French Revolution Explained

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Relevance: Mains GS I- History of the world.


French Revolution was an important 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. For the first time ideas like “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” were introduced.

Causes for French Revolution

Inherent contradiction within French society was the main driving force for this revolution.


  • Despotic rule: From 1553 there was the despotic rule of the Bourbon dynasty in France.
    • The complete centralization of power alienated all sections of the society.
  • Legal Jeopardy: Centralised power with the king such that his word was the law.
    •  However, every province, feudal and clergies had their own laws. So there was a legal quagmire that burdened the people.
  • Defective Judiciary: Compounded with multiple laws courts were at various levels were filled by loyalists.
    • This naturally led to the loss of faith in the institution of the judiciary.
  • Imperial Conquest and Economic Burden: The competition for colonies naturally lead to disputes with other colonial powers like the British.
    • To support wars in the colonies the King relied on domestic taxes, this has naturally burdened the working class.
  • The incompetence of Louis XVI: From his accession in 1774, Louis XVI had faced a worsening financial situation, compounded by the money and troops sent to assist the Americans in the war against Britain.
    • France failed to gain the expected benefits.
    • He was ruling France at the time of the revolution.
    • Although the spark of revolution was already lit his incompetence added further fuel to the fire. 


  • Apart from political alienation, social factors like inequalities instigated the people to revolt. The hierarchy in the society also contributed to the revolt.
    • Feudal: Higher posts in civil and military were reserved for them.
      • Though their population was less than1% they were holding 60% land.
      • Poor common people were working on the land as bonded labourers.
    • Clergies: Religion had a great influence on King and people. Clergies were owners of 1/5 land of the nation. Lands were tax exempted.
    • Common People (Third estate): This class was in majority but they were at the bottom rung of the social and economic hierarchy.
      • They had to pay 4/5 taxes and worked as bonded labourers on the land of the upper class.


  • Luxurious Clergies: The clergies of France were included in the upper class.
    • They hardly paid any taxes and had strict controls on people social life.
    • However, Clergy and their institutions were rampant with immoral activities which angered the common people.
  • Roman Catholics and their monopoly: Reformist Protestants were minorities. Since they advocated reforms the clergy persecuted them and even charged them with blasphemy.


  • Montesquieu: His book 'Spirit of Laws' was popular with the masses as it criticized monarchy, advocated parliamentary democracy.
  • Frene: As an economic reformist advocated reforms in agriculture, trade and business.
  • Voltaire: As an atheist, he was a bitter critique of the clergy.
    • Monarchy and religious corruption were his main subjects. So he suggested overthrowing Burbo and establishing a limited monarchy.
    • Due to his ridicule writing, he was jailed in Bastille.
    • During the course of the revolution, his thoughts were accepted and implemented.
  • Rousseau: Rousseau is a great political philosopher of the modern period.
    • Though being a theist he criticized clergies for their corruption and hypocrisy.
    • He propounded Welfare and limited monarchy, the sovereignty of people, liberty, creative change, right of people of passing the law, social contract etc.
    • His work inspired and lit the fire of revolution.


  • Feudal economy: The government did nothing to improve farming, feudal too neglected it and exploited farmers.
    • The sustained neglect was the main cause of the Serfs revolt against the king.
  • Unsatisfied merchants: There was ample mineral wealth in France. Many rivers like Sen, Rhoan, Luar and Atlantic, the Mediterranean seashore was useful for the development of trade.
    • However, due to uncertain taxation and legal hurdles merchants were highly dissatisfied with the monarchy.
  • The burden of taxes: Taxes were imposed on common people and exempted the rich and the clergy.
  • The bankruptcy of France: Due to oppressive government people were suffering poverty and starvation.
    • There was societal, moral and economic stagnation in the society.

American Revolution and its impacts:

  • The ideals of the American Revolution like Equality, Liberty and Fraternity inspired the French to overthrow Monarchy.
  • The ideas of Thomas Paine enlightened the French.
  • As French soldiers participated in the American war these ideas were ingrained by French Soldiers. 
  • French soldiers that had returned from America after the revolution proved to be a major vehicle of transfer of progressive ideas to the French society.

Important events

  • Meeting of the Estates-General:
    • The Estates-General was reluctantly summoned by King Louis XVI in May of 1789 with an aim to solve the monarchy’s financial crisis.
    • There were three classes represented by the Estates-General: the nobles, clergy and the rest of the population of the so-called Third Estate.
    • Each estate had only one vote. As a result, the nobility and clergy could always overrule the Third Estate.
    • Fearing they would be forced to bear the burden of the financial crisis, the members of the Third Estate decided to form their own National Assembly.
    • After being locked out of the meeting of the Estates-General, they moved to an indoor tennis court where they pledged the so-called Tennis Court Oath, vowing to remain there until a new constitution had been written.
  • Fall of the Bastille:
    • In July 1789, an angry crowd marched on the Bastille, a medieval fortress in east Paris that was mostly housing political prisoners.
    • To many in France, it was considered as a symbol of the much-hated Louis’regime.
      • The commander of the Bastille surrendered to the mob.
      • King Louis XVI could no longer reverse the Revolution.
      • National Assembly became de facto the French government.
  • March on Versailles:
    • Many people in Paris and the rest of France were hungry, unemployed and restless.
    • In October, a large crowd of protesters, mostly women, marched from Paris to the Palace of Versailles, convinced that the royal family and nobility there lived in luxury, oblivious to the hardships of the French people.
      • They broke into the quarters of Queen Marie Antoinette.
      • The crowd demanded bread and wanted to bring the King and his family back to Paris to “live among the people”.
      • Louis conceded to their demands and agreed to go to Paris with the mob, believing it would only be a temporary inconvenience.
    • After some time the royal family decided to leave France and seek refuge in Austria, hoping to eventually be reinstated on the throne as absolute monarchs. Before leaving, Louis wrote a manifesto denouncing the Revolution.
    • On June 20, 1791, the royal family quietly left Paris. They managed to get within a few miles of the border before being recognized in the town of Varennes and forced to go back.
  • Dissolution of the National Assembly:
    • The long-awaited constitution finally came into effect on September 30, 1791.
    • France was proclaimed a constitutional monarchy, while the National Assembly was dissolved and replaced by a new political body named the Legislative Assembly.
    • No member of the National Assembly was elected to the new legislative body as it was agreed earlier that the members of the National Assembly would not be allowed to hold a seat in the new parliament.
    • The result was the loss of everyone with valuable political experience.
    • The Legislative Assembly was composed of various political factions, ranging from moderate royalists to radical republicans.
  • French Revolution Wars:
    • The issue of war dominated the debate in the new Legislative Assembly.
    • Tensions with the rest of Europe continued to rise.
    • Revolutionary France was viewed with both fear and anger by the European monarchies, especially by the neighbouring Austrian monarchy.
  • Attack on the Tuileries Palace:
    • In the spring and summer of 1792, the Austrian army and its Prussian allies started advancing into the French territory.
    • The King was widely viewed as a traitor for trying to flee the country.
    • On August 10, a crowd of about 20,000 people attacked the Tuileries Palace.
    • The King and Queen had escaped the Palace and placed themselves under the protection of the Legislative Assembly. Fearing further violence, the Assembly placed them under arrest.
  • Declaration of the Republic and the Trail of Louis:
    • Following the arrests of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Legislative Assembly disbanded and replaced itself with a new political body named the National Convention.
    • The first act of the latter was to declare France as a republic on September 21, 1792. 
    • Meanwhile, the French military had halted the foreign invasion and pushed back the Austrians and Prussians.
    • Louis was charged with treason. The vote at the end of the trial was unanimous: Louis was guilty.
    • On January 21, 1793, Louis was driven through the streets of Paris to a guillotine and decapitated.

Reign of Terror

  • The new National Convention was dominated by the Committee of Public Safety.
  • Robespierre came to dominate the Committee and established himself as the leader of the so-called Reign of Terror.
  • Robespierre wanted to rid France of all enemies of the Revolution and to protect the “virtue” of the nation.
  • From September 1793 to July 1794, an estimated 16,000 people were guillotined.
  • Many radicals were executed along with moderates. Most leaders of the French Revolution were now either dead or had fled the republic.
  • Opposition to Robespierre grew both in the Committee of Public Safety and within the National Convention.
  • The execution of popular Committee member George-Jacques Danton and Robespierre proclaiming himself as the leader of a new religion of the Supreme Being caused much resentment.
  • Robespierre was arrested and guillotined.

Directory and the Rise of Napoleon

  • After the dramatic fall of Robespierre, the National Convention created a new constitution for France that was implemented in 1795.
  • Leading the new government was the Directory consisting of an executive council of five members.
  • Almost from the start, the Directory became mired in corruption, political conflict, financial problems and depended on the army to remain in power.
  • In 1799, a successful military commander named Napoleon Bonaparte returned from a military expedition in Egypt and ousted the Directory.
  • Napoleon established what he called the Consulate and himself as the First Consul.
    • Napoleon Bonaparte is one such character whose sheer brilliance, valour, charisma and strength seduced his contemporaries and left coming generations in awe.
    • Though his checkered career is marked by a complex mix of highs and lows, these vicissitudes couldn't eclipse the achievements Napoleon made in short time duration.
    • His reforms were as under – 
      • Centralisation of Power: Napoleon centralized the government, putting control firmly in the hands of the national government. Advancement in the civil service and the military was based on merit rather than rank. The tax system was applied equally to all.
      • The policy of Conciliation: By the policy of conciliation he offered various posts and bought peace among different factions. In this way of conciliation, he tried to take the cooperation of all for national problems.
      • Social Equality: Napoleon rejected, liberty and emphasized more on equality. As an ardent believer of equality followed the policy of equal tax, equal concession in trade, service as per ability and rule of law.
      • Religious Reforms: Napoleon followed accommodative policy by pardoning errant clergy and restoring the status of preeminence again. He signed 'Religious Contract' (Concordat) with Pope Payas 7th in 1802. This agreement stayed in effect for the next 103 years in France.
      • Economic Reforms: Napoleon reformed the economy by fixing the tax system, Imposing taxes on salt, tobacco. He established the Bank of France which was one of the soundest banks in the world.
  • Causes of the downfall of Napoleon-
    • Militarism: Extended militarism in France- recruited large armies, trained and hastened them.
      • With their help he conquered territories. His militarism led to militarism in other countries – Austria, Prussia, Russia, etc.
      • Finally, their combined militarism defeated Napoleon.
    • Limitations of Individual Ability: Highly centred over a personality and after certain age fatigue and exhaustion led to the downfall of Napoleon.
    • Continental System: He regarded England as his first enemy and was determined to humble her.
      • Due to the lack of a strong navy, he failed to bring England to her knees. 
      • The enforcement of the policy compelled him to interfere with many countries and thereby roused national resentment.
      • The continental policy acted as a boomerang and destroyed him.
      • Campaign of Russia-1812: Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 was his blunder.
        • His Grand and the successive army were completely destroyed and along with that his prestige.
        • It was his retreat from Moscow in a helpless condition that encouraged his enemies to join hands and bring about his fall.
      • Brave and Strong Opponents: Many brave, clever Generals were available in rival groups.
        • Arthur Welsley of England, Blucher of Prussia, Kutchap of Russia, Scozanburg of Austria were capable Generals.
        • They studied the strategy of Napoleon and planned their own strategy accordingly.

Consequences of the French Revolution

  • Political:
    • Establishment of a New Order: A new order was established based on the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’.
    • The idea of Republic: Although a permanent republic could not be established in France, nevertheless the French revolution marked an end of the ancient regime.
    • The main theme of the French Revolution was “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity“.
    • The new constitution proclaimed the doctrine of popular sovereignty as enshrined in Rousseau’s Social Contract.
    • Spread of Nationalism: Napoleon’s conquests had such a great impact that the revolutionary ideas of nationalism, patriotism and democracy spread throughout Europe.
    • End of monarchy: The Revolution of 1789 sealed the fate of monarchy, once for all. It paved the way for democracy.
    • Independence for colonies in South and Central America: The wars with France weekend the European colonial powers like Spain and Portugal and their colonies in South and Central America declared themselves independent.
  • Social:
    • Large scale emigration: The displacement of the Frenchmen led to a spread of French culture and ideas.
    • Feudalism abolished: The French Revolution abolished all elements of feudalism including serfdom. The privileges of the clergy and the nobility also came to an end.
    • Social Reforms: The National Assembly, followed by the National Convention, began several social and economic reforms.
      • It abolished slavery and imprisonment for debt.
      • Women were guaranteed protection in their property claims in common with men.
      • New laws of inheritance were passed, by which all heirs were to inherit the property equally.
    • Metric system: The Metric system was another effect of the Revolution, which was later adopted by the whole of Europe and some Asian countries too.
    • The lands of the Church and the nobles were confiscated and these were bought by the middle classes who now became politically powerful.
  • Economic:
    • Capitalism became the new economic system.
    • Napoleonic Economic policies- economic unity under Napoleon, continental policy etc.


  • The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important legacy of the French Revolution.
  • These spread from France to the rest of Europe during the nineteenth century, where feudal systems were abolished.
  • Colonised peoples reworked the idea of freedom from bondage into their movements to create a sovereign nation-state.
  • Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy are two examples of individuals who responded to the ideas coming from revolutionary France.

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