Generally the revolution in any country is riot caused by any single cause but is the result of a combination of causes, even though the immediate cause of the revolution may be provided by some single incident. This is also true of France.
As Chateau Briands had observed, "The French Revolution sprang from a combination of intellectual ferment and material grievances, and it was the intellectual ferment that made the material grievances more fiercely resented." The chief causes which contributed to the outbreak of Revolution in France may be studied under the following heads:
1. Political Causes.
The political factors played an important role in bringing about the revolution. On the eve of Revolution the French administration was characterized by nepotism and the various posts were given to nobles and aristocrats, who were rarely conscious of their duties. People hardly possessed any share in administration and the system of election was also non-existent.
There was no uniform system of laws in the country and they differed in complexion. As Hazen puts it, "What was lawful in one town might be illegal in a place not five miles distant. Almost four hundred bodies of law were in force in different parts of France." The state officials behaved in most autocratic manner and there was no check on their authority. Even the Crown behaved in an autocratic manner.
The word of the King was considered as the law of the land. The people enjoyed hardly any rights. The system of trial did not exist and people could be thrown into prison for unlimited period without trial. The ruler hardly cared for the interests of the people and squandered huge sums on luxuries.
No effort was made to keep expenses within the budget. In fact, as Hazen observes, instead of matching expenditure according to the income, the income was devised with a view to satisfy the whims of the King. This naturally involved high dose of taxation. Strangely enough the burden of taxes fell on the common people who were already leading a miserable life.
While the nobles clergy and members of royal household were exempted from taxes, the common people were required to pay separate taxes to the Crown, the clergy and the landlords. In addition they were subjected to various types of income-tax and toll tax. Quite often the peasants were also required to work on roads without payment.
The farmers who refused to render unpaid labour were required to remit Quit Rent to the Royal Treasury. Further on the death of a freeman or on his selling "land one-fifth of the income had to be handed over to the state. In short, the burden of taxation was quite heavy and produced general discontent among the farmers and proletriat.
What is still worse that the rulers of France were immoral and impotent and never felt concerned about effecting improvement in administration. Louis XVI who ruled over France at the time of the revolution was a symbol of the qualities of the rulers.
About Louis XVI Robertson says, "He was slow witted, sleepy, self-indulgent and with no .interest but hunting, shooting, amateur, lock-making and the theatre." He believed in perpetuating autocratic rule and made no bid to tone up the administration. The French Revolution was the direct outcome of the ugly deeds of Louis XVI.
Queen Marie Antoinette, who exercised considerable influence on Louis XVI, behaved in a much worse manner. She not only interested in the day-to-day administration of the country but also squandered away enormous sums on frivolous things without caring for the financial position of the country.
Robertson has rightly observed "Marie Antoinette was ignorant, frivolous and prodigal daughter of the Bapsburgs to whom France seemed only a bottomless purse to be drained for her pleasures." her Austrian links further made people hate her.
In the words of Grant and Temperly Marie Antoinette's Austrian origin was a disaster both to herself and to her husband. It made her unpopular in the country when France again came into antagonism with Austria (during the Revolution she was constantly denounced as the Austrian woman)." Hence the conduct of Louis XVI as well as his Queen Marie Antoinette proved quite disastrous for France.
2. Social Causes.
No less significant than the political causes were the social causes. One the eve of Revolution the French society was characterized by extreme inequalities. Broadly speaking the society consisted of two classes-:the privileged and the unprivileged. The privileged classes included the aristocrats, the nobles, the clergy. The non-privileged classes consisted of peasants, merchants and shopkeepers as well as commoners. They did not enjoy any privileges and had to bear the burden of heavy taxation.
The privileged classes which constituted only one per cent of the total population of France held almost forty per cent of the land. In addition to this vast tracts of forests and hunting lands were reserved for them. The pets and cattle of the privileged classes often grazed on the crops of the poor peasants and they could not do anything about it. This naturally gave rise to a feeling and hatred and rancour among the peasants towards the privileged classes. All the importance posts in the State and the Church were also given to the members of the higher classes. On the top of it they were exempted from taxes.
The unprivileged class consisted of the bourgeoisie and the commoners. This included traders, merchants, artists, litterateurs, physicians, lawyers, writers, low government officials and bankers. This category of people made immense progress and often lent money to the nobles as well as the government. The major burden of taxes also fell on them. They greatly reseated the existing privileged position of the nobles, clergy and members of royal family.
3. The Economic Causes.
But it was the economic factors which played most significant role in bringing about revolution in France. On account of the wars waged by Louis XIV, the national debt of France had greatly increased. Unmindful of the depleted condition of the French treasury the king continued to squander money on the construction of royal mansion at Versailles. No doubt Louis XV tried to improve the finances but under his successor Louis XVI the condition of the French treasury became awful.
Under the impact of his Queen Marie he continued to squander money. The debt of France rose to almost eight crore dollars. Even the budget showed a deficit of two and a half crore dollars. Thus France was virtually on the brink of bankruptcy.
Louis XVI sought to set the things in order by proposing in the Council a tax on the nobles, but the proposal was turned down on the plea that the Council was not competent to propose any taxes and the decision could be taken only by the Estates General.
Under the circumstances Louis XVI was obliged to summon the session of the Estates General in 1789, which led to the outbreak of the revolution. According to Robertson, "The very mention of the Estates General was enough to set France ablaze. It was, as if a fraudulent firm, unable to meet its liabilities, had been forced at last to lay its affairs before a meeting of the creditors.
4. Impact of the American War of Independent.
The American War of Independence also greatly contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. As a traditional rival of England, France extended full sup- port to the American colonies in their war of independence which caused a serious strain of French maniacal position and ultimately culminated in the French Revolution.
The people of France also felt the impact of the revolutionary ideas, and were convinced that no reforms in the administration of the country could be carried out without doing away with the special privileges of the nobles.
As the prevailing government was not willing to do away with these privileges the only way left open to them was revolution. As Webster has observed, "This War of American Independence became an eye-opener to the nations of Europe and in particular gave courage to the leader of the French Revolution.
5. Role of Intellectuals.
The intellectuals of France played a very significant role in bringing about the revolution. They not only highlighted the excesses of the government and other privileged classed*but also aroused the people's feeling against the prevailing inequalities.
They created a sense of dissatisfaction among the people with regard to the existing conditions and encouraged them to nourish a feeling of hatred against nobles, clergy and other higher classes. For example, Montesquieu challenged the theory of divine right of the king and insisted that the king should be chosen by the people.
He pleaded for introduction of constitutional government in France on the pattern of England. Voltaire through his writings exposed the high-handedness of the clergy and the nobles. Rousseau raised voice against arbitrary and tyrannical rule and propounded the concept of democracy. On purely administrative grounds also he considered democracy as the best form of government. He asserted that the king should hold office only so long as he enjoyed the confidence of the people.
However, David Thomson holds that there was only a very remote connection between the ideas of the Philosophers and the outbreak of the revolution. The French philosophers never preached revolution and were willing to extend support to any monarch who was prepared to patronize them and follow their teachings.
It was only in the later part of the revolution that their views were used to justify the revolution. He argues that only in one way the philosophers contributed to the outbreak of French revolution viz. by fostering a critical and irreverent attitude towards the existing institutions and encouraged the people to challenge the foundations of the old order. In short, it can be said that the philosophers heralded the revolution but did not originate it.