The French Departments, the History of the Grid Map of France

France Par Départements, Châssis figuratif du territoire de la France partagé en divisions égales entre elles
Abbé Sieyès
Paris, France
48° 51′ 24″ N, 2° 21′ 07″ E

Following the French Revolution, a new administrative division of France was put in place. Several departmental division plans were proposed, including a grid map of France, with each square representing a department.

The chessboard map of France

This map of France by Departments published in 1898 in Paris represents France divided into a grid of 10 squares by 10 squares. The alternation of white and black squares reminds us of a chessboard even if it is normally made of 64 squares. On this map, almost the entire territory of France is represented, with Alsace-Lorraine (at the time in the German territory, following the decree of 1871) represented as a disputed territory. This grid representation does not improve the readability of the map, however it reminds us of an old theoretical project of departmental division dating from the French Revolution.

France par Départements – Imprimerie de Vieillemard,1898

A landscape mosaic

The Abbé Sieyès, is a politician known for his actions during the French Revolution in 1789. He was present at the opening of the Estates General and brought the Third Estate, the Nobles and the Clergy together. He was a member of the National Constituent Assembly and led reform projects following the Constituent work.

In particular, he actively participated in the work of the Convention on the reform of the administrative map. On September 7, 1789, he proposed to adopt a division of France into 81 squares. Each of these 72km squares represents a new department, itself divided into 9 districts of 9 square cantons each. The rapporteur Thouret largely took up the work of Robert de Hesseln whose topographic grid of France presented had caused a scandal and was quickly abandoned. The idea of this territorial grid was to allow the citizens of the department to be able to go to the chief town in less than a day’s travel. Nevertheless, this totally arbitrary division, which divided the kingdom into a mosaic of 81 square departments, did not take into account the constraints of the relief (coastline, relief, marshes), nor the density of occupation, nor the communication routes, nor any history of the places. But the use of a scientific and geometrical process to wipe out the past shows the will to create a new progressive country, equal in its components.

Finally, the National Constituent Assembly adopted a new project of division into 83 departments, whose names were chosen according to geography and hydrography, adapting a little more to the constraints of the natural terrain and the economic resources of the territories. This administrative division remains in force almost unchanged but continues to pose the question of equality between the territories.

Première carte de la nouvelle Topographie contenant La France divisée en 9 régions (First map of the new Topography containing France divided into 9 regions) – Robert de Hesseln, 1786

France Departments Grid Map

Châssis figuratif du territoire de la France partagé en divisions égales entre elles (Figurative frame of the territory of France divided into equal divisions) – Abbé Sieyès, 1789

Carte de France divisée suivant le plan proposé à l’Assemblée Nationale le 29 Septembre 1789 (Map of France divided according to the plan proposed to the National Assembly on September 29, 1789)

Source: Gallica, Histoire Image

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