Monarchy in crisis
As the 18th century came to an end, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution and wasteful spending by King Louis XVI and his predecessor had left France on the verge of bankruptcy. The royal coffers were exhausted and 20 years of drought, skyrocketing bread prices, cattle disease and poor cereal harvests had sparked unrest among the urban poor and peasants. Many showed their desperation and resentment toward a system that imposed heavy taxes but failed to provide relief by striking, looting and rioting.
Charles Alexandre de Calonne, Louis XVI’s controller general, suggested a financial reform package in the fall of 1786 that included a universal land tax from which the wealthy classes would be exempt no longer. In order to gain support for this strategy and forestall an increasing aristocratic revolt, the King summoned an assembly representing France’s middle-class, nobility and clergy for the first time since 1614. The meeting was set for May 5, 1789 and until then delegates would compile lists of grievances to present to the King.
The French Revolution at Versailles
Since 1614, France’s population had changed considerably. Even though non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98% of the people, they could still be outvoted by the other two bodies. In the lead-up to the meeting on May 5, the Third Estate started to rally support for equal representation as well as the abolishment of the noble veto – basically, they wanted voting by head and not by status. The nobles were loath to give up the advantages they enjoyed under the traditional system.
By the time the May 5 assembly convened at Versailles, the debate over the voting process had exploded into hostility between the three orders, taking over the initial purpose of the meeting. The Third Estate met alone on June 17 and formally took the title of National Assembly. Within a week, majority of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them and King Louis XVI unwillingly absorbed all three orders into a new assembly on June 27.
The French Revolution hits the streets
Fear and violence consumed the capital. Panic spread among Parisians as rumours grew of an impending military coup. On July 14, a popular insurgency culminated when rioters charged the Bastille fortress in an effort to secure weapons and gunpowder. Many consider this event as the beginning of the French Revolution and is now a national holiday in France.
Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants burned and looted the homes of the seigniorial elite, landlords and tax collectors. Known as “la Grande peur” (the Great Fear), the agrarian insurrection sped up the growing exodus of nobles from the country.
The French Revolution turns radical
The newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war on Prussia and Austria in April 1792, where it believed the French émigrés were establishing counterrevolutionary alliances. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the political crisis took a huge turn when a group of insurgents attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the King on 10 August 1792. The next month, the National Convention replaced the Legislative Assembly and announced the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic. On 21 January 1793, King Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine for high treason and his wife Marie Antoinette suffered the same sentence nine months later.
After the king’s execution, war with various European powers as well as serious divisions within the National Convention brought the French Revolution to its most turbulent and violent phase.
The French Revolution ends
On November 9 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d’etat, abolishing the Directory and making himself France’s “first consul.” This marked the end of the French Revolution and the start of the Napoleonic era, during which France would end up dominating much of continental Europe.