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French Revolution – Causes and its Impact on the World

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  • Last Updated : 02 Feb, 2022

The French Revolution of 1789 CE was a significant event in the modern world. This revolution started against the feudalist mode of economy, autocratic monarchy, over-the-top economic exploitation, class privilege, and the apathy of the king towards the citizen of France. Apart from the existing oppressed and dissatisfied class, there was an overall contradiction in the economic and political structure of the state. The king was the highest official of the government and political power was centralized. The feudal state was the sole axis of the whole country and people lacked most civil liberties. Moreover, there was a strict ban on freedom of speech, writing, and publication. There was the hegemony of the church and the people were barred from religious freedom. The king held ownership over the entire income of France With a stagnant economy and a lack of self-government, the poor people stormed ‘Bastille’ the king’s fortress in Paris, and ended the monarchy.

Participation of women in large numbers was another unique feature of the French Revolution. Women marched to the Versailles on October 5, 1789, to the main marketplace of Paris, Versailles to protest against the price hike, this is also known as October March. The French Revolution eventually saw the execution of King Louis XVI. The abolishment of constitutional monarchy paved the way for the first Declaration of Human Rights, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. In addition, as a result of the French Revolution, there was a major shift of power from the Roman Catholic Church to the state.

Major Causes for the French Revolution

1. Political Circumstances

The French King Louis XVI was despotic and due to his indiscreet policies, the colonies of India and America were removed from France, and France was crushed in the Seven Years’ War. Added to this the king and the rest of the nobility’s extravagant lifestyle were commenced through the treasury.

2. Social Inequality

French society was split into three categories. The first estate included clergy, the second was aristocracy and the third included the peasant-laborer and the middle class incorporating the merchants and the intelligentsia. The first and the second estate were the privileged class, the third was the exploited one. They were exploited by kings, feudatories, and clergy. This divided them into two classes the exploiting and the exploited class and increased the discontent between them.

3. Economic Reasons

  • From the economic point of view, at that time the condition of France was worse than the rest of Europe. The primary reason for this was the grave expenditure of warfare, corruption, overbearing taxation, and extravagant life of monarchy. The first and the second estate were kept tax-free. There was no computation of income and expenditure of the first two estates.
  • The seven years war emptied the treasury of the state. When King Louis XIV got the throne he inherited an empty treasury. Under Louis XVI’s rule, France was supporting American colonies in the freedom struggle. The war expenditure increased an extra debt of 1 billion livres (the unit of currency in France till 1794) to preexisting 2 billion livers.
  • The 10% interest in the war debts kept increasing and pressurized the French government to increase the tax rates in the country. Along with several indirect taxes on daily use articles like salt and tobacco, direct taxes called Taille was collected by the government.
  • The first and the second estate were exempted from paying the taxes and the whole burden fell on the third estate. On one hand, where the peasants had to bear the burden of taxes the working class didn’t get their wages on time which pushed them further into poverty. 

4. Religious Discontent

There were more than a hundred thousand religious priests in France at that time. The life of some of the priests was so opulent, while some did not even have arrangements for two meals a day. The Churches held more than 40% of the total land, the poor people were running out of land for agriculture. A religious tax called Tithes, which was voluntary, was collected forcibly. This increased the discontent among the public.

5. Demographic and Natural Calamities

  • The population of France rose from 23 million to 28 million between 1715 to 1789 which increased the demand for food supplies. Due to the debt burden and empty treasury, the government could not keep up with the increasing needs that directed to inflation in food prices which shifted into an acute insufficiency of food grains.
  • Dated back to the middle ages the pre-revolution French society was feudalistic. Often triggered by a climatic disaster such as hail and drought France used to fall under a cycle called the “Subsistence Crisis”. This crisis use to start with a bad harvest due to drought leading to less food grain produce and lack of food. Lack of food used to make individuals grow weak and succumb to diseases that use to turn epidemic in a very short period.

6. Effects of American Freedom Struggle

American war of independence happened from 1775 to 1783. French soldiers went to cooperate in America’s freedom struggle. There they got the inspiration of patriotism, independence, and self-respect. America’s war of Independence became a major source of inspiration for the people of France.

7. Rise of the Middle Class

The farmers and workers could not resist the French elite. The newly emerged middle class of the society made up for this shortcoming. This middle class included thinkers, teachers, traders, lawyers, doctors, etc. They were neither extremely rich nor poor, thus they held unique political importance similar to the merchants of the Roman Empire.

8. The Effect of Enlightenment

  • At this time France was going through the renaissance period. The philosophers and writers in France awakened the French society by exposing the glorification of ancient traditions of France. The names of Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu are particularly notable among these scholars. These views spread like a wildfire among the peasants and working-class and functioned as an ideological backbone of the French revolution.
  • In his “Two Treatises of Government”, Locke denied the doctrine of divine right. Montesquieu got inspired by the American constitution and proposed the division of power between the executive, legislative, and judiciary to establish an accountable government and guaranteed individual rights. Rousseau supported the freedom of the individual and developed the idea of social contract where he claimed, “Human beings have got freedom, equality of fraternity since time immemorial.”

9. Immediate Causes

On June 20th, 1789 the members of the third house wanted to hold a joint sitting of the three houses. When the members of the Third House came for the meeting, they weren’t allowed inside. Therefore, the members took the meeting in the tennis court outside the hall and took an oath that the assembly would not be dissolved without opting for a new constitution to France. On 14 July 1789, the enraged mob attacked the Bastille and freed the prisoners, which marked the onset of the French Revolution.

Effects of the French Revolution

1. Effect at the Social Level

  • As a result of the revolution, the feudal system of France came to an end. This provided suitable social space to ordinary people by establishing the just principle of equality. The privileges of the elite ended. Along with this, many movements in late and early America took inspiration from the revolt. The practice of French colonial slavery in America was abolished and it was made the Republic of Haiti. The French Revolution also influenced Belgium, Poland, Venezuela, etc. to gain independence from Holland. The end of the feudal system in other countries of Europe also became inevitable. Along with Europe, the idea of ​​equality inspired other countries as well.
  • The revolution didn’t happen out of thin air. Over a period of time, the middle class had emerged within the third estate. Peasants and workers participated in the protests against increasing taxes and food security in the past. But this time the powerful middle class equipped them with the financial and intellectual strength to pull off a full-scale revolution.
  • The success in the French Revolution provided the middle class with legitimacy in the society and from there they evolved a new social order where trade and market became the driving force of the society. This group believed that no class should be given the privilege by birth and everyone should get a fair chance of equal opportunity based on merit.

2. Effect at the Economic Level

With the obliteration of the power and privileges of the aristocrats, a similar system of tax arose in the whole country. The system was based on the principle of economic equality. With the result of the French Revolution, feudalism ended and capitalism unfolded. The capitalist mode of production affected not only France but the rest of the world including India. Capitalism helped in the development of concepts like the socialist economy and mixed economy.

3. Effect at the Political Level

  • The French Revolution propounded the principle of democracy in the political field. It gave importance to the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty‘ by ending the monarchy based on divine principles. Declaration of human rights, principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity made humans an important part of history. The triumph of political greatness through the French revolution provided power to the freedom struggle in Europe and other countries like India. The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity mentioned in the Indian constitution were shaped by the French constitution.
  • According to the French laws, the ruler could not independently take some decisions like raising the tax. He had to work along with a political body called Estate General composed of representatives from all three estates. The three estates had one vote each but when Louis XVI called the assembly on 5th May 1789, the third estate demanded that each member should have one vote instead of just one vote per estate. The principle of one individual, one vote started by the French revolution is still the political arrangement of almost all the contemporary democracies around the globe including India.

4. Inspiration to Other Revolutions

The French revolution unlocked the opportunity of developing a major transformation in the structure of society. It offered an eminent philosophical and social space for the formation of the ideological basis of Communism. People started initiating debates around individual rights and control of social power. In his book, The Holy Family, Karl Marx wrote, “…the French Revolution gave rise to ideas which led beyond the ideas of the entire old world order. The revolutionary movement which began in 1789… gave rise to the communist idea… This idea, consistently developed, is the idea of the new world order.” The socialist revolution in Russia referred to as the Russian revolution followed the ideals of equality, democracy, and fraternity set during the French revolution. The leader of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin was also inspired by the French revolution. About French revolutions, Lenin said, “Take the great French Revolution. It is with good reason that it is called a great revolution.”

The French Revolution of 1789 AD was a landmark in world history. The revolution swayed the socio-economic and political life of France and affected the rest of the world. Equality, Freedom, Democracy, sovereignty, secularism, welfare state are the ideas of the French Revolution that are still giving momentum to the world.

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