Printed working documents of the Conseil d'Etat
   Organisation and operation of the Conseil d'Etat from 1800 to 1814

The Conseil d'État discussed draft bills and decrees proposed by the Head of State in plenary sessions. The decrees were examined first in one of the five specialist sections of the Conseil d'Etat, according to their subject.
Two special committees were set up in 1806 as part of the new jurisdictional powers of the Conseil d'Etat: the committee of petitions and the more important administrative judicial committee, the Contentieux administratif.
The work of the Conseil was coordinated by the general secretariat, organised by Baron Locré from 1799 to 1815. He also supervised the many bailiffs, clerks and copyists who made up the bulk of the staff employed by the Conseil, apart from its actual members.

The Conseil d'État of the Consulat and the Empire, set up by the Constitution of An VIII, is a distant descendent of the "Conseil du Roi ou Conseil d'État" of the Ancien Régime in its remit (counsellor to the government on all matters, administrative judge and breeding ground for administrators), the titles of its members (conseillers d'État from An VIII, maîtres des requêtes in 1806) and its collective methods of working.
Its organisation was however simpler and clearer than that of the old Conseil d'État du Roi, a spurious grouping of numerous formations with muddled powers.
The organisation of the Conseil d'État was given its basic outline in the Constitution of An VIII, which gave the Head of State power to appoint and dismiss its members. The sénatus-consultes of 16 Thermidor, An X and 28 Floréal, An XII contained brief articles that provided for the number of conseillers, the sections, the inclusion of ministers and important dignitaries in the Conseil d'État. The organisation of the Conseil was afterwards mainly governed by decree.


   1. General organisation

  The general assembly
All the conseillers d'État in ordinary service, the maîtres des requêtes after 1806, and some auditeurs there to learn rather than to play an active role (after 1806, only a proportion of them was authorised to attend plenary sessions) attended the sessions of the Conseil d'État. Draft acts and opinions proposed by the Head of State were debated in these sessions.


  Five sections
The first ruling of the Conseil d'État, dated 5 Nivôse, An VIII (25 December, 1799), divided the Conseil d'État into five sections, each of them having a president appointed by the First Consul, their own special powers and staff:
Section des Finances (finance),
Section de Législation civile et criminelle (civil and criminal legislation),
Section de la Guerre (war),
Section de la Marine (navy),
Section de l’Intérieur (domestic affairs).
The sénatus-consulte of 28 Floréal, An XII (16 May, 1804) envisaged the addition of a mercantile section, which never came into being.
The sections were responsible for examining and preparing drafts before they were discussed in a plenary session. This double examination procedure, first within a specialist group then in the assembly was a legacy of the Ancien Régime. Less important matters could be examined just by the section, but this procedure was rare. The sections did not all have an equal level of work.
The section de l'Intérieur was the one with the heaviest workload, with the expansion of the territory of the Empire, and it examined up to 4700 dossiers each year. The sections de la Guerre and de la Marine had a smaller role, as a result of the existence from An X (1802) of a Conseil de la Guerre and the creation in 1810 of a Conseil de la Marine, both of which were composed of conseillers d'État.


 Two specialist committees: petitions and administrative judicial matters or "Contentieux"
Two permanent committees attached to the Conseil d'État were created in 1806.
The committee of petitions was responsible for making a report on petitions addressed or presented to the Emperor. It comprised two conseillers, four maîtres des requêtes and four auditeurs.
The judicial committee or Commission du Contentieux, of great importance in its powers as supreme administrative judge, consisted of six maîtres des requêtes and six auditeurs under the presidency of the senior judge. The members of these committees also belonged to a section and took part in its work.


  The general secretariat
The Conseil d'État had a general secretary responsible for managing its offices. The ruling of 5 Nivôse, An VIII (25 December, 1799) established his remit: the general secretary received matters referred to the Conseil d'État by the head of Government, recorded them and passed them on to the relevant section. He was responsible for having reports and major drafts printed (printed working documents) prior to the sessions and for calling members to the assemblies. He took notes and drew up the minutes in the sessions of the Conseil d'État and in the meetings of the section presidents.


 The staff of the Conseil d'État
The general secretary also had supreme control of the offices of the Conseil d'État. The staff, initially few, quickly grew in number. In 1800, the offices of the Conseil d'État employed clerks, copyists and office boys.
The organisation of proper contentious proceedings led to the setting up of a registry and a secretariat for the Judicial section.
At the end of the Empire, the offices were organised into three divisions (archives, reports and records of the correspondence from the outset) in addition to the secretariats of each section. In 1811, the funds allocated for paying office staff came to 180,000 francs. The average salary of a clerk was then around 1200 francs per year (1)(an average worker's salary in 1806 was 400 francs /year).
From this it can be deduced that the Napoleonic Conseil d'État employed over 200 people in its offices at the end of the Empire.


 The library (2)
The Conseil d'État also had a library, kept conscientiously by Antoine-Alexandre Barbier. Put together from the literature available in Paris, it comprised nearly 30,000 volumes of a varied nature. Part of this was transferred to Fontainebleau after the remodelling of the Tuileries in 1805-1807, leaving just the law books at the Conseil. This rich library and the important archives collected by the Conseil in the exercise of its functions were lost when the Palais d'Orsay, in which they were housed at the time, was set fire to by the Fédérés on the night of 23 May, 1871.


    The sessions

 Working timetable
From 30 Pluviôse, An VIII (19 February, 1800) to March 1814, the Conseil d'État worked in the Tuileries. The assembly was sometimes held in the Château de Saint-Cloud when Napoleon was in residence there. The members and the services of the Conseil d'État worked all year round except on décadi (10th day of the ten-day Republican week), later Sundays. A decree of 15 September 1810 provided for the Conseil to take a recess from 1st October to 1st November, except for the conseillers in charge of a public service. In An VIII, plenary sessions were held during more than half of the ten-day week; afterwards they occupied only four days in every ten-day week or three days every seven-day week, falling to two in the second half of the Empire.


 Presidency of the sessions
Before 1804, the assembly was presided over by one of the consuls, usually by Bonaparte when he was in Paris, and failing him by Cambacérès or, more rarely, Lebrun. During the Empire, periodic decrees delegated the presidency of sessions to Cambacérès, then arch-chancellor, and in his absence to Lebrun, when the Emperor was absent from Paris. In 1813 and 1814, this duty was entrusted to the Regent Empress who carried it out with a degree of ennui and left Cambacérès to preside over the debates, which he did with clarity and conciseness. When Napoleon was away, all draft acts and opinions debated in the assembly were sent to him by post. The Emperor, even when far from Paris, was still able to choose to dismiss them, have them revised or sign them.

 Preparation of sessions

Reconstruction of the circuit of a draft bill from its conception to its discussion in a general assembly of the Conseil d'État
  2   3
Minister or
Head of State
Head of State
General Secretary of the Conseil d'État
Section president
Rapporteur responsible for drawing up a report on the minister's draft
Head of State
General assembly of the Conseil d'État presided over by the Head of State
Minister's draft

  Minister's draft   Minister's draft   Minister's draft   Report on the minister's draft   Report on the minister's draft   Report on the minister's draft   Final
The printed documents of the Conseil d'État, printed after stage 7, included the minister's draft and the report(s) made on this draft and were used in the general assembly (8). 9
The final texts were only published after agreement from the Head of State

1  2 The Conseil d'État never took up a question on its own initiative. Draft acts or requests for opinions (which could be at the initiative of ministers or the Head of State) were sent by the Head of State to the general secretariat of the Conseil d'État.

 3 The general secretary passed the request on to the relevant section.

 4 The section president designated a member of the Conseil who was put in charge of examining the matter and submitting a report to the section.

 5 The section then discussed this, accepted it or requested more information.

6  7 The president of the section to which it was referred submitted the report to the Head of State who decided whether to refer it to the general assembly. The subject was then put on the agenda for a forthcoming session. In the Empire there was a large agenda for fairly important matters to be debated in the presence of Napoleon and a small agenda for minor matters.
In important matters, the draft bill, the minister's report and sometimes the section's report, were printed and circulated to the conseillers, the maîtres des requêtes and the ministers, preferably a few days prior to the debate.

 8 The sessions began in the late morning and could go on until after nightfall. The president of the session chose the question to be debated from the agenda. Contributors requested the floor of the president of the session. It was not permitted to speak from a written text or to use a pontificating tone.

 9 The vote of those with voting rights normally took place once the debate was finished, but Napoleon did not always proceed thus and was not legally bound to agree with the vote of what was a consultative body. The opinions of the Conseil d'État or draft bills were only finally passed once they were signed by the Head of State.


    Napoleon in the Conseil d'État

Under the Empire, Napoleon often arrived mid-session. Cambacérès would have already opened the session at the appointed time and begun to go quickly through the small agenda. The arrival of the Emperor was announced by a drum roll. The ushers opened the great door of the Council room and announced the Emperor. Napoleon, preceded by a chamberlain and followed by his aide-de-camp, walked down the middle of the room and took his seat on the platform. The Emperor then took the large agenda and selected a question for debate.

The minister's draft, the report and possibly the section's draft were read aloud. Afterwards, the discussion began unless the draft was postponed for consideration, to be printed or for information to be gathered. Some drafts might occupy several sessions and have several successive drafts, as can be seen from the number of printed working documents.
Napoleon often listened attentively to the discussion in progress and took notes, using a small lorgnette to recognise the speaker. If the subject interested him, he spoke, either to ask questions when he was not familiar with the problem under discussion, or to state his views. In this case, the debate might become a monologue. Occasionally, when the discussions failed to interest him, he read dossiers or newspapers and was even known to… fall asleep! When this happened, Cambacérès presided over the debate then summarised for him the main points of what had been said. The debates would often finish early, as the arch-chancellor entertained a great deal of an evening.

The presence of Napoleon in a plenary session enabled him to assert his control over all decisions concerning the organisation of the Empire. His correspondence, particularly with Cambacérès, shows that even when absent, he was watchful over and monitored if not the conduct of the debates, at least their conclusions…

R. Monnier, article on "Ouvriers" in the Dictionnaire Napoléon, 1999, t.2. [retour]
P. Julien, " Les bibliothèques du Conseil d’État depuis l’an VIII ", dans Le Conseil d’État. Livre jubilaire…, Paris, 1952, p. 96. [retour]