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The French Revolution- NCERT Notes UPSC

Jul 04, 2022

The French Revolution- NCERT Notes UPSC

The French revolution started in 1789 and ended in 1799. During this revolution, a series of events started by the middle class shook the upper classes. The people revolted against the cruel regime of the monarchy. This revolution put forward the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality.

Dive deep into the article to get valuable information on the topic and enhance your UPSC CSE preparation. 

French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century

  • Louis XVI of the Bourbon family of kings ascended the throne of France in 1774.  Louis XVI upon his accession found an empty treasury because of the following reasons:
  • France's involvement in wars.
  • Participation in the American War of Independence added a billion lives to debt to the already tight financial situation.
  • To overcome the challenging financial situation; Louis XVI planned to impose more taxes to meet the expenses of the state. 
  • This step generated anger and protest against the system of privileges present in the French Society which eventually led to the outbreak of the French revolution.

French Society during the Late Eighteenth Century

  • During the late eighteenth century, the French society was divided into three estates: Clergy (the first estate), Nobility (the second estate) and Commoners (the third estate). 
  • The society of estates was part of the feudal system that dated back to the middle ages.
  • The members of the first two estates i.e., the clergy and the nobility, enjoyed certain privileges by birth. For example, Exemption from paying taxes to the state.
  • The third estate of society which consisted of peasants, artisans, court officials and lawyers paid taxes.
  • Peasants made up about 90 per cent of the population. However, only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated. 
  • About 60 per cent of the land was owned by nobles, the Church, and other richer members of the third estate. The Church levied direct taxes on peasants such as tithes, and taille and indirect taxes on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco.
Related Key Terms
Tithes: A tax levied by the church, comprising one-tenth of the agricultural produce.
Taille: Tax to be paid directly to the state.
Livre: Unit of currency in France, discontinued in 1794.
Clergy: Group of persons invested with special functions in the church.

 The Struggle to Survive

  • The subsistence crisis in France traces its genesis in the rise in population from about 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789. 
  • The rise in population led to demand for food grains. But the production of food grains could not keep pace with the demand and as a result price of staple items rose rapidly. 
  • Most workers were employed as laborer’s in workshops whose owner fixed their wages. But wages did not keep pace with the rise in prices. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor widened.
  • Things became worse whenever drought or hail reduced the harvest. 
  • Thus, the rise in population, meager wages, and natural calamities led to a subsistence crisis.
Subsistence Crisis:
An extreme situation where the basic means of livelihood are endangered.

A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges

  • The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of social groups, termed the middle class who earned their wealth through expanding overseas trade and from the manufacture of goods such as woolen and silk textiles.
  • In the third estate, people such as lawyers or administrative officials were educated and believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth. Rather, a person’s social position must depend on his merit.
  • These ideas envisaging a society based on freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all, were put forward by many philosophers. 

The Outbreak of the Revolution

  • In the backdrop of the deteriorating financial situation of the state; Louis XVI called an assembly of the Estates-General to pass proposals for new taxes on 5 May 1789.
  • In Estates-General the first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, while the third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members.  Peasants, artisans, and women were denied entry to the assembly. 
  • Members of the third estate demanded that voting should be conducted by the assembly as a whole where each member would have one vote unlike on the earlier pattern where each estate had one vote.  However, the king rejected this proposal.
  •  On 20th June, the representatives of the third estate led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès assembled on the grounds of Versailles and declared themselves a National Assembly. They swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for France.
  •  Louis XVI finally accorded recognition to the National Assembly and accepted the principle that his powers would from now on be checked by a constitution.
  • On the night of 4 August 1789, the Assembly passed a decree abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes.

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He was born in a noble family but acted as a crusader against the feudal privilege of society.
He brought out a journal and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles.
Abbe Sieyes: Originally a priest, wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘What is the Third Estate’?
The Estates General was a political body to which the three estates sent their representatives.

France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy

  • France became a constitutional monarchy in 1791 which transferred the powers of   monarchs to different institutions – the legislature, executive, and judiciary.
  • The National Assembly was indirectly elected; citizens voted for a group of electors, who in turn chose the Assembly.
  • Voting Rights: 
  • Not all citizens had the right to vote. Only men above 25 years of age who paid taxes equal to at least 3 days of a laborer’s wage were given the status of active citizens i.e., entitled to vote. 
  • The remaining men and all women were classed as passive citizens. 
  • The Constitution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, and equality before the law, were established as ‘natural and inalienable rights.
Constitutional Monarchy: It is a form of monarchy in which the sovereign exercises authority in accordance with a written or unwritten constitution.

The political system under the Constitution of 1791

France Abolishes Monarchy and Becomes a Republic

  • Louis XI entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia in a bid to restore his powers which were undermined by the enforcement of the constitution.
  • However, before the negotiations could materialize the National Assembly voted in April 1792 to declare war against Prussia and Austria. 
  • People joined war voluntarily; they saw this as a war of the people against kings and aristocracies all over Europe. Among the patriotic songs they sang was the Marseillaise, composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle.
  • The revolutionary wars brought losses and economic difficulties to the people. Political clubs such as Jacobins became an important rallying point for people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their own forms of action. 
  • Jacobins stormed the Palace of the Tuileries, massacred the king’s guards and held the king himself hostage for several hours.
  • Later the Assembly voted to imprison the royal family. Elections were held. 
  • From now on all men of 21 years and above, regardless of wealth, got the right to vote. 
  • The newly elected assembly was called the Convention.
  • On 21st September 1792, it abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic
  •  On 21 January 1793 Louis XVI was executed publicly at the Place de la Concorde on the charge of treason.
The MarseillaiseThe Marseillaise was a patriotic song sung by people during the war against Prussia. 

It was composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle.It is now the national anthem of France.

Jacobin ClubJacobin Club was a political club in France that started during the French Revolution.

The members of the Jacobin club belonged mainly to the less prosperous sections of society

They included small shopkeepers, artisans such as shoemakers, pastry cooks, watchmakers, printers, as well as servants and daily-wage workers. Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre.

Members of the Jacobin Club known as San-culottes.

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The Reign of Terror

Robespierre's government’s tenure from 1793 to 1794 is referred to as the Reign of Terror.

  •  Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment.
    • He executed – ex-nobles, clergy, members of other political parties, and even members of his own party who did not agree with his method.
  • His government issued laws placing a maximum ceiling on wages and prices.
  • Equality was also sought to be practised through forms of speech and address. Instead of the traditional Monsieur (Sir) and Madame (Madam) all French men and women were henceforth Citoyen and Citoyenne (Citizen). 
  • Robespierre pursued his policies so relentlessly that even his supporters began to demand moderation. Later, he was convicted by a court in July 1794, arrested, and on the next day sent to the guillotine.
The guillotine is a device consisting of two poles and a blade with which a person is beheaded. It was named after Dr Guillotine who invented it.

A Directory Rules France

  •  A new constitution was introduced after the fall of Robespierre's government which denied the vote to non-propertied sections of society.
  • It provided for two elected legislative councils
  • A Directory was appointed with an executive made up of five members. 
  • This was meant as a safeguard against the concentration of power in a one-man executive as under the Jacobins.
  • However, the Directors often clashed with the legislative councils, who then sought to dismiss them.
  • The political instability of the Directory paved the way for the rise of a military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. 

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Women Participation in Revolution

Women were active participants in the events which brought about so many important changes in French society.

  • However, Women were deprived of political rights as men; the Constitution of 1791 reduced them to passive citizens. They demanded the right to vote, to be elected to the Assembly and hold political office.
  • In order to discuss and voice their interest women started their own political clubs. For Example, The Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women was the most famous of them. 
  • In the early years; the revolutionary government led by Robespierre introduced laws that helped improve the lives of women. For Example:
  • Together with the creation of state schools, schooling was made compulsory for all girls. 
  • Marriage was made into a contract entered into freely and registered under civil law. Divorce was made legal and could be applied for by both women and men.
  • However, during the Reign of Terror, the government issued laws ordering the closure of women’s clubs and banning their political activities.
  • Women’s movements for voting rights and equal wages continued through the next two hundred years in many countries of the world. In 1946, women in France won the right to vote after a long struggle.
Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793):
Olympe de Gouges protested against the Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen as it excluded women from basic rights.

In 1791, she wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, in which she addressed the Queen and to the members of the National Assembly, demanding equal rights for women.

In 1793, Olympe de Gouges criticized the Jacobin government for forcibly closing down women's clubs. She was tried by the National Convention which charged her with treason. Soon after this, she was executed. 

The Abolition of Slavery

  • The French colonies in the Caribbean – Martinique, Guadeloupe, and San Domingo – were important suppliers of commodities such as tobacco, indigo, sugar, and coffee.
  • The slave trade began in the seventeenth century between Europe, Africa, and the Americas to cater to the needs of plantations in these colonies.
  • The National Assembly held long debates about whether the rights of man should be extended to all French subjects including those in the colonies. But it did not pass any laws, fearing opposition from businessmen whose incomes depended on the slave trade.
  • In 1794, the Convention legislated to free all slaves in the French overseas possessions.  
  • However, this turned out to be a short-term measure.
  • Ten years later, Napoleon reintroduced slavery.
  •  Slavery was finally abolished in French colonies in 1848.
The elected assembly formed in France in 1792 was called Convention. It abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic.

The Revolution and Everyday Life

  • The years following 1789 in France saw many such changes in the lives of people. The revolutionary governments passed laws that would translate the ideals of liberty and equality into everyday practice.
  • In 1789 censorship was abolished.
  • Newspapers, pamphlets, books, and printed pictures flooded the towns of France from where they traveled rapidly into the countryside.

Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

  • In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. 
  • Napoleon saw his role as a modernizer of Europe. He introduced many laws such as the protection of private property and a uniform system of weights and measures provided by the decimal system. 
  • Initially, many saw Napoleon as a liberator who would bring freedom to the people. But soon the Napoleonic armies came to be viewed everywhere as an invading force. He was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.


  • 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.

Some Important Dates

  •  1774:  Louis XVI becomes king of France, faces an empty treasury, and growing discontent within the society of the Old Regime. 
  • 1789: Convocation of Estates General, Third Estate forms National Assembly, the Bastille is stormed, peasants revolt in the countryside. 
  • 1791: A constitution is framed to limit the powers of the king and to guarantee basic rights to all human beings. 
  • 1792-93: France becomes a republic, and the king is beheaded. The overthrow of the Jacobin republic, a Directory rules France. 
  • 1804: Napoleon became emperor of France, annexing large parts of Europe.
  • 1815:  Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

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