In 1715, when the Sun king
died, France was the most powerful nation in Europe.
But the French monarchy flourished on a basis of injustice that led to its dramatic collapse.
The clergy and nobility were exempted from taxation and the burden of taxation fell on
the poorest classes: up to 70 % of the income of peasants was taken by taxation. The wars
to maintain French power and overseas had been expensive, and in 1787 the French
monarchy found itself bankrupt. In order to authorize new taxes the king revived an ancient
representative assembly of France, the Estates - General. But when the assembly met, many
members of the third Estate, the bourgoisie (the other two Estates being the nobility and the
clergy), called for constitutional reforms before new taxes were authorized. The king resisted
and brought up troops from the provinces. Whereupon Paris and France revolted.
The French Revolution
The grim-looking prison of the Bastille was stormed by the people of Paris on July 14, 1789.
The people saw the attack on the Bastille as an attack on the injustice of the Old Regime generally
and the insurrection spread rapidly throughout France. French nobles who opposed the
revolution emigrated to other European countries and encouraged foreign rulers to declare
war on France. When foreign armies gathered on the eastern frontier, the French king began
to conspire with his monarchist friends in Austria and Prussia. This inaugurated a more
radical phase of the revolution. A republic was proclaimed, open war with Austria and Prussia
ensued, and the king was tried and executed for treason to his people.
The Revolution had largely started to protect private property from taxation but its equalitarian
formula led soon to the abolition of priviliges, titles and serfdom. There arose a great flame of
enthusiasm for France and the Republic. France assumed the role of protector of all revolutionaries
not only at home but throughout Europe. French armies exported revolutionary ideas; everywhere
kings were expelled and republics set up. While French soldiers were fighting abroad for the
revolution, often never quite clear in their minds wether they were looting or liberating the
countries into which they poured, the republican enthusiasm in Paris was spending itself in a
less glorious fashion. Rival political cliques fought for power and a great Reign of Terror began
to destroy one group of 'traitors' after another. Finally in 1794, the radical leader during the
reign of terror, Robespierre himself was overthrown and executed.
Robespierre was succeeded by a Directory of five men which held France together for five years.
In 1799 however, a successful young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, overthrew the Directory and
eventually crowned himself emperor of France. Napoleon consolidated many reforms of the
revolution, but his intense egotism carried him to a belated attempt to restore the Western
Empire. He tried to destroy the remains of the old Holy Roman empire, intending to replace it with
a new one centering upon Paris. French armies conquered Italy and Spain and they defeated Prussia
and Austria. But Napoleon never won command of the sea from the British and his fleets sustained
a decisive defeat by the British Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar (1805).
In 1812, Napoleon undertook a disastrous invasion of Russia, whereupon a coalition of almost all
the powers of Europe invaded France, and the emperor was forced to abdicate. Napoleon had given
France ten years of glory and the humiliation of a final defeat. The forces released by the French
revolution were exhausted, the French monarchy was restored and a revolutionary era came to an
(see Napoleonic Wars)