NCERT History Class 9 — The French Revolution … Part 1
In 1788, there was a massive crop failure in France as a result of which bread prices rose sharply in the country. The discontent among the poorer sections of the population was widespread. Soon, it boiled over to the streets of Paris triggering a bloody revolution that eventually engulfed the whole of France like wild fire. The ramifications of this inferno were felt all over Europe and in many other parts of the world.
The spiraling bread prices were like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. By no means, high bread prices could have unseated a centuries-old monarchy and razed a feudal structure that had prevailed over the French society with a iron grip.
Over the last three centuries, students of history have dispassionately tried to delve into the causes of this historic upheaval. Their conclusions almost converge on certain socio-economic factors, although the emphasis varies.
It is now clear that many factors were simultaneously tormenting the soul of France. First, there was the monarch who was given the status of god. Armed with the authority to rule the country till he desired, the monarch wielded unlimited power with absolutely no accountability. Such un-fettered authority defied rational scrutiny. ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’. No wonder, the absolute monarch was seeped in luxury, ensconced in his massive Versailles palace. Evening guests comprising of sycophants, favor seekers, beautiful women and a few opportunists from the nobility flocked to his parties. It gave these guests an opportunity to pander to the sovereign’s whims and fancies. Such peccadilloes left the monarch degenerated and drained. He had no time to ‘rule’. The gulf between the suffering subjects and the aloof ruler only widened with time.
For centuries, France, through a utterly deviant system of feudalism, had divided its population into three classes –
a. Clergy (known as the first estate)
b. Nobles (the second estate) and
c. Common masses comprising of the peasants, the factory workers and members of the bourgeois (the third estate).
Numerically, the members of the third estate vastly exceeded the other two groups. The third estate paid almost all the government revenue through taxes. The Clergy and the Nobles paid practically no taxes. To make matters worse, they enjoyed many privileges unthinkable for the common folks. The members of the third estate toiled in the fields, farms and factories, ran small businesses, worked as professionals, fought as soldiers and did everything else that sustained the country. But, in terms of privileges, status, impunity from prosecution for wrongdoings, land ownership and other such state privileges, they were at the lowest rung of the ladder. The members of the Clergy and the Noble lived like pampered parasites with generous largesse from the government .
Clearly, such a distorted system of social hierarchy was untenable in the long run. With passage of time, in the French populace the fault lines lengthened and the schisms became wider.
Bad fiscal management and the obscenely lavish lifestyle in the Versailles brought France’s government finances to a pitiable state. By the time King Luis XVI ascended the throne, France had run up a yawning deficit of some two billion livers. It was an unsustainable deficit that made government’s day to day functioning difficult.
Soon, France was embroiled in a war in America trying to free 16 provinces from colonial rule of the old rival Britain. It was a military intervention that was morally right, but financially ruinous. It added another one billion livers to the existing two billion livers deficit to the French exchequer.
France had clearly crossed the red line. Bankruptcy stared France in her face. The burgeoning deficit of the government disturbed the existing creditors. In panic, they began to charge a high 10% interest on their loans to the government. It became evident that the government must take urgent and drastic steps to restore the financial health of the nation. It needed to beef up its revenue, cut expenses and embark on a long term course of fiscal consolidation. But, this course correction seemed an uphill task.
The traditional tax payers — the people in the third estate — were already reeling under a high taxation regime. The other two sections of the population – the Clergy and the Nobles – were quite affluent, but hardly paid any tax. When the idea was mooted to tax them to boost the government’s revenue receipts, they resisted the idea tooth and nail.
It was a Catch 22 position for the government headed by King Luis XVI. Finally, the day of reckoning had arrived. The indulgence in the royal court gave way to some serious pondering. Sadly, the King, through his degraded life style, had virtually mortgaged his authority to the Clergy and the Nobles. These people forming a miniscule proportion of the population had the temerity to defy the King. Despite clearly seeing that the country was speeding towards financial collapse due to un-even taxation base, they refused to heed any call for reform which entailed reduction of their privileges.
Historians are unanimous in their opinion that the vacillating monarch gave too long a rope to the small number of privileged people whom he could easily have forced to fall in line, but that was not to be. The King could not muster enough courage to take on the Clergy and the Nobles. Thus, France continued to drift with an indecisive monarch at the helm.
The impasse continued as the fiscal position worsened and the people of the first and second estates (Clergy and the Nobles) hardened their stand against attempts to bring them under the tax net. The monarch went back and forth brooding over the apparently intractable problem. An ominous storm was brewing in the horizons of France.