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Q2. Discuss the class structure in France before French Revolution?

ANSWER:

Early modern French society was legally stratified by birth and characterized by extreme inequalities. At the head of the French state was the king, an absolute monarch. Louis XVI was the king of France when the revolution broke out. He was a man of mediocre intelligence, obstinate and indifferent to the work of the government. His ‘empty-headed’ wife, Marie Antoinette, squandered money on festivities and interfered in state appointments in order to promote her favorites.

The state was always faced by financial troubles. Keeping huge armies and waging wars made matters worse and brought the state to bankruptcy.

There were two privileged classes, clergy and nobility who were exempted from almost all taxes but controlled most of the administrative posts and all the high-ranking posts in the army. These two classes had population of 5% only but together owned about 40 per cent of the total land of France. Their incomes came primarily from their large land-holdings and they led extravagant lives.

The rest of the people of France were called the Third Estate. They were the common people and numbered about 95 per cent of the total population. People of the Third Estate were the unprivileged people. However, there were many differences in their wealth and style of living.

Middle class or the bourgeoisie consisted of the educated people— writers, doctors, judges, lawyers, teachers, civil servants— and the richer people who were merchants, bankers, and manufacturers.

Economically, this class was the most important one. It was the forerunner of the builders of the industries which were to transform economic and social life in the 19th century.

The merchant-business groups (guilds), had grown very important and rich, helped by the trade with French colonies in America.

Since these people had money, the state, the clergy and the nobility were indebted to them. However, the middle class had no political rights. It had no social status, and its members had to suffer many humiliations.

Almost 80 per cent, of the Third Estate consisted of the peasants who were forced to lead wretched lives. Though most of the peasants were free, many owned their own lands but a great majority of the French peasants were landless or had very small holdings with very low incomes. Plight of the tenants and share-croppers was worse as they had to pay high rent for land along a number of taxes like:

  • The taille (direct tax)
  • The tithe (church tax)
  • The gabelle (salt tax)
  • Vingtieme (emergency tax for war)
  • Capitation (poll tax)
  • Labour on the roads (corvee royale)
  • Labour on the lord’s land (corvee)

 

Besides taxes, there was also ‘forced labour’ which had been a feudal privilege of the lord and which was more and more resorted to for public works like local roads and bridges. A bad harvest under these conditions inevitably led to starvation and unrest.

Besides peasants there were the artisans, workers and poor people living in towns and cities. The condition of the city poor was inhuman in the 18th-century France and they were looked upon as inferior creatures without any rights. They had to toil for long hours, paid heavy taxes and couldn’t leave their jobs easily. The oppressed workers formed many secret societies and often resorted to strikes and rebellion. This group was to become the mainstay of the French Revolution.

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