The French Revolution (French: Révolution française [ʁevɔlysjɔ̃ fʁɑ̃sɛːz]) refers to the period that began with the Estates General of 1789 and ended in November 1799 with the formation of the French Consulate. Many of its ideas are considered fundamental principles of Western liberal democracy.
Between 1700 and 1789, the French population increased from 18 million to 26 million, leading to large numbers of unemployed, accompanied by sharp increases in food prices caused by years of bad harvests. Widespread social distress led to the convocation of the Estates General in May 1789, the first since 1614. In June, the Estates were converted into a National Assembly, which passed a series of radical measures, among them the abolition of feudalism, state control of the Catholic Church and extending the right to vote.
The next three years were dominated by the struggle for political control, exacerbated by economic depression and social unrest. External powers like Austria, Britain and Prussia viewed the Revolution as a threat, leading to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in April 1792. Disillusionment with Louis XVI led to the establishment of the First French Republic on 22 September 1792, followed by his execution in January 1793. In June, an uprising in Paris replaced the Girondins who dominated the National Assembly with the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre.
This sparked the Reign of Terror, an attempt to eradicate alleged “counter-revolutionaries”; by the time it ended in July 1794, over 16,600 had been executed in Paris and the provinces. As well as external enemies, the Republic faced a series of internal Royalist and Jacobin revolts; in order to deal with these, the French Directory took power in November 1795. Despite military success, the war led to economic stagnation and internal divisions, and in November 1799 the Directory was replaced by the Consulate.
Many Revolutionary symbols such as La Marseillaise and phrases like Liberté, égalité, fraternité reappeared in other revolts, such as the 1917 Russian Revolution. Over the next two centuries, its key principles like equality would inspire campaigns for the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. Its values and institutions dominate French politics to this day, and many historians regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in recent history.
Historians generally view the underlying causes of the French Revolution as the result of the Ancien Régime‘s failure to manage social and economic inequality. Rapid population growth and the inability to adequately finance government debt resulted in economic depression, unemployment and high food prices. These combined with a regressive tax system and resistance to reform by the ruling elite to produce a crisis Louis XVI proved unable to manage.
From the late 17th century on, political and cultural debate became part of wider European society, rather than being confined to a small elite. This took different forms, such as the English ‘coffeehouse culture‘, and extended to areas colonised by Europeans, particularly British North America. Contacts between diverse groups in Edinburgh, Geneva, Boston, Amsterdam, Paris, London or Vienna were much greater than often appreciated.
Transnational elites who shared ideas and styles were not new; what changed was their extent and the numbers involved. Under Louis XIV, the Court at Versailles was the centre of culture, fashion and political power. Improvements in education and literacy over the course of the 18th century meant larger audiences for newspapers and journals, with Masonic lodges, coffee houses and reading clubs providing areas where people could debate and discuss ideas. The emergence of this so-called “public sphere” led to Paris replacing Versailles as the cultural and intellectual centre, leaving the Court isolated and less able to influence opinion.
In addition to these social changes, the French population grew from 18 million in 1700 to 26 million in 1789, making it the most populous state in Europe; Paris had over 600,000 inhabitants, of whom roughly one third were either unemployed or had no regular work. Inefficient agricultural methods meant domestic farmers could not support these numbers, while primitive transportation networks made it hard to maintain supplies even when there was sufficient. As a result, food prices rose by 65% between 1770 and 1790, yet real wages increased by only 22%. Food shortages were particularly damaging for the regime, since many blamed price increases on government failure to prevent profiteering. By the spring of 1789, a poor harvest followed by a severe winter had created a rural peasantry with nothing to sell, and an urban proletariat whose purchasing power had collapsed.By 1789, France was the most populous country in Europe.
The other major drag on the economy was state debt. Traditional views of the French Revolution often attribute the financial crisis to the costs of the 1778–1783 Anglo-French War, but modern economic studies show this is only a partial explanation. In 1788, the ratio of debt to gross national income in France was 55.6%, compared to 181.8% in Britain, and although French borrowing costs were higher, the percentage of revenue devoted to interest payments was roughly the same in both countries. One historian concludes “neither the level of French state debt in 1788, or its previous history, can be considered an explanation for the outbreak of revolution in 1789”.
The problem was French taxes were predominantly paid by the urban and rural poor, while attempts to share the burden more equally were blocked by the regional parlements which controlled financial policy. The resulting impasse in the face of widespread economic distress led to the calling of the Estates-General, which became radicalised by the struggle for control of public finances.
Although not indifferent to the crisis, when faced with opposition Louis tended to back down. The court became the target of popular anger, especially Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was viewed as a spendthrift Austrian spy, and blamed for the dismissal of ‘progressive’ ministers like Jacques Necker. For their opponents, Enlightenment ideas on equality and democracy provided an intellectual framework for dealing with these issues, while the American Revolution was seen as confirmation of their practical application.