What was France like before and after the French revolution?

  1. The French Revolution turned France into a democracy, i.e., gave constitutent power to the people, and implemented equality of all before the law.
  2. Powers were centralized in one single national and rational administration, rather than given to land rulers (lords, barons...) all over the territory.
  3. While people of good birth used to rule the country before the Revolution, this power was slowly transferred to people with a lot of money, often entrepreneurs, known as the bourgeoisie (not being a Marxist... that one is a French term).
  4. Two important laws changed the economy in 1791: Décret d'Allarde, Loi le Chapelier ; both liberalized the economy, and turned regulated capitalism into free market capitalism.

You may want to read L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, by Tocqueville, in order to find out the French Revolution was a long process, which changed the main social structures of the French society over time. The violent outcome in 1789 was only a tiny part of it.


The main changes brought by the French Revolution were the abolition of privileges and the suppression of Monarchy.

Therefore, before the French Revolution, those two aspects were existing.

The society was divided by a strong hierarchy. On top of the pyramid was the King. He had a lot of power, nearly every powers, but there was no abuse of it (Most people  think kings tend to overuse their powers to control everything). He used his powers wisely because he was chosen by God himself, and he couldn't afford to loose God's trust playing with his power, so he used them only when it was really needed.

He held the executive, the legislative and the judiciary powers, so he could pass laws, make it applied on his kingdom, and execute those who disrespected it.

He had several castles, and depending on the wealth of the country he could order some new ones (as the Chateaux de la Loire). The last French King, Louis the XVIth, lived in Versailles, a very expensive castle, with all him relatives, close friends, and people he liked, but also people from noble or notary families.

Under the King were the Lords. They had each a part of the kingdom and ruled on it. They had a lot of powers but had to obey to the King.

Every Lord had his own castle on his own land, which was exploited by his people, mostly farmers and craftsmen. The Lords had the power of life and death on them, and could do Justice as they wished, as long as the King didn't intervene during the trials to take it over. Most of the time, Lords weren't very objective and could easily condemn the charged person to death. Therefore, the King could change the outcome of the trial to make it fair, and condemn himself to the right sentence. 

As the country was rural, the subjects of the Lords cultivated their fields, cut their forest, hunt their games, and achieve every other kind of chores. They would take the least quantity possible to survive and give the main part to their Lord.

In exchange, the Lord would protect his subjects against enemy menaces.

Under the Lords were the 'Bourgeois', which would be from the current middle class. They had enough money not to have to work, and they started the French Revolution due to the fact they were fed up of having to respect the Lords. They mostly lived in towns at some distant of the Lords' castle to be independent, where they lived by themselves.

Beside this hierarchy, the Pope had a lot of influence too. The Church had some part of the power and could do Justice. Most of the time, they would juge Christian people, and anyone within the religious order. The sentences were weaker, as they couldn't condemn to death as it would offend God.

The Church could also decide some laws. Church was a main part of people's life and they lived to go to Paradise rather than hell. They would pay some regular fees just to be sure to be blessed.

At last, there were eleven Parliaments over France. Each Parliament had to write down the new law in a register so it would take effect on their 'district'. Of course, as the King had every powers, he could easily use the mechanism of the "Lit de Justice", to come down to the Parliament and force it to write the law.

After the French Revolution, everything changed as the bourgeois took the power. They beheaded the King, and suppressed privileges. This meant Lords weren't powerful anymore, and the most powerful ones were also beheaded.

The Bourgeois installed a government which followed the principles of freedom, liberty, and equality for everyone. This really worked and social peace was there, as people could express themselves and hadn't orders to follow anymore.

This was at first nice, but soon Robespierre took the power and started a period called La Terreur (The Terror). During that civil war, the former Lords and people wanting a King in France wanted to set things back and fought the Revolutionists.

From 1793 to 1794, 500.000 people were jailed, and 100.000 were slaughtered due to political opposition. This was the most gruesome part of the French Revolution.

Robespierre was beheaded in 1794, and shortly after Napoléon Bonaparte took the power in 1804, claimed the Empire, and became the dictator everybody knows, extending French Empire in most of Europa and some parts of Africa.

So, to resume, people weren't free before the French Revolution, as they had to follow orders from the King or Lords, but the French Revolution didn't bring freedom and peace. It set France in a climat of war and distress for several years to come due to all the perturbations created. It was the first most significant Revolution in Europa and this movement spread far beyond French borders. 


Before the French Revolution - life was great for the Royal Family, the Aristocrats & the church & mostly horrendous for everybody else.

During the French Revolution - so many deaths, on all sides, of those who supported the old regime, as well as those who opposed it.

After the French Revolution - not as many aristocrats left, of those that remained - their wealth & power was curtailed, as was the wealth & power of the church, life improved for common people.


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