Civil Code or Code Napoleon

By Richard Moore

The longest lasting effect of Napoleon Bonaparte's rule over France was his overseeing the implementation of a series of national laws collectively known as the Civil Code, or Code Napoleon.

They included the Codes of Civil Procedure, Commercial Law (1807), Penal Code (1810) and Criminal Procedure (1808).

Napoleon wanted to replace a series of existing laws - that varied in each French province - and replace them with a standard code for all French people.

He had already reformed the French taxation system bringing to his imperial coffers almost 700 million francs annually. The sources for the money came from taxes on income and a series of levies on goods - such as wine, tobacco and salt.

In 1800 he added to his overhaul of the financial system by creating the Bank of France.

Napoleon did not play a part in its formation, which was handled by an official commission from 1801, nor did he look many of the 2281 suggested laws before they had been debated by the Council of State.

But once that had happened Napoleon focused his attentions on it and used his exceptional administrative talents to influence its overall impact.

The principal tenet of the Civil Code was that every French person was equal before the law.

This was a boon for many, however, while he took the religious aspect out of divorce, many of his views did limit Revolution-founded freedoms for women.

For example women were not allowed to independently trade in chattels or property, but had to ask their husbands before they did so.

He tightened divorce laws and fathers were empowered as rulers of their homes. They could ban children from inheritance and also imprison children for a month.

He showed great foresight in beginning a programme of public works that included building canals, harbours and made roads better and safer by improving their condition and cracking down on brigands.

Education was improved for many, although the majority of children did not gain benefit from his new specialised and high schools. He encouraged the creation of private schools and sowed the seeds of community-wide literacy.

Never one to accept criticism well, Napoleon cracked down on the press, censoring newspapers and eventually closing down all but a few.

The Civil Code was officially enacted in 1804 and in 1807 was renamed Code Napoleon. It applied to all French domains and territories as well as being adopted by countries within the sphere of French influence.

Today the Civil Code forms the basis of many European legal systems.

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