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Today, the term generally applies to members of four groups:
- French Huguenots who were forced to leave France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
- French refugees, former members of the nobility, Catholic royalist sympathizers, or anti-republicans, who were expelled by the Decree of 17 December 1791 and the Law of Suspects of 1793, following the French Revolution;
- White Russian émigrés or other opponents of the regime, who fled the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath;
- European aristocrats who were forced to leave their native countries due to political upheavals from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of World War II.
Whereas emigrants have likely chosen to leave one place and become immigrants in a different clime, not usually expecting to return, émigrés see exile as a temporary expedient forced on them by political circumstances. Émigré circles often arouse suspicion as breeding-grounds for plots and counter-revolution.
Some of the nobility who left France during the Revolution settled in bordering countries, which they sought to use as a base for counterrevolution. After the Storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI of France directed several of the most conservative members of his court to leave the country for fear that they might be assassinated. Among this first group of émigrés were the king’s youngest brother, the Comte d'Artois, and Queen Marie Antoinette's best friend, the Duchesse de Polignac. Later, in coordination with the king's failed attempt to escape Paris, the king's other brother, the Comte de Provence, also emigrated.
Marx and Engels, in setting out the strategy for future revolutions in The Communist Manifesto, included the provision that the property of émigrés should be confiscated and used to finance the revolution — a recommendation followed by the Bolsheviks seventy years later.
The October Revolution caused more than 20,000 Russian emigrants to go to Finland, as well as to Yugoslavia (such as Pyotr Wrangel). Many of these however moved on to France, Paris being the favourite destination for Russian émigrés.
Unlike émigré, the term exile remains politically neutral and includes people from whatever side of the political spectrum who had to leave their homeland, often for political reasons, and who wish to return.