Describe the circumstances leading to the outbreak of revolutionary protest in France.

Question.

Describe the circumstances leading to the outbreak of revolutionary protest in France.

Solution:

Circumstances leading to the outbreak of revolutionary protest in France:

A society of estates, and the plight of the third estate

French society was divided into three distinct estates: the first estate comprising the clergy, the second estate composed of the nobility, and the third estate made up of tradesmen, merchants, court officials, lawyers, peasants, artisans, landless labour and servants. It was only the third estate that was made to pay taxes. The clergy and the nobility were exempt from this rule. In addition to the taxes that were to be paid to the state, peasants had to pay taxes to the Church and feudal dues to the noble lords. It was an unfair situation which led to the growth of a feeling of discontent among the members of the third estate

Subsistence crisis

At this time, there was a greater demand for foodgrains. Due to greater demand than supply, the price of bread (the staple diet of the majority) rose. Due to rising prices and inadequate wages, most of the population could not even afford the basic means of livelihood. This led to a crisis of subsistence, and an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor.

A stronger middle class, and popularisation of democratic and social ideals

The middle class emerged educated and wealthy during the eighteenth century. The system of privileges as promoted by the feudal society was against their interests. Being educated, the members of this class had access to the various ideas of equality and freedom proposed by the French and English political and social philosophers. These ideas got popularised amongst the masses as a result of intensive discussions and debates in salons and coffee-houses, and through books and newspapers.

The assembly of the Estates General, and the proposal to increase taxes

In order to pass proposals for increasing taxes, the French monarch Louis XVI called together an assembly of the Estates General on 5 May, 1789. Each estate was allowed one vote in this assembly. The third estate protested against the unfairness of the proposal. They proposed, instead, that each member should have one vote. The king rejected this appeal, and the representative members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest.

The National Assembly, and the revolting subjects

These representative members, led by Mirabeau and Abbe Sieyes, declared themselves a National Assembly, and took an oath to not disperse until they had drafted a constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch and do away with the unjust feudal system of privileges. While this organisation was busy drafting a democratic constitution, there were numerous localised rebellions that sought to displace the feudal lords. Meanwhile, the food crisis worsened and the anger of the masses spilled onto the streets. On 14 July, the King ordered troops to move into Paris. In response, several hundreds of agitated men and women formed their own armed groups. One such people's militia stormed and destroyed the Bastille fortress-prison (representative of the king’s despotic power). This is how the French Revolution came about.

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