The French Revolution is regarded as a pivotal event in world history. Caused primarily due to a financial crisis, it began with the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The Revolution replaced the monarchy in France with first a constitutional monarchy and then a republic. Many people lost their lives during its course including King Louis XVI, the Queen Marie-Antoinette and the popular leader Maximilien Robespierre. The guillotine, through which the executions was carried out, became known as the National Razor. The Coup of 18th Brumaire, orchestrated by Napoleon Bonaparte on 9–10 November 1799, is regarded as the end of the Revolution. The Revolution altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies and replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Left-right politics, the national anthem of France, its flag as well as its national day; all originated during the French Revolution. Know more about it through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 It was primarily caused due to a financial crisis

Before the start of the revolution, France was facing a financial crisis. This was caused primarily by French involvement in a series of expensive wars. Also, drastic weather and poor harvests caused the price of flour to increase dramatically, which in turn raised the price of bread. Bread was the staple food for most French citizens and it has been estimated that the working class of France was spending upwards of 90% of their daily income on just bread. On top of this, the financial situation of France was worsened by extravagant expenditure on luxuries by the royalty. France was divided into three Estates: the First was the clergy, the Second was the nobility, and the Third was the rest, which comprised around 98% of the French population. As the first two estates had many privileges including exemption from tax, the burden of this financial crisis was placed on the Third Estate and the common people were hungry, unemployed and angry.

Land ownership and taxation chart of the Three Estates
Comparison of land ownership and taxation of the Three Estates

 

#2 Its inaugural event is celebrated as the national day of France

On June 20, 1789, during what is known as the Tennis Court Oath, the Third Estate pledged not to separate until they had given France a constitution. On 9th July they founded the National Constituent Assembly. At this time, soldiers, mostly foreign mercenaries, began to arrive in Paris. Also, Jacques Necker, director-general of the finances who was considered sympathetic to the common people, was dismissed by King Louis XVI. The Parisians interpreted these actions as an attempt toward shutting down the National Constituent Assembly. They responded on July 14 by storming the Bastille fortress, which fell within a few hours. Bastille was acting as a prison but, more importantly, it contained gunpowder and weapons. The Storming of the Bastille is considered by many as the start of the French Revolution. Due to this July 14 is called Bastille Day and is celebrated as the national day of France.

Storming of the Bastille
Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 – Painting by Jean-Pierre Houel

 

#3 The popular tricolor flag comes from cockades worn by the revolutionaries

During the Storming of the Bastille, the Paris militia wore a cockade of blue and red. Blue and red were traditional colors of France with blue being identified with Saint Martin and red with Saint Denis. White was the “ancient French color” and the blue-and-red cockade of Paris was pinned onto the white cockade, thus producing the original tricolor cockade. This cockade became part of the uniform of the National Guard, which succeeded the militia. The colors and design of the French Tricolor Flag are derived from these tricolor cockades. The French Tricolor Flag became one of the most influential flags in history, with its three-color scheme being copied by many other nations, both in Europe and the rest of the world.

Tricolour Cockade
Tricolour Cockade – Created in July 1789

 

#4 The royal family made an unsuccessful attempt to flee from France

On 5th October 1789, a large crowd of protesters, mostly women, began to assemble at Parisian markets to discuss the steep price of bread. After getting unsatisfactory responses from city officials, the women marched from Paris to the Palace of Versailles. They stormed the palace, killing several guards and demanded the king to “live among the people”. Louis XVI ultimately conceded to their demands and agreed to go to Paris with the mob. The royal family in Paris was placed under the “protection” of the National Guards, thus legitimizing the National Assembly. On the night of 20th June 1791, the royal family, dressed as servants with their servants dressed as nobles, tried to escape to Austria. People outside Versailles had no clue what King Louis XVI looked like. However, the face of the king was stamped all over the nation’s gold coins. Thus the king was recognized at the border and brought back to Paris along with his family. He was then provisionally suspended by the Assembly and held under guard.

The Arrest of Louis XVI and his family at Varennes
The Arrest of Louis XVI and his family at Varennes on June 21, 1791

 

#5 The royal couple were decapitated during the Revolution

Due to his attempted flight to Austria, the public, which was already against King Louis XVI, now viewed him as a traitor who wanted foreign intervention to restore the monarchy. His wife Marie-Antoinette was also unpopular among the people. It was rumored that when the Parisians came to Versailles to ask for bread, she replied: “If they can’t have bread, let them have cake”. Though this showed utter disregard for the common people, the Queen never said that. On June 20, 1792, a Parisian crowd laid siege on the Tuileries, the official home of Louis XVI. Fearing further violence, the Legislative Assembly placed the King and the Queen under arrest. King Louis XVI was charged with treason and found guilty on August 10. On January 21, 1793, he was driven through the streets of Paris to a guillotine and decapitated. Queen Marie Antoinette was found guilty of numerous crimes, mostly based on rumors. She was guillotined on October 16. It is said that her last words were “I’m sorry”.

Execution of Louis XVI engraving
A copper plate engraving depicting the Execution of Louis XVI

 

#6 Guillotine became known as the National Razor during the Reign of Terror

In March 1793, the National Convention, the first government of the French Revolution, created the Committee of Public Safety. The role of the committee was to protect the newly established republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. Consisting of 12 members with the most prominent being Maximilien Robespierre, the committee became the de facto executive government in France during a period lasting from 5th September 1793 to 28th July 1794 and known as the Reign of Terror. In the name of ridding the nation of the enemies of the Revolution, an estimated 40,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror. The instrument of execution was the guillotine and it became known as the National Razor and Madame La Guillotine. By mid-1794, Robespierre become a target of conspiracies as the members feared that they could be guillotined next. He was arrested and guillotined on 28th July 1794 bringing an end to the Reign of Terror.

Satirical engraving of Robespierre
A satirical engraving of Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France

 

#7 It came to an end through the Coup of 18th Brumaire

Externally, Revolutionary France was regarded as dangerous by the other European monarchies who viewed it with both fear and anger. This led to the French Revolutionary Wars, a series of military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802. They pitted the French Republic against Great Britain, Austria and several other monarchies. Though it initially suffered various reverses, France, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to conquer a wide array of territories by 1802. Success in the French Revolutionary Wars allowed the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe. Internally, since 1795, the executive power was held by the Directory. It became involved in corruption, political conflict and financial problems. Moreover, it became more and more reliant on the Army in foreign and domestic affairs, as well as finance. Napoleon Bonaparte, along with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Roger Ducos, took advantage of this to carry out the Coup of 18th Brumaire on 9–10 November 1799. The 5 directors were ousted and replaced by three “consuls”. This is generally regarded as the end of the French Revolution.

Coup of 18 Brumaire painting
General Bonaparte surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire

 

#8 Political labels “left” and “right” originated during the Revolution

The left–right political spectrum is a system of classifying political positions, ideologies and parties. Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy. Right-wing politics holds that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable, natural, normal or desirable. The terms “left” and “right” first appeared during the French Revolution. When the French National Assembly met to draft a constitution, the delegates were divided on how much authority should be given to King Louis XVI. The conservative, aristocratic supporters of the monarchy who wanted to give the king more power sat to the presiding officer’s right; while the anti-royalist revolutionaries seated themselves to his left. Due to this, the French newspapers of the time began making reference to the progressive “left” and traditionalist “right”. With time these labels filtered to the rest of the world and they became common by the early 20th century.

 

#9 The national anthem of France was composed during the Revolution

The monarchies of Europe were concerned about the French Revolution and they formed a coalition to defeat France and restore monarchy there. This led to the War of the First Coalition. On 25th April 1792, French Baron Philippe Friedrich Dietrich requested French army officer Rouget de Lisle to compose a song “that will rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat”. In response, Rouget de Lisle wrote Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Army of the Rhine). On being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille marching on the capital, the song became known as La Marseillaise. It was adopted as the Republic’s anthem in 1795. It is now the national anthem of France. La Marseillaise is the first example of the “European march” anthemic style. Its evocative melody and lyrics have led to its widespread use as a song of revolution.

Rouget de Lisle sings La Marseillaise
Rouget de Lisle sings La Marseillaise – Painting by Isidore Pils

 

#10 The French Revolution is regarded as a watershed moment in history

The French Revolution had a great and far-reaching impact that probably transformed the world more than any other revolution. Its repercussions include end of feudalism, lessening the importance of religion; destruction of oligarchies; economic Growth in Europe; rise of Modern Nationalism; and spread of Liberalism. Most importantly the Revolution altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies and replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. It ushered in what is known as the Age of Revolutions, a period in which a number of significant revolutionary movements occurred in many parts of Europe and the Americas. These included the Irish Rebellion of 1798; the Haitian Revolution; the First Italian War of Independence; Sicilian revolution of 1848; the 1848 revolutions in Italy; and the independence movements of Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America.

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