The French Revolution opened a new chapter in the history of Europe. It marked a turning point in the history of humankind. The French Revolution put an end to the age old absolute monarchy, feudal laws and social inequality. It introduced for the first time the idea of republicanism based on 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'. These ideas had influenced the entire continent of Europe and also the world.
Causes of the French Revolution
The causes of the French revolution include the political, social and economic aspects that were prevalent in France before the outbreak of the revolution.
France was ruled by the Bourbon dynasty. They firmly believed in the Divine Right theory - as they were representatives of God, they were answerable only to God. Louis XIV was a strong and powerful ruler of the Bourbon dynasty. His wars ruined the economy of France. His successors Louis XV and Louis XVI were weak administrators. Louis XV foretold at the end of his rule: 'After me the deluge'. His words came to be true. Louis XVI was the most incompetent ruler. His wife and queen, Marie Antoinette interfered too much into the administration. She was thoroughly ignorant of the sufferings of the French people. But she always favoured and protected the interests of the French nobles. She did not allow the financial reforms to take place. Because it affected the interests of the nobles and the clergy.
The French society was based on inequality. The society consisted of three major divisions, the nobles, clergy and the common people. The nobles had no political power but remained loyal to the king. They enjoyed many privileges and led a life of luxury. They were exempted from taxation. The higher clergy owned one fifth of the lands in France and enjoyed several privileges. Their number in France was around only five thousand. They lived in palatial houses and they were exempted from taxes. But the lower clergy were denied all these privileges. Therefore, they turned against the higher clergy during the revolution. Both the noble and the higher clergy led a life of ease and pleasure without bothering about the wretched condition of the masses.
The majority of the population in France belonged to the third category. Traders, lawyers, owners of industries, government servants, peasants and workers were in this category. While the nobles and the clergy were exempted from paying taxes, the masses paid all the taxes. Hence it was said : 'the nobles fight, the clergy pray and the people pay'. The taille or land tax was entirely paid by the peasants. The gabelle or salt tax was a burden on the common man. The head of each family had to pay the capitation tax. Besides paying these taxes to the king, they have to pay tithe (tax) to the Church.
The burden on the peasants was higher than the others because he had certain other obligations to the nobles. They were forced to use the mill, wine-press, slaughterhouse and oven of their lords after paying the usual dues. They were also compelled to render feudal services to the lords.
The financial condition of France was very critical during the reign of Louis XVI. The national debt had increased beyond the limit. The national income was less than national expenditure. Hence, the king tried to mobilize national income by selling important offices of the government. At last, the king appointed financial experts Turgot and Jacques Necker as Director-General of Finances. They tried to curtail royal expenditure and improve the income to the government. But their measures did not receive the support of the nobles. On their advice the queen Marie Antoinette removed them. Later, Calonne was appointed to look into the financial crisis. But he was not able to do anything but to levy fresh taxes. Therefore, Louis XVI was forced to convene the States General after a gap of 175 years, on May 5th, 1789.