is indispensable; it must be equally distributed among all citizens, in proportion to their ability to pay.
All citizens have the right to ascertain, by themselves, or through their representatives, the need for a public tax, to consent to it freely, to watch over its use, and to determine its proportion, basis, collection and duration.
Society has the right to ask a public official for an accounting of his administration.
Any society in which no provision is made for guaranteeing rights or for the separation of powers, has no Constitution.
Since the right to Property is inviolable and sacred, no one may be deprived thereof, unless public necessity, legally ascertained, obviously requires it, and just and prior indemnity has been paid.