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The Consequences of the French Revolution on France and Europe

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A Massive Change?

There is no doubt that the French Revolution changed France enormously in the short term. But the extent to which it changed France in the long term, versus the extent to which the revolution simply interrupted long term developments which really produced modern France, is hotly contested. It is fairly easy to conclude that the revolution produced in France an identity and ideology which was not only new, but self consciously so, deliberately drawing nothing from the history which preceded the events of 1789 – 95. The monarchy was removed from power, the king and queen executed, and new forms of government tried in an attempt to find stability. Even when the monarchy was restored – albeit temporarily in 1814 – their remained an elected legislature which has endured.

There was also, at various stages in the revolution, a deliberate attempt to build a new France, with a complete wiping away of seigniorial dues, aristocratic titles, a mass of taxation and tithes and a whole host of other hangovers from the supposedly ‘feudal’ government of old regime France. The idea of three ‘estates’ was abolished, as were noble and church privileges; nobility was completely ended, and church lands were nationalized and sold, causing a full tenth of all land in Franc to change hands, a massive redistribution. The clergy became salaried officials of the state. Most of these changes took place in only two years, a tiny timescale for such sweeping reform.

The Question of Continuity and Return

Yet historians question the impact of these changes. For every example like the ‘departments’, the new system of administration which literally rewrote the map of France, you have a case like the seigniorial dues, which by 1789 had been well on the way to being replaced with rents, a situation ardent supporters of the revolution like to claim as being the result of events after 1789. For every standardisation of weights and measures across all of France you had the overstated claim that military and government careers were open to talent, not purchase, a situation which was already evolving under the ancien regime.

Yes, the church and state were split, and bitterness continued for decades over how priests dealt with the revolutionary laws. The end to their aid for the poor and sick meant that, in 1847, there were still over 40% fewer hospitals in France than before the revolution. But nobles were less persecuted than previously believed and were able to either hang onto, or later reclaim, a large percentage of their land and wealth.

It can be argued that war was certainly changed, as for the first time a nation mobilised en masse, prefiguring the conflicts of the twentieth century. But equally, the war – and the changes of the revolution - led to the creation of the Napoleon Empire, a state which was closer to the monarchy of France’s king than the demands of republican revolutionaries. Indeed, the Bonapartist government made great use of survivors from the government, economy and finance of the French monarchy, and some historians have identified this as indicative of a broader and gradual evolution of economy and government from the ancient regime, through to the twentieth century, only broken by a hyperactive period from 1789 – 1795 which may even have halted some of these changes rather than advanced them. The ‘notables’ who governed France from the end of the first empire to 1880 and beyond included many former nobles, as well as wealthy landowners. Economic growth, once seen as having been freed from ancient regime stagnation, is now believed to have been growing under Louis XVI, reduced greatly by the revolution, and started to grow again only afterwards. With the economy went living standards and prosperity.

The Village

Simon Schama is able to conclude his examination of the revolution by asking the question: how much would a standard village have been affected by it? There would no longer be a class of aristocrats at the top level, but this doesn’t mean the leading landholders would necessarily have been ejected, executed or humbled: in many regions, there was simply a social transformation from nobility to citizen, and the chance to acquire even more land in the church sales. Men would have been dragged away to war, and the clergy would have been interrupted, but these were passing events. They had more access to better courts, and might have been able to pay off debts if they played the economy well and benefited from a reduction in taxes. Schama argues that little of any profundity changed.(Schama, Citizens, 854 – 55), while – in contrast – Jones argues that “Those who managed to survive the dearths of the Revolution…experienced a real improvement in purchasing power; the first such improvement in several generations.” (Jones, cited in Rees, France in Revolution, p. 173).
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