French Society of 18th Century

We are aware of the condition of the France in the 17th and 18th century. There was acute financial and administrative crisis as we have seen in the previous post. Now we will understand somewhat about the structure of the French Society of the 18th century.

French Society: Economic Crisis
French Society: Economic Crisis

French Society

The natural outcome of the economic and administrative crisis in a nation is the social crisis. French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates:

  1. Clergy
  2. Nobles
  3. Peasants

The society of estates was part of the feudal system. The term Old Regime is usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789. Peasants made up about 90 percent of the population. However, only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated. About 60 percent of the land was owned by nobles, the Church and other richer members of the third estate.

The members of the first two estates, the clergy and the nobility, enjoyed certain privileges by birth. The most important of these was the exemption from paying taxes to the state. The nobles further enjoyed feudal privileges whereas common people or peasants had all responsibilities to pay taxes but had no privileges.

Estate Generals
Estate Generals


The Church took its share of taxes called tithes from the peasantry class. finally, all members of the third estate had to pay taxes to the state. These included a direct tax, called taille, and a number of indirect taxes which were levied on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco.

The burden of taxes was borne by the third estate alone. This was the pain for the peasantry class as they were unprivileged ones though they were paying taxes for the state.

Role of Louis-XVI

This pain was at its peak when the Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette by their actions and follies made the republic inevitable. There is a famous Latin saying which just fits them:

quem deus perdere vult, prius dementat, whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad. There is an almost exact equivalent in Sanskrit- Vinash Kale Viparit buddhi.

The Seven Years’ War had meant defeat for the France and was thus a blow to the monarchy. Bankruptcy came nearer and nearer. The French participation in American Civil war and the maintenance of extravagance of the court at Versailles meant more expenditure.

In this situation, the privileged class was still not in the mood of paying taxes. They were not in the mood to kerb their illogical expenditure. Yet money had to be raised not only to pay debts but also interest on debts. This whole burden was supposed to be borne by the common masses or third estate.

Louis-XVI and Marie Antoinette at Palace of Versailles
Louis-XVI and Marie Antoinette at Palace of Versailles

Versailles in 1789

An English writer Carlyle describes the situation of France in his peculiar style and writes:

With the working people again, it is not well. Unlucky! For there are from twenty to twenty-five millions of them. Whom, however, we lump together into a kind of dim compendious unity, monstrous but dim, far off, as the canaille; or, more humanely, as ‘the masses.’ Masses indeed; and yet singular to say, if, with an effort of imagination, thou follow them, over broad France, into their clay hovels, into their garrets and churches, the masses consist all of the units. Every unit of whom has his own heart and sorrow; stands covered there with his own skin and if you pinch him he will bleed.

In these whole circumstances, the increased population led to increasing demand of foodgrains. Things became worse whenever drought or hail reduced the harvest. This led to the subsistence crisis (An extreme situation where the basic means of livelihood are endangered).

Now the enlightened and well educated middle class played their role very precisely and mould the people anger into a holistic revolution.

French Society: Enlightened Middle Class

French Society: Enlightenment Class
French Society: Enlightenment Class

In the France eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of social groups, termed the middle class, who earned their wealth through an expanding overseas trade. From the manufacture of goods that were either exported or bought by the richer members of society.

As we know circumstances gives the modification to the phenotype of people. So this was the period of high suppression and exploitation which gave birth to the rationalist ideology. All of these rationalists were educated. They believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth. A person’s social position must depend on his merit.


The most famous writer of the time on rationalistic and other subjects was Voltaire, a Frenchman. He was imprisoned and banished, and who ultimately lived at Ferney near Geneva. Voltaire hated injustice and bigotry and he waged war against them. His famous cry was Ecrasez I’infâme.

According to the Voltaire, creativity is the great force in this world which leads to growth and development. He emphasised on Freedom of Expressions. He stated:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

He lived to a great old age (1694-1778) and wrote an enormous number of books. In one of his books, he says that:

A man who accepts his religion without examining it is like an ox which allows itself to be harnessed.

Voltaire’s writings had great influence in making people incline towards rationalism and new ideas.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

He was contemporary but younger than Voltaire. Rousseau’s writings on religion and politics raised quite an outcry.  In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke sought to refute the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch. His best-known book is the Social ContractDu Contract Social. And this begins with a famous sentence:

The Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.

He also said that Kingship is not a gift of God to the individual rather it is the outcome of the contract between ruler and ruled. So it is the duty of rulers to respect the wishes of people. For this, he coined terms equality, fraternity and liberty.

His political theories played an important part in preparing the people of France for the great revolution. His books and ideas certainly sowed the seed in men’s minds which blossomed out in the revolution.


According to Montesquieu, Monarchy was based on absolute despotism. So, it was generally not in the favour of people’s interest. So in his book The Spirit of the Laws- Esprit des Lois he proposed a division of power within the government between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. He stated:

There is no nation so powerful, as the one that obeys its laws not from principals of fear or reason, but from passion.

The United States of America was following this method of division of power after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain. The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights were an important example for political thinkers in France.


An encyclopaedia also came out in Paris about this time. This was full of articles by Diderot on political and social subjects. He stated:

Disturbances in society are never more fearful than when those who are stirring up the trouble can use the pretext of religion to mask their true designs.

France of the 17th and 18th century was seemed to be full of philosophers and thinkers. They were read and succeeded in making a large number of ordinary people think their thoughts and discuss their theories. The government had no money to spend and debts grew.

“Madame Deficit” became the nickname of Marie Antoinette. There was no way of raising more money. In such situation, the news that Louis XVI planned to impose further taxes generated anger and protest against the system of privileges. So, the deadlocked condition formed the background of French Revolution.

French Society versus India under British Raj
French Society versus India under British Raj

We will discuss the different phases of the French revolution in coming post. 🙂

Thank you so much. 🙂 Stay connected. 🙂




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