The French society was oppressed by the rule of an extravagant king. The workers had no rights, the landless peasants could hardly sustain themselves, the middle class was burdened with high taxes like salt tax.
Structure of the French Society
The French society was divided into three estates:
First Estate – Clergy
Second estate – Nobility
The two estates were about 5% of the population and were in control of 40% of the land. They were exempt from almost all taxes. They received tributes from the king and they considered work to be beneath them. All top posts of army and administration belonged to them. However there were members of these two estates who weren’t as prosperous and blamed the other members in their estates for their misery.
Third estate – This was about 95% of the population. These were the common people but there was a lot of difference between their style of living.
These were about 80% of the third estate. The peasants were free and owned land too but most of them had small land holdings. The peasants had to survive on 1/3rd or 1/4th of the produce since the burden of taxation was intolerable. They also had to do forced labor and work for the feudal lords. The new taxes were imposed for building community amenities. The system of agriculture was changed in the 18th century and peasants were no longer allowed to collect wood from forests or graze in common pastures. This oppression compounded during times of famine which turned conditions favorable for starvation and unrest.
The middle class consisted of professionals like doctors, bankers, traders. They were well off than the peasants and didn’t depend on land. The first two estates were indebted to them. But the middle class had no social status, constitutional rights, political freedoms and were often humiliated.
Artisans and Workers
They were the city poor. Their condition too was bad due to high taxes. The workers were oppressed and had to work for long hours, they couldn’t leave their work without employers consent. They formed secret societies and went on strikes and rebellion. The worker population of 5 lakh became the mainstay of the French revolution.
The oppression and misery was present but unless supported by an intellectual movement which would awaken the people and unite them on the basis of common ideals, it would have been just a violent resistance.
The Monarch called at meeting of the three estates for raising taxes and loans. Each estate met separately. Since the third estate represented 96% of the population it declared itself as the National Estate. The king allowed each estate to have only one vote. The members of the third estate found that the guards didn’t allow them to enter the meeting hall and so they assembled at the royal tennis court and took the Tennis court oath to form the constitution.
The king sent the royal guards to break up the assembly but rumors spread that the leaders of the assembly were to be arrested. The people were enraged and joined the assembly the guards too revolted. Bastille prison was a place where political prisoners were kept it was a sign of the king’s oppression. The protestors broke the prison and set the handful of prisoners free.
The fall of Bastille was an important event of the Revolution.
The National assembly enacted laws and removed all discrimination’s. It adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man and citizen. Freedom of speech, equality and other political rights were given. To the middle class the right to private property and equitable distribution of taxes were given. forced labor was removed along with feudalism and serfdom.
The land of the nobles and clergy was confiscated. The privileged class fled the country and appealed to foreign rulers to intervene and restore the old order. The king and queen to tried to flee the country. But were brought back as traitors.
The Kingdoms of Prussia, Austria and Savoy started to gather forces to fight the Revolutionaries and restore the old order. But the French revolutionaries had founded new institutions based on “Fraternity and equality” and appealed to all to unite to remove the old order.
The National Assembly became the legislative assembly. The king and queen were executed and war was declared on England, Spain, Holland and Hungary. The French were fighting for a new order and others were for restoring the monarchy. Jacobin a radical group came to power and they unleashed a reign of terror in France. They wanted to preserve the revolution and they started executing “Traitors”. In the end the leader of Jacobin Robespierre was executed and the reign of terror ended.
The French Revolution failed and the army rose to power. Napoleon declared himself to be the Emperor of France. Under his rule, France fought continuous wars from 1792-1815. These were the Napoleonic wars with France on one side fighting for the republic and Rest of Europe on the other hand fighting to maintain the old order.
The French defeated Prussia, Austria, Malta, Spain but couldn’t regain Italy. The mighty British navy dominated the North Sea. Soon an alliance of entire Europe fought the French and defeated them and ousted Napoleon from Paris. His return was foiled at the Battle of Waterloo. A congress at Vienna decided to restore the monarchy in France.
However the monarchy was ousted again in 1830 and reemerged to exit in 1848. Then after a brief return finally in 1871 France became a republic.
The French revolution gave the world the ideals of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. The idea of a republic came into being that had people as its pillars.
The workers, farmers and peasants were recognized as important in the society.
Declaration of Rights was a template to be followed by other nations.
French removed slavery from its colonies. Also the occupation of Spain and Portugal was a boon for South and Central America as the colonies of Spain and Portugal were cut off from the mainland and soon became independent.
Workers were the mainstay of the revolution and soon a new form of economic order was to emerge that recognized workers rights.