The French Revolution 5 May 1789–9 November 1799

The political and administrative structures of pre-revolutionary France were subject to the absolute rule of the monarch, with each region having its own historic and regional peculiarities. In the north, which operated on a system of unwritten feudal laws, many of the provincial capitals had either ‘Sovereign Councils’ or parliaments, modelled to resemble the Paris parliament. This was distinct from the south, which operated under shared Roman law. These bureaucracies had become venal and hereditary, with many positions filled by nobles who were granted tax exemptions and often did little work, alienating the middle classes, rural and urban poor.

By 1789, Paris was the largest city in France and, on the eve of the Revolution of 1789, had a population of 600,000–650,000. In 1701, Louis XIV had relocated the royal court to Versailles, knocked down the city wall, replacing it with boulevards, introduced the faubourgs (suburbs) and began an extravagant building programme which included the Place Vendome. By 1789 Paris was famous for its buildings and its rich café culture but the French state was on the verge of bankruptcy, particularly after a series of failed harvests. Severe poverty was exacerbated by raised taxation and food shortages, creating tension between the urban (and rural) poor and nobility. The tension continued to increase and on 14 July 1789, a mob, looking for arms, stormed the Bastille, an armoury, fortress and jail near the Faubourg St Antoine. The storming of the Bastille led to the French Revolution.

Confronted by an uprising of the peasants, the National Constituent Assembly declared the abolition of the feudal regime and promulgated the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming liberty, equality, the inviolability of property and the right to resist oppression. The lands of the Roman Catholic Church were nationalized and the chaotic administrative system of the ancien regime was set aside and replaced by a rational system of départements, cantons and communes. Revolutionary committees were placed in a series of towns, replacing or sharing power with town councils. It was proposed that legislative and executive powers were to be shared between the king and an assembly. Louis XVI was weak and vacillating, swayed by various advisers and fundamentally unwilling to share power. When he attempted to flee the country on 20–21 June 1791 he was captured and brought back to Paris.

Initially, the European powers seemed content to spectate, with a mixture of horror and schadenfreude, as France succumbed to revolution. The seizure (and – on 21 January 1793 – the execution) of the French king Louis XVI transformed perceptions, spurred on by agitation from influential emigrés: this was now an existential threat to the status quo, which had to be eliminated. By 1793 there were tensions between the different revolutionary groups (the Girondins and Montagnards) and one of the architects of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, attempted to crush counter-revolutionary and Federalist activism by introducing ‘the Terror’, a series of mass guillotinings.

Anticipating an attack from neighbours who were alarmed by the possible spread of revolutionary ideas or keen to take advantage of the chaos, France declared war on Austria and Prussia in spring 1792. They in turn invaded northern France, facing defeat at Valmy in September. The emboldened French armies overran the Austrian Netherlands and crossed the Rhine, capturing a series of German towns. In the wave of patriotic euphoria that followed, national conscription was introduced, organized by the revolutionary committees. The French now faced a massive coalition, including Britain and Spain, and their inexperienced armies suffered a series of defeats, notably at Neerwinden (1793). Rebellions broke out, including in Toulon, where a young Napoleon Bonaparte won plaudits for his brilliance in recapturing the city. The stage was set for Napoleon’s irrevocable rise to power, which would culminate in a coup d’etat in November 1799.