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The impact in Switzerland of the French Revolution of 1789 was enormous. The Confederation itself remained neutral in the battles that followed, but popular revolutionary demonstrations throughout Vaud – at that time a Bernese colony – and at Stäfa near Zürich acted as a prelude and a spur to a full-scale French invasion in 1798 by armies under Napoleon. Revolution swept through the country. In Ticino, Aargau and the lower Valais, the old patrician establishment was swept away; urban residents of Basel, Zürich and Schaffhausen at a stroke won equality before the law; Vaud declared itself independent from Bern; and the brief burst of resistance to the French mounted in central areas was violently suppressed. On March 5, French forces entered Bern, marking the fall of the ancien régime in Switzerland.
Within weeks, Napoleon promulgated a new constitution intended to replace the archaic patchwork of communities and privileges, decentralized authority and internecine mistrust that had prevailed since the Middle Ages. His brave new Helvetic Republic, “unitary and indivisible”, did away with cantons altogether and instead vested centralized power, French-style, nominally in the people but actually in a five-man executive. This showed just how drastically Napoleon underestimated the Swiss, who broke the habit of centuries by coming together – liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant alike – in unanimous rejection of his imposed new order. A series of coup d’états attempting to end French domination prompted Napoleon to withdraw his troops from the country in short order in 1802. Civil war immediately broke out, and Napoleon stepped in as arbitrator, this time prudently urging the Swiss themselves to come up with a constitution. This shortlived Mediation, as it was called, restored the notion of autonomous cantons, and in addition conferred full cantonal status on six areas previously under joint administration – St Gallen, Graubünden, Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino and Vaud – meanwhile giving the country the new title of the Swiss Confederation, a name it bears today.
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