Unlike England, which had modernized both its economic and its political systems in the previous century, ancien régime France was still comparatively regressive. In the wake of the splendid absolute monarchy of Louis XIV (1638-1738), the "Sun King," the later Bourbon monarchs had little interest in the sort of limited constitutional monarchy practiced in Great Britain. And again unlike England, where an agricultural revolution preceded the Industrial Revolution, French agronomy remained firmly traditional, resisting both political advances (such as enclosure) and scientific advances. As a result, the lot of the peasantry was poor, and perhaps as many as a third lived below subsistence levels.
Foreign affairs were also going badly. France lost many of its holdings in Canada, India, the West Indies, and Africa in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), and the cost of the American Revolutionary War was heavy: in spite of France's victory over Britain, the war doubled the French national debt.
The conditions were right for a reaction, and it came most importantly from a circle of intellectuals. Among the most important representatives of the French Enlightenment -- Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau -- there was a strong emphasis on the value of reason in improving living conditions. Tradition was less important than reasoned change: as Turgot wrote in the Encyclopédie, "Public utility is the supreme law, and cannot be countervailed by a superstitious respect for what has been called the intents of the founders." During the second half of the eighteenth century, the fundamentally conservative and traditional monarchy was forced to confront the radical ideas suggested by these Enlightenment thinkers.
The first arena in which this confrontation was played out was in the role of popular representation in the government. The Estates-General had not met for over a hundred years, and the monarchy was more or less unchallenged in its governance. In the middle of the century, though, the aristocratic parlements (the thirteen judicial organizations designed to dispense justice in the Middle Ages) made a radical declaration: they claimed to speak for the nation, and insisted that royal proclamations were legitimate only when registered by the parlements.
The king did not react well to this limitation on his authority. In 1770, Louis XV reasserted monarchical prerogative by dissolving the Paris Parlements. But after his death in 1774, his young son, Louis XVI, evinced some leanings toward moderate reform. He recalled the parlements, and appointed the reformer Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot the Comptroller General. Turgot called for just the sort of moderate reform Louis sought: he abolished the guilds, introduced laws to relieve the peasantry, reduced government spending, and called for the toleration of Protestants, but never seriously challenged the authority of the monarchy.
But this window of reform was open only for a short while. A bad harvest and the opposition of conservative churchmen turned the country against Turgot, and after his dismissal in 1776, the government actively resisted reform. In August 1788, Louis -- in dire financial straits -- called together the old Estates-General for the following year, and invited comments from his subjects on social questions. In May 1789, censorship was officially suspended, resulting in a huge burst of publications of every sort. In encouraging popular participation in the political process, which earlier had been restricted to royalty and the aristocracy, Louis XVI unknowingly changed the dynamics of power. Soon even the Parlement of Paris, which had been the liberal center of reform against an absolutist monarchy, came to be seen not as the defender of the larger public but as the protector of the aristocratic social structures of the ancien régime. This was not at all what Louis had in mind.
The Estates-General opened at Versailles in May 1789, with representation from the ancient three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners -- although in the eighteenth century, the Third Estate meant the bourgeoisie, including bankers and professionals, rather than the peasantry. This Third Estate was by far the most numerous of the three, but the combined power of the nobles and the clergy served to protect the traditional interests. The more progressive Third Estate reacted, therefore, by forming a National Assembly on 17 June, and inviting the other estates to join it. Six days later, the king tried to dissolve this radical new National Assembly. He offered some minor reforms, but the delegates rejected them: sovereignty, they argued, lay in the entire nation, not in the king. Louis responded with force, ordering 20,000 troops into Paris and dismissing the reform-minded finance minister, Jacques Necker, on 11 July.
The result was a popular rebellion. On 14 July 1789, thousands of Parisians invaded the Hôtel des Invalides and seized weapons, then stormed the old royal prison, the Bastille, killing several soldiers, while others hanged royal officials. The Parisian electors expelled royalists from city and local governments. The French Revolution had begun in earnest.
Louis XVI, confronted with an unprecedented popular rebellion, was forced to back down; he traveled to Paris on 17 July to endorse, albeit reluctantly, the National Assembly. On 4 August, he authorized the creation of a new constitution; on 27 August, they responded with the first step, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
The Declaration rejected traditional social relations, and proclaimed natural rights for all men: "men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility." It defined liberty as "the ability to do whatever does not harm another ... whose limits can only be determined by law." Guided by these principles, the delegates devised a constitution with a limited monarchy, one that divided power between the king and the people; but they gave most power to the Legislative Assembly. By contemporary European standards, the king's power was minimal, without even a firm veto power.
Although there was some resistance even among the deputies of the National Assembly, the proclamations from the Assembly became increasingly radical. Nobles were stripped of their titles in 1790, and the franchise was extended to cover about two-thirds of France's adult males. Criminal defendants were given the right to counsel, and government interference in trade was minimized. Local political structures were thoroughly reorganized. Such reforms alienated many aristocrats and royalists, who fled the country in the first of many waves of émigrés.
In September 1792, with news of the Prussian army's advance on Paris, a group of bourgeois and working-class radicals (known as sans-culottes) broke into the Parisian prisons in search of possible counterrevolutionary traitors. Over a thousand prisoners were killed, including over two hundred priests, in the September Massacres. Later in the month the National Convention convened, and tried King Louis XVI on charges of treason. The deputies voted unanimously against him, and a majority called for his execution, which took place on 21 January 1793.
A new constitution, the most liberal in all of Europe, was approved in June, but was short-lived. In September 1793, the Convention imposed a series of draconian measures engineered by Robespierre and directed against counterrevolutionaries. Under the Terror, as the measures came to be known, hundreds of thousands of citizens were arrested; 17,000 were executed, and another 10,000 or so died in prison without standing trial. The constitution was suspended nearly as soon as it was ratified, and the new government, known as the Directory, assumed a degree of control more absolute than anything under the Bourbons. The Directory, it seems, was less concerned with any particular politics than with preserving its own power: in the election of 1797, for instance, the Directory annulled many of the elections won by the royalists in the so-called coup of Fructidor Year V. Only a year later, a popular victory by the more radical Neo-Jacobins was overturned in the coup of Floréal Year VI.
Not all French politics of the age were domestic. The Directory encouraged the expansion of France to its "natural frontiers" -- the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees -- and the left bank of the Rhine and the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) were annexed and subjected to French control. In 1797, General Napoleon Bonaparte attacked the Lombardy region of Italy, driving the area's Austrian rulers from the country. France conquered the Netherlands in the same year, followed by Swizterland, Rome, and Naples. These and other conquered territories were proclaimed "sister republics" -- the Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy, the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands, and the Helvetic Republic in Switzerland -- and subjected to French administration.
But these wars were costly for the Directory, both financially and politically, and power once again shifted. Thanks to his military victories, Napoleon emerged as the most important figure in the coup of the 18th Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), in which the old constitution was nullified and a new government, known as the Consulate, was put in place. As military victories increased his popularity, he further consolidated his power, being named First Consul (the most powerful post in the new government) for life in 1802 and Emperor in 1804. The legislative branch of the government was effectively dismantled and popular elections eliminated or rendered unimportant; Napoleon ruled a thoroughly centralized government with nearly absolute authority.
By 1812, Napoleon's France had annexed or controlled the Rhineland, Holland, Westphalia, Prussian Poland, Spain, and most of Italy, and indeed dominated most of Europe -- the "Grand Empire." But from that point on, Napoleon's fortunes changed for the worse, both on the battlefield and among his own political supporters. When several of his most important supporters turned against him, Napoleon abdicated in April 1814, and a year later Louis XVI's brother returned from Brussels to rule as King Louis XVIII (his nephew, Louis XVII, never reigned). Napoleon managed to regain control of France between March and June of that year, a period known as the Hundred Days; but on 18 June 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo, he was soundly defeated by the British and Prussians, and was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821. After the Napoleonic wars, France was penalized by the victorious allied forces. In the Treaty of Paris in 1815, the French lost Savoy and the Saar basin; and the country was fined 700 million francs and forced to suffer occupation by the allies.
Although Louis XVIII was more conservative than the revolutionary Bonapartists, he also opposed the so-called ultraroyalists, or ultras. In the elections of 1816, his party -- the moderate royalists -- won a clear victory. The result was a period of comparatively moderate rule, which was shattered four years later by the assassination of the king's nephew, the Duke de Berry, by a Bonapartist in February 1820. But the assassination, instead of promoting the Bonapartist cause, only strengthened the hand of the ultras, who increased repression at home (with censorship) and conquest abroad (with an invasion of Spain in 1823). After Louis XVIII's death in 1824, his younger brother, Charles X, the favorite of the ultraroyalists, ascended the throne and tried to recreate the sort of absolute monarchy enjoyed by his predecessors before the Revolution.
Charles's grasp on power was weak, and in 1830, he was overthrown in the July Revolution. In the ensuing chaos, the moderate constitutional monarchists proclaimed the Duke d'Orléans, Louis-Philippe, king.