France’s history is peppered with enthusiasm of the good life. Just as the French are known for their passionate nature, so too are the events that constitute France’s socio-political history. Many of France’s great thinkers have contributed a number of concepts that are used in modern society such as the concept of property and the state. However, the country’s most notable contribution is its historical accounts of successful revolutions since it has inspired other countries to follow the same route.
During the late 17th century, France’s budding economy was reaping the benefits of capitalism; the state of its people in general was not in good condition, particularly those who lived in the rural areas. This has led many of its destitute citizens to question the direction of the monarch’s rule and its intention to stay in power. As a result, people from the bourgeoisie and the urban poor had opted to go against the oppressive ruling classes in the hopes of toppling down the power and distributing it to the people, creating a balanced society.
Still, after countless revolutions and reform programs, the destitute were still large in numbers, whilst the ruling classes remained to be in control of all the changes proposed during the reformation. The outcome of such revolutionized efforts in the old regime has brought into light the grounds to which extremist ideas did not seem to help the poor in France win the battle over property and human rights. The impoverished citizens in France constitute a large part of the population.
In William Doyle’s book The Oxford History of the French Revolution, it was noted that 20 million people are found in the rural areas, accounting for about 90 % to 95 % of the population. About 80 % were said to have resided in villages of 2,000 or less during the reign of Louis XVI. This was due to the fact that in the past, the French society had practiced the concept of feudalism in managing the lands, dividing its citizens by three orders: the clergy, nobility and commoners.
The clergy was the overseer of most of the lands though they share land entitlements with the nobility or the upper classes. The commoners were said to have been the general poor who worked for the nobles and clergy. They are not given the right to own the land as they are considered as property of their masters. This kind of stratification was already marked in birth, and is one of the triggers that fueled the French revolution since the tension created in the communities where specific privileges were bestowed upon certain individuals or groups isolated the peasant majority.
At the onset of capitalism in the country, overseas trade became the forerunner that pushed the country into expanding its economy, which was set for its long-term development. Though progression has given opportunities for the poor to obtain work, especially in the urban areas, it did little to uplift the poverty rate since most often; a strict criterion was enforced that limited those who could avail the jobs in the cities. The wages were also not reasonable enough to sustain the living of most workers since the bourgeoisie class controlled most of the profits earned in their businesses and are often only circulated amongst them.
In Doyle’s book, the inconsistency of the price increases in bread was said to have caused riots in the urban communities since most of the urban poor depended upon bread for their diets. This has led many of the urban workers to protest and instigate revolts against the factory owners. In effect, most of the urban poor suffered from poor health since the environment and the working conditions in which they were subjected to were not beneficial to them.
After the onslaught of the bourgeoisie revolution that took over Bastilles, the peasant majority started to hope for the attainment of social inequity since they thought that most of the middle classes shared the same sentiments but they did not foresee that the change brought about by the revolution would still not favor them. In reference to Lynn Hunt’s book The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, the commencement of the French revolution gave way to the establishment of a new set of laws that was inclusive of the marginalized poor.
In 1789, a National Assembly was conducted in response to the growing chaos that had swept the country’s social systems wherein it discussed injustices experienced by both the rural and urban poor. Propositions to the King were made via the Estates-General elections, which was aided by the representatives from the three different class orders to determine the distributions of the land. However, the discussion did not reach a consensus as most of them could not agree on how to vote and what is deemed to be viable for the community.
The following year, a Civil Constitution for the Clergy was administered, which intended to obtain the church lands that accounted for about 10 % of whole land area of the country. This did not sit well with most of the clergy as they did not want to give up the privileges accorded to them, harboring great resentment from the peasantry. The assembly also argued about the technicalities that comprise legal rights wherein a distinction is made between active citizens, who were granted full rights to vote and hold office, and passive citizens who were under the same laws, but could not vote or hold office.
While the three order division was not being considered, another form of class stratification took its place, as it determined the status of a citizen based on one’s income level, gender, race, religion, and profession. To add more insult to injury, the Le Chapelier Law of 1791 further differentiated workers from property owners. This action was said to have banned worker associations or unions from developing since the upper and middle classes thought it would be a hindrance to national unity.
According to Boyle, the reluctance for distributing power to the poor communities was due to the likelihood of widespread fear of further unrest. Another reason was said to have been inclined to those who understood the aims of the enlightenment since they believe that only those who are knowledgeable could be trusted to exercise reason, or to think for themselves. Furthermore, many of those free-thinking nobilities argued that economic-based perceptions of the workers mirrored corporate guilds which would encumber individual freedom.
The role that poverty has played at the beginning of the French revolution was used mostly as a tool for the bourgeoisie to control the finances of the country. The revolution was used as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, which offered the peasantry as bait in the scheme of things. While the revolution did produce a great deal of change for the state of France, the presence of the bourgeoisie and the stance of the few privileged has contributed to the stagnation of what the revolution could have been.
Courtney from Study Moose
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