Almost all revolutions have a spark.
The spark for the French Revolution was actually another revolution. The revolt of the American colonies against British rule in the 1770s planted the seeds of revolution in France. France and the USA became closely linked, as the French King tried to use the American War of Independence as an opportunity to strike at the heart of Britain's empire. Although Britain was left reeling by the departure of the thirteen American colonies, the effects were felt far more keenly in France, where the ideals of liberty began to take root amongst intellectual thinkers.
However, if the American War of Independence was the spark, there still had to be powder for the spark to ignite the explosion of the French Revolution. That powder was essentially the more immediate causes of the French Revolution: social inequality and the French king's financial difficulties.
Before 1789, France was governed by an absolute monarch. He was an autocratic ruler. This meant that he shared power with no-one, and whilst he did have ministers to advise him, he could dismiss those ministers whenever he wished, and he often did not listen to their advice. His will could not be questioned, and had to be obeyed. This style of government is sometimes referred to as the Ancien Regime.
However, King Louis XVI was aware of the need to be less autocratic. There was a huge lack of consistency in the laws across different regions of France, which made governing consistently difficult. The king also recognised the need for his subjects to consent to some of his decisions in order to receive their co-operation. This was particularly true in the case of taxes, where lack of consistency and the need for consent were major issues.
Society in France at the time was split into different 'estates' or groups. Unlike feudal society, where the king was at the top of society with all the power, the nobles below him, and peasants at the bottom, the estates system was complex. There were three main estates: the nobles, the clergy (Church) and the professional (or business) class. The peasants and city workers were not included in the system. (We cannot talk about a working class in society at that time, as this concept did not emerge until the middle of the 19th Century). Despite making up over 90% of the population, neither the peasants or poor city workers had the right to vote.
However, there were divisions, even within each of the three estates. Not all nobles were actually rich. In fact, some of them were very poor, but did not dare to work, as this would risk diminishing their status. For these families, the prospect of new taxes by the King were very unwelcome, and they were the most keen to avoid even the existing taxes. Some were even prepared to move to certain parts of the country where tax laws were laxer. Nonetheless, this part of society generally had the most influence with the King, and therefore had the most power.
There was also a rich-poor divide amongst the clergy. The bishops and leading church figures were very wealthy. The church did not pay tax, but did collect a tithe (creaming off one tenth of the wealth of the land to help fund the church). The average priest, however, was not wealthy, living in conditions that were only slightly better than the peasants. Whilst the clergy were respected by a significant part of French society, it was only the bishops that had real power and influence.
The professional estate, was essentially made up of businessmen. This was a growing class, which was essentially made up of merchants and wealthier factory owners. Their closer interactions with the poorer class meant that they were more aware than any other estate of the need for reform. This was all the more important as the number of city workers in Paris was estimated to be around 300,000 in 1789 (around half of the population of the city).
The problems for the lowest classes in French society were, fairly obviously, related to wealth. Prices had risen by 65% in France over the 50 years before the revolution, yet wages had only rise by 22%. Their money therefore bought less, an issue that was made worse by the poor harvest of 1788, which saw prices soar even higher.
It is therefore clear that the country had enormous social problems, which needed urgent and radical solutions. However, if it had not been for the financial issues that the country faced, the French Revolution would almost certainly never have happened.
By the 1780s, France was in financial crisis. The country's debt was huge. The King had borrowed huge amounts of money to fight the Seven Years War (1756-63) and to both fund and help the USA in the American War of Independence (1775-83). When a budget was drawn up in 1788, it emerged that there was a 20% shortfall between the country's income and how much it was spending. 48% of the country's money was being spent on trying to manage these debts.
As the extent of the country's financial troubles became more and more clear, King Louis XVI was forced to call an assembly of France's notables (144 aristocrats and bishops), who met in February 1787. There had not been a meeting of the notables for over 150 years.
As they became aware of how serious the situation was, the notables tried to exploit this, demanding that a number of reforms be made before they considered granting the King the taxes that he needed. Although Louis agreed in principle to a number of reforms, the notables still did not agree to new tax, and the King therefore disbanded them on 25th May 1787. With no solution to his financial problems, Louis was forced to call the Estates General, which would go on to demand far more radical reforms. As a result, the French Revolution was actually begun by the rich, and their refusal to help the King, rather than the poor!
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Want to Learn More?
Try reading The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle
You could also try Chapter 1 of Robert Harvey’s War of Wars: The Epic struggle between Britain and France: 1789-1815.