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France was not always the generally peaceful country which we know today. In the 1700s, France underwent an enormous upheaval which undermined its Monarchy and changed to a Republican government.

But how did it all start? Well, in 1789, the people of France decided that it was…

…the Last Straw

When King Louis XVI of France ascended to the throne, the country was already nearing bankruptcy. Historians generally think that Louis XVI’s predecessor, King Louis XV, is to blame. Louis XV had fought many wars; therefore sending the country into an economic crisis. Naturally, the people of France were not happy with that, as taxes were raised very high for the starving nation. At that time, the streets of France were terribly dirty, and diseases were common. There were many people living on the streets as well. For the impoverished people, looking at the well dressed royals stuffing themselves certainly did not help matters.

In fact, it was the last straw.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

In 1789, the people of France, lead by Napoleon Bonaparte, began the fight against the monarchy. But what really started the ball rolling was the Tennis Court Oath. The Tennis Court Oath was the historic event where 576 out of the 577 members of the Third Estate (the Third Estate consisted of the everyone who was not rich, in other words, the poorly paid working class people, and the even poorer, poorly paid peasants) and a few members of the First Estate were fed up with the Monarchy, and gathered themselves into an indoor tennis court and solemnly swore a collective oath which goes as follows:

We swear never to separate ourselves from the National Assembly, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is drawn up and fixed upon solid foundations.

Not long after the Tennis Court Oath, they stormed the Bastille prison, for though it held few prisoners and was about to close, the Bastille symbolized the royal oppression, and thus, it fell. The guardian of the Bastille was Bernard-René de Launay, who was actually born in the Bastille prison, as his father was the previous guardian. De Launay felt the brunt of the National Assembly’s force, and was battered to death by a raging mob.

Four years and two months after the revolution began, the era which would be known as “The Reign of Terror” (1793 – 1794) began. Led by Napoleon Bonaparte, monarchs (including King Louis XVI) were guillotined left; right and centre, and an estimated 30,000 people were killed all across France. The first victim of the guillotine was the unpopular and tragic queen, Marie Antoinette. Ironically, when Marie Antoinette first reached France, she was but 14, and adored by the people.


Things went downhill around 1782 – 1785; Antoinette had already given birth to a daughter and a son, and with a family enlargement in mind, she bought the Château de Saint-Cloud independently from the husband, King Louis XVI. At that time, the public was developing a highly frivolous image of the Queen, and the purchase of the Château de Saint-Cloud certainly did not help. The public was quickly seeing Marie Antoinette as an empty-headed, spendthrift foreign queen.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

In 1799, while stranded in Egypt, Napoleon heard news of the British’s temporary departure from the French ports and set sail for France. Upon returning, he set about to seize power. On the 9th of November 1799, he overthrew the French Directory (the body of five which had been holding the power in France) and replaced it with his own French Consulate, which consisted of three consuls. Of course, he declared himself the First Consul, but eventually, it lead to just one single consul, then finally, Emperorship.

However, Napoleon was not always in France, as he was busy conquering other countries and whatnot. But in 1812, his luck began to change as he was defeated in Russia. From then on, it all went downhill, and he lost his last battle, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.


Napoleon died in 1821, it is generally thought that he died from stomach cancer, though some people say he was murdered by arsenic.

The French Revolution was a critical period in history, not only for France, but also for Britain, whose English radicals and numerous liberals wholly supported the revolution. Their motto was “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

The French Revolution’s influence stretches to the 21st century, mostly thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel, later turned into a musical, Les Misérables (also known as Les Mis or Les Miz). On October 8, 2006 the show celebrated its 21st anniversary, and it’s achievement as the longest running West End musical. Interestingly, it’s not written by Andrew Lloyd Weber, who wrote a significant amount of the modern musicals showing today, but in the original French version, the music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg and the lyrics are by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc

Les Mis the book and the play has been translated into various languages, from Polish to Japanese to the obvious English. A recent revival of Les Misérables in pop culture is Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables.

The French Revolution started in 1789 and ended in 1799. In those ten years, France entered a zone of turmoil, grief, and violence. But it was also a time of renewal, a much needed change of government and overall change for the better.

May 2020


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