What was the French Revolution?

Posted by Josh on 10th Jul 2023 in the blog in the category

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With Bastille Day approaching, many people in France – and around the French-speaking world – will be celebrating this public holiday on the 14th July. If you happen to be in Paris, you might see fireworks, parades, and people otherwise enjoying a day off work. And you may wonder – what exactly are they celebrating?

Bastille Day refers to the storming of the Bastille, which was when a crowd of revolutionary agitators charged and overran the Bastille prison in Paris on 14 July 1789. This was a pivotal moment in the French Revolution, in which the capital of France fell into the hands of revolutionaries, and the event came to symbolise the success of the movement itself: the defeat of royal authority, the liberation of French citizens, and the overthrow of the existing social order. It is for this reason that Bastille Day is named after that particular event, and why it is celebrated on the day that it happened: 14 July.

But of course, the storming of the Bastille was just one event in the French Revolution. The Revolution was a much longer period of upheaval which swept across the whole of France, and had repercussions far beyond the borders of l'Hexagone. It lasted about ten years, beginning with the establishment of the National Assembly in 1789 and culminating in 1799 with the formation of the French consulate. By that time, the social fabric of France had changed completely.

For this reason, the French Revolution is considered a foundational moment for the French Republic (all five of them). But to understand how it came to happen in the first place, and what its consequences were for France, Europe and the wider world, we need to go back to the roots of discontent in France at the end of the 18th century, and understand why a gang of angry Parisians attacked the Bastille in the first place.

What caused the French Revolution?

More than two hundred years on from the French Revolution, the question as to what caused it still provokes disagreement among historians. It is difficult to pin down the exact causes, partly because there were several, and partly because the Revolution was such a massive event, with reverberations across Europe and America.

First, we have to understand the societal makeup of France at the time. Nowadays, France is a presidential democracy and post-industrial society. While the aristocracy still exists in France to an extent, they do not hold political privileges.

This wasn't always the case, however. By the end of the 17th century (and for hundreds of years before then), French society was highly stratified. Depending on your position in society, you belonged to one of three 'estates'.

The First and Second estates (that is, the clergy and the aristocracy respectively) were exempt from taxation, and enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle with considerable influence over the political shape of the country. The third estate, which encompassed everyone from farmers and peasants to the mercantile classes, were the driving force behind the French economy, but did not enjoy any of these privileges.

Of course, by 1789, this feudal system was nothing new. But rising food costs, owing in part to France's wars abroad during the eighteenth century, helped exacerbate the sense of inequality felt by the third estate. Much of this anger was directed at the King (Louis XVI) and Queen (Marie Antoinette), the latter of whom, upon hearing of the food-related unrest, is famous for the line 'Let them eat cake!' – although there is no evidence she actually said this.

At the same time, the rising class of the bourgeoisie – the wealthier sections of society – sought to have a greater influence over politics in order to reflect their wants and needs, but felt shut out by the hierarchical nature of the feudal system, in which all land was held by the aristocracy.

A final factor to consider is that the French Revolution occurred at the tail-end of what is known as the European Enlightenment. This was a moment in history when new ideas around political liberty, equality and fraternity – or 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité', which would become France's national motto – were being touted, most keenly in France. Figures such as Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire had a huge influence on a burgeoning, and increasingly literate, population, and helped spur them on to enact the utopian changes they had written about in various books and treatises.

Each of these factors contributed to a brewing cocktail of social turbulence, which finally came to a head in 1788, when riots broke out across several cities in France, including Paris, Dijon and Toulouse.

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What happened during the French Revolution?

To address the concerns of the mob, in 1788 a meeting of the Estates General was called, with the aim of forcing the first and second estates to shoulder the country's tax burden. The issue was to be put to a vote, but there was a dispute as to how the vote should be counted. Should each estate get one vote each, meaning the first and second estates were likely to sway the decision and maintain their tax-exemption? Or should it be counted on a per head basis, meaning the third estate would outnumber the other two?

Disagreements led to the third estate threatening to call a national assembly without the participation of the other two estates. Though the first estate was comprised of the French clergy, many parish priests were supportive of the third estate's complaints. Together, they forced King Louis XVI to allow them to write a new, reformed constitution for the French nation.

Unfortunately, this didn't settle the matter. The aristocracy felt deeply disenfranchised by these reforms, and in 1789 word began to spread that the king was amassing troops to overturn the new constitution and restore the old order. This period of paranoia came to be known as the Great Fear, and was characterised by further civil unrest from the lower classes throughout France. The Great Fear reached boiling point on the 14th July in Paris, when an angry mob stormed the Bastille prison, and freed the prisoners inside (although there were only seven prisoners at the time. An eighth, the (in)famous Marquis de Sade, had been removed a few days prior for telling passers-by that the inmates were being slaughtered – a provocation that may have helped instigate the storming of the Bastille.).

To put an end to the violence, the National Assembly formally decreed the abolition of the feudal system in France, and introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which enshrined equal rights for citizens, freedom of expression, and other amendments to the law, such as the notion of 'innocent until proven guilty'. Drafted by Lafayette with the aid of Thomas Jefferson, these were some of the first examples of Enlightenment ideas being put into practice, and the declaration has survived to this day in one form or another through subsequent revisions to the constitution.

The king, however, was unhappy with these developments, and refused to sanction them. As a result, on 5 October a group of belligerent Parisians marched to Versailles – the palace where the king and queen resided – forcing the royal family to relocate to Paris in order to appease the revolutionaries. It's important to note that generally the dissidents did not want to overthrow the king at this point, and wished to retain him as the head of the new system. But, as with Charles II a hundred years prior in England, events would lead them to take more drastic measures.

The Reign of Terror

Despite its name, the French Revolution was not contained purely in France. Indeed, as supporters of the Ancien Regime fled the country following the capture of the royal family, they began to make plans to mount a counter-revolutionary attack from Austria and Prussia.

Amidst this backdrop, tensions continued to simmer in France. After another period of unrest, during which thousands of counterrevolutionaries were killed, the National Assembly was replaced yet again, this time by the National Convention. Just as the Assembly had formally abolished the feudal system, the Convention abolished the monarchy; and on 21 January, 1793, the King was executed.

What followed came to be known as the Reign of Terror. From September 1793 to July 1794, over 300,000 people – about 1% of the population – suspected of holding sympathies with the Ancien Regime were summarily rounded up and arrested, with over 17,000 being executed.

The man who oversaw the reign of terror – Robespierre – went on to share the fate of the king when his supporters baulked at this display of excess, and his tyrannous control over the country. On 27 July, 1794, Robespierre and his closest associates were executed by guillotine, and a period of relative peace followed.

This was known as the Thermidorean Reaction (named after the eleventh month in the French Republican calendar), which represented a compromise between hardline revolutionaries and those who were sceptical of the new regime. Its leader was one Napoleon Bonaparte, a military leader who relied on the army to enforce the new regime and keep the country together. The Revolution had been perhaps the most turbulent event in French history, but with the advent of the Napoleonic era that turbulence came to an end, and under Bonaparte's leadership France would go on to conquer much of Europe and cement its position as one of the great powers of the 19th century.

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What is the legacy of the French Revolution?

As the French advanced through Europe, they spread the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Revolution to the governments of the countries they conquered. Monarchies and aristocracies across the continent adopted Napoleonic legal codes and reforms in order to assuage their populations, while the newfound self-confidence of the French republic inspired a similar wave of patriotism across neighbouring states.

Within France, the system of government was radically changed across the country. The division of France into départements, districts, cantons, and communes was enacted. Land was redistributed from the Church and aristocracy and sold to farmers and the bourgeoisie. The King was replaced with an Emperor; and after Napoleon Bonaparte, his younger brother Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became the first president of France, which remains the highest office to this day.

Other developments were much slower in coming into fruition. The system that replaced the monarchy was not an absolute democracy by modern standards; only men were allowed to vote, and even then only around half of the third estate enjoyed the privilege.

But perhaps the most obvious legacy is Bastille Day, which reminds the citizens of France every year how much of the modern state was born out of the Revolution.

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