Causes of the French Revolution

Causes of the French Revolution

The French Revolution that spanned from 1789 to 1799 marked a turning point in the history of France. It transformed the country from a monarchical state with strong adherence to a rigid class structure and hierarchy to a modern nation with a loose social structure. This historical event also became one of the defining moments of the Age of Enlightenment and it also produced some of the most prominent historical figures which included Napoleon Bonaparte and other influential personas in French society.

 Origins: Understanding the Causes of the French Revolution

The causes of the French Revolution are complex. Scholars have laid down several explanations and some have presented different events that provoked a widespread public revolt against what was deemed as the “Ancien Régime” or the existing social and political structure of the Kingdom of France. Nevertheless, in consideration of the timeline leading to the revolution, the emergence of a revolutionary atmosphere in France can be attributed to the following interrelating factors:

1. Deregulation of the Grain Industry and the Public Reaction

France started experimenting with free-market principles due to the influence of the physiocrat economics that emerged from the Age of Enlightenment. One of the influential adherents of this concept was economist and statesman Anne Robert Jacques Turgot who served King Louis XVI as his Controller-General of Finances. Nevertheless, acting on his duties, he released an edict in 1774 that deregulated the grain trade and the entire French grain industry.

It was a damning economic policy. The deregulation was enacted a year before a grain shortage in 1775. The abrupt policy also triggered a runway price increase that was worsened further by harsh winters that affected agricultural output and trade routes. Several towns and provinces in France suffered from famine. The Flour War of 1775 ensued from the waves of riots transpiring across the northern, eastern, and western towns and provinces of the country.

Nonetheless, although the Flour War was controlled, it had a lasting impact. The series of events broke the confidence of the public in the effectiveness of the monarchy to feed its people and in the role of the feudal system. The disappointment was expressed further through rumors that the king orchestrated the shortage to inflate food prices and starve the poor. Unrest lasted in several rural areas. The image of the French monarchy never recovered.

The Great Fear also emerged in 1789. It involved peasants and townspeople mobilizing against their landlords. Several modern scholars have noted that this was a prelude to a more prevalent revolution. Modern analyses, such as the work of French history professor Nicolas Bourguinat argued that the deregulation of the grain trade, the resulting Flour War, and the sustained public discontent all served as one of the causes of the French Revolution.

2. Political Opposition Between the Monarchy and the Nobility

Louis XVI of the House of Bourbon served as the King of France before and during the French Revolution. However, even though he was supposed to hold absolute authority overall all of his subjects, the reality was that numerous rights and privileges were held by provinces, towns, and corporate bodies, as well as the aristocracy or the French nobility and the clergy. This rendered the French monarchy under Louis XVIA with a limited power to govern.

It is also important to underscore the fact that the pervasive conflicts between the monarchy and nobility represent one of the defining characteristics of the Ancien Régime prior to the French Revolution. The predecessors of Louis XVI had tried to suppress the authority of the nobles but with limited success. The influence of the French nobility stemmed from the legacy of the feudal system, tradition, and informal agreements with noble families.

The conflict between the two political factions worsened when the French monarchy rolled out a tax reform to raise funds needed to cover its debts incurred from its involvement in the American Revolution. The tax reform involved all landowners irrespective of their privileges but spared the already overburdened peasantry. The provincial parliaments spearheaded by the members of the French nobility resisted. This led to the Aristocratic Revolt in 1788.

Nevertheless, because of the longstanding conflict between the French monarchy and the French nobility, and their worsening relationship due to various political circumstances that emerged in the latter part of the 1700s, the class struggle for power has been considered one of the causes of the French Revolution. There is a strong argument for this. The conflict made the entire French government vulnerable to internal sociopolitical strife and external attacks.

3. Spread of Ideologies from the Age of the Enlightenment

There was also a growing realization about the realities of social inequality in France. Note that the members of the nobility and the clergy owned vast tracts of land. They were also exempted from paying taxes before the tax reform. The members of the Third Estate, which consisted of the peasantry and the commoners, had to remit taxes to the government and tithes to the church. This worsened their impoverished situation and created public resentment.

However, based on the book “The Enlightenment: History of An Idea” by renowned professor and professor Vincenzo Ferrone, a novel ideology was spreading across Europe. It also noted that the ideas about equality and freedom presented by Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire also took ground in France. A growing number of the citizenry started embracing these ideas while contemplating on the current state of their country.

The influence of the Age of Enlightenment in the history of France was demonstrated primarily by the emergence of thinkers and writers. Ferrone noted that the number of authors who tackled ideas related to the Enlightenment doubled between 1750 and 1789. One of these known authors was Voltaire whose works criticized the hypocrisies of both the French monarchy and the French nobility and the pervasiveness of injustices in the Ancien Régime.

Other thinkers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau challenged the status quo along with Voltaire and other authors. These included the contentions against the divine right of kings, the promotion of popular sovereignty and the social contract theory, and advocacies relating to natural rights or basic human and civil rights. These ideologies from the Age of Enlightenment were instrumental in educating France and its citizens about the realities of social inequality.

4. Specific Material Factors that Lead to a Bourgeois Revolution

Marxist scholars have explained that the causes of the French Revolution stemmed from material factors. To explain further, because of the increasing population of France, a shortage in the food supply became inevitable. The available land area also became smaller. This forced landowners to exploit further their sources of revenues. Take note that this became more prominent after the grain trade deregulation and the resulting grain shortage in 1775.

Several of these Marxist scholars have also argued that the revolution in France was a bourgeois and capitalist revolution. Henry Heller, a specialist in early French modern history, mentioned in his book “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1915” that capitalism was becoming more widespread in France during the 18th century. This economic phenomenon was shaping both the social structure of France along with its entire economic landscape.

It is important to underscore the fact that capitalism in France marked the rise of the bourgeois or the middle class who acquired wealth from their respective trades. These people were originally part of the Third Estate or the class of commoners who later evolved to become a class of their own because of their novel socioeconomic role, social status, and unique agenda. The growing wealth of these people translated to a certain level of influence.

Nevertheless, because of capitalism, the wealth of the middle class became sufficient enough to seize political power from the monarchy and traditional nobility amid the sociopolitical tensions in French society. The landed nobility did not pay enough attention to the rising influence of the bourgeois due to their existing strife with the monarchy. Some of these nobles even allowed the bourgeois to rise in power to challenge the existing monarchial rule.

Conclusion: Understanding the Origins of the French Revolution

It is important to note that no single reason outclasses all other causes of the French Revolution because this historical phenomenon was a product of other interrelated events and factors. It is also worth mentioning that the fact remains that the insurgency in France that began in 1789 and lasted until 1799 was a result of separate but interweaving factors that collectively demonstrated the weakness of the Ancien Régime or the problems with the French monarchy and the French nobility. Nevertheless, despite the absence of a single point of origin, the impacts of the French Revolution were felt not only in France but also across Europe and the rest of the world. Photo credit: Eugène Delacroix/La Liberté guidant le peuple/1830/Public Domain/Adapted


  • Bourguinat, N. 1997. “L’État et les violences frumentaires en France sous la Restauration et la Monarchie de Juillet.” Ruralia. Retrieved online.
  • Ferrone, V. 2015. The Enlightenment: History of an Idea. Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0-691-161457
  • Heller, H. 2009. The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1915. New York: Berghahn Books: ISBN: 978-1-84545-169-1