Jul 14, 2009
Every year, the people of France celebrate 14 July as the National Day in memory of an event that marked the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, exactly 220 years ago. The event was the storming of the Bastille in Paris by the revolutionaries that took place on 14 July 1789. Bastille was a medieval fortress that was used as prison to confine political dissidents and criminals. It was the symbol of the royal authority. Though Bastille had only seven prisoners when it was attacked and destroyed by the revolutionaries, the incident became the flashpoint of the French Revolution. Subsequently 14 July became an icon of the French Republic and a public holiday, formally known as the ‘Fete de la Federation’ (Federal Holiday). Usually, 14 July has been called ‘Bastille Day’ in English.
The French Revolution of 1789, that gave to the world the noble ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ can be considered as the ‘Mother of all Revolutions’. These ideals have been enshrined in the constitutions of various nations including India. It was the first modern revolution that changed the structure of the French society rather than simply replacing the existing ruler or political system.
While discarding the old system of society and polity known as the ‘Ancient Regime’, the French Revolution of 1789 brought forth new ideologies and produced the modern doctrine of ‘nationalism’ which spread throughout Western Europe and eventually to the rest of the world.
The political, social and economic conditions that existed prior to 1789 amply justify the revolution, though its bloody course cannot be condoned. Before 1789, France combined an absolute monarchy with feudalism. Autocracy, arbitrary rule, corruption and inefficiency of the administrative officers were the order of the day. The extravagant life-style of the royal family represented by the magnificent Palace of Versailles constructed by Louis XIV (1643-1714), the luxurious taste for jewellery, fine clothes and extravagant life-style of Queen Marie Antoinette, consort of the incumbent Bourbon ruler, Louis XVI coupled with lengthy and disastrous foreign wars and economic distress due to famine pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
Social condition in France was antiquated, irrational and oppressive. The French society was based on the principle of inequality. The society was divided into three classes known as the Estates, the clergy (church officials) and the nobility formed the first two privileged Estates. They paid no taxes to the state. On the contrary they collected various dues from the common people who formed the Third Estate. The first two Estates cornered important positions in the government and the church and owned most of the land while the Third Estate, majority of whom were peasants lived a life of misery. The bourgeoisie (middle class) who formed a section of the Third Estate was a disappointed lot as it was denied access to higher positions in the administration. The entire burden of the taxes of the state was born by the Third Estate.
Meanwhile, the French philosophers, especially Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau who were the staunch critics of the abuses of the church and absolute monarchy fired the imagination of the French people trough their writings, plays and essays. While being critical of the French system of government and social structure, they pointed out the merits of the British constitutional system and the society which was liberal. Economically and financially France was at the verge of bankruptcy. The expenses of maintaining the huge Palace of Versailles, the cost of the French participation in the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and the unequal system of taxation put the country on the path of ruin.
Though Louis XVI tried to improve the economic and financial condition of the country by appointing efficient persons as finance ministers, their uggestions for economic reforms were scuttled by the vested interests and their suggestion to tax the privileged classes-clergy and nobility was opposed by them actively supported by the Queen Marie Antoinette.
As the financial crisis got out of control, Louis XVI summoned the defunct Estates General, a form of parliament representing the three Estates that was not convened since 1614. The Estates General met on 5 May 1789. The convening of the Estates General by the King inadverantly sowed the seeds of the French revolution of 1789.
Realizing their strength, the members of the Third Estate demanded the conversion of the Estates General into the National Assembly with power to draft a constitution for France. This demand was opposed by the King and the first two estates. Even force was used to disperse the representatives of the Third Estate. The attempt to scuttle the parliamentary process by the King, supported by the clergy and the nobility led to the famous ‘Tennis Court Oath’, by which the members of the Third Estate pledged that they would disperse only after they drafted a constitution for France. Gradually, some of the liberal nobles and clergymen also joined the representatives of the Third Estate and Louis XVI reluctantly gave his approval for the formation of the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July 1789.
In order to intimidate and break the National Assembly, Louis XVI began to muster troops around Paris. This provoked the impoverished and angry Parisian mob to attack the prison fortress of Bastille on 14 July 1789, and set free the prisoners. The storming of the Bastille, the symbol of royal absolutism, marked the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789.
The French Revolution that began in 1789 continued for a decade till 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte captured power through a ‘coup de etat’. During this decade of the Revolution, France witnessed the accomplishment of the revolutionary ideals and drafting of constitution, political turmoil, large scale massacre and bloodshed, foreign wars and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The National Assembly took up the task of dismantling the old order and drafting of a constitution for France. Absolute monarchy made way to constitutional monarchy and feudalism and serfdom were replaced by an
egalitarian society. Religion was kept away from politics by separating the church from the state. The Church land was confiscated and the clergy was brought under the supervision of the state. “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ that included the democratic values of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ was one of the greatest contributions of the National Assembly. The Bourbon white flag was replaced by the revolutionary tricolour (Red-White-Blue).
Fearing the danger to the life of the King, Queen and other members of the royal family, the neighbouring states led by Austria to which Queen Marie Antoinette belonged, invaded France. A number of nobles had already fled the country to save their lives though they had lost their properties. Meanwhile, the King and his family tried to escape from France in disguise to save their lives. But they were detained at the frontier and were brought back to Paris. King Louis XVI was executed by the revolutionaries on 21 January 1793 and the Queen and other members of the royal family followed his fate soon after.
The revolutionary government rounded up all those who were suspected to be the enemies of the Revolution and were mercilessly put to death through a killing machine known as the ‘Guillotine’. This phase of the Revolution was known as the ‘Reign of Terror’ which was one of the darkest periods of the history of France during which thousands of innocent people were sacrificed at the altar of the Revolution.
France experienced disturbed political future with inefficient governments and foreign wars. Finally, in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, who had risen as an ambitious military officer captured power in France and established his personal rule. Having coroneted as the Emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon went on to conquer a major part of the European continent. In the course of his wars of conquest, Napoleon became the torch bearer of the ideals of the French Revolution.
Dr Eugene D`Souza - Archives: