Pre-revolutionary France was a country enveloped by crisis. Internal barriers, tariffs and trade restrictions hampered economic growth, much to the anger of the nascent bourgeoisie. Politically, power was centralised to an incredible degree in the person of the monarch. King Louis XVI could imprison anybody he liked on a whim and pass laws by decree without any accountability. Archaic socio-economic practises, relics from the middle ages, were still in place. The majority of the population was still tied to the land and the corvée, forced unpaid labour performed by peasants for their lords, was particularly resented. Inspired in no small part by the American Revolution, significant sections of the population were discussing concepts like liberty and justice, and pondering what they might mean in French conditions. The most immediate crisis, from the perspective of the ancien regime at least, was fiscal. Deeply indebted, ironically this was due, in no small part to the French military intervention in North America to support the revolution, they were faced with an archaic tax system. While our elites today rely on creative accountancy to avoid taxation the French nobility and clergy had a much simpler solution; they were exempted by law from the taille, the land tax which brought in much of the state’s income. The tax burden, therefore, fell solely on the shoulders of the subaltern classes. Particularly detested was the gabelle, a tax on salt, which was an absolute necessity for the preservation of food. The profligate spending of the royal family contributed towards an untenable situation.
Attempts to reform the tax system moved at a snail’s pace and were largely unworkable. A proposed new land tax would have required all the land in France to have its value assessed; a process that would have taken decades, notwithstanding the numerous obstructions any inspectors would inevitably have faced. The king vacillated at first. Some advisors, particularly the most powerful nobles, called for draconian measures to be taken against those who stood in the way of the decrees of the monarch, who, according to official dogma, was put on the throne by God. Other more pragmatic figures called for social and political concessions to be offered in exchange for consent for a more arduous tax regime. There was an increasing clamour for the Estates-General to be convened. Representatives of the three estates, the nobility, clergy and commoners, would be elected by each group to, depending on who you listened to, advise the king, force their solutions upon him or something in between.
Louis XVI instead convened the Assembly of Notables; an institution where the king appointed the attendees rather than having them forced upon him by the people. Between 1787-8 the assembly became deadlocked. The Princes of the Blood, relatives of the king, along with Archbishops and other representatives of the elites present, blocked even the mildest reforms which would have made them eligible to pay tax. The king was forced to call elections to the Estates General but received little political credit for having done so. He had clearly explored every other avenue before acceding to what was popularly demanded.
The elections to the Estates-General were accompanied by the compilation of cahiers de doléances, books of grievances, by each of the estates. Their demands were by no means limited. The clergy called for bishops to no longer be allowed to hold multiple offices and were keen to ensure that no more rights would be afforded to minority religions. Perhaps surprisingly, the nobility were largely open to reform, with most, outwith the great lords of the land, seemingly willing to forego their financial privileges and calling for modernisation of the state. In part this was due to elements of the bourgeoisie who had paid for minor titles being counted within this group but the high numbers calling for reform, in some form at least, would suggest that the scale of the crisis, in all its manifestations, meant that even the nobility saw the urgent need for reform. While their intentions were undoubtedly different to those of the third estate the fact that they were so critical of the crown and state apparatus points to a breakdown in the hegemony of the ancien regime. What was most important though was the response of the third estate. Mass meetings were called all across France and all the issues of the day were discussed: from financial privileges to agricultural pests. A culture of political discussions was forming: something which would be continued throughout the revolution via pamphlets, newspapers and debating clubs. There was now no custom, law or practise which was beyond questioning. Importantly, they were granted twice the representation of the other estates, in respect of their greater numbers amongst the population. They thought this would give them the upper hand.
When the Estates-General was opened, on 5 May 1789, amidst great pomp and ceremony in Versailles, it was clear that Louis XVI and his advisors still didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. The nobility and clergy, dressed in full regalia, were ushered in before the representatives of the third estate, who were forced to wait outside for several hours. It soon became clear that the king had decreed that voting would be carried out by estate rather than by delegate. Inspite of having secured double representation the third estate would have no more influence than either of the two other groups. To cap it all off the king and his ministers made it clear that they saw the Estates-General as a means to solve the fiscal crisis and nothing more; discussion was to be limited to taxation only. As, inevitably, the debates became deadlocked rage and disillusionment with the institution grew, both within the meeting hall and without it. Just six weeks later the delegates of the third estate declared themselves to be the National Assembly, in effect the government of France. The revolution had begun.