An unfair tax system
Illustration of The Third Estate crushed by the Taxes owned to the Nobility and Clergy.
Since the beginning of the 18th century, the population of France had grown dramatically. The country counted 30 million people in 1789, 8 to 10 million more than in 1700.
Outside of a few large cities (Paris, Lyon and Marseille), 80% of the people lived in the countryside. This rural majority lived exclusively off the land. Under seigneuralism, peasants rented their lands from wealthy lords and had to pay them significant taxes to have the right to grow crops.
The lords were then supposed to turn over part of these taxes to the King, but they often kept the biggest part for themselves. Only one third of the very unpopular tax on salt, known as the 'gabelle' was redistributed to the King.
In the meantime, the peasants were having a really difficult time living from their work and the large majority was living below subsistence levels. As the cost of flour began to rise people were left to starve, unable to afford bread anymore. This ultimately became an important source of revolt as bread was and still remains the main item of every French grocery list.
The King's spendings
Another source of financial turmoil was the cost of running Louis XVI's personal court in Versailles. Over 15,000 people benefited from the country's wealth and gave little in return.
The American War of Independence
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania (1778). Painted by John Ward Dansmore
Finally, the King was a fervent supporter of the American War of Independence and decided to help pro-independence fighters by sending them a tremendous amount of resources. He decided to build a strong, efficient navy, capable of rivaling the English maritime arsenal. He sent his forces to America where the war of independence was raging. This act was a key point in the independentist's naval victory.
But this gesture eventually caused the French Monarchy's budget to dry up.
Louis XVI's inability to solve the crisis
Faced with all these problems, Louis XVI needed more funds to govern is country. His financial advisers, inspired by Turgot, decided to turn to the nobility and tried to pass a law that would make them pay more taxes.
The nobility opposed the king's decision. By a clever game of persuasion, they even rallied part of the third estates at their side to denounce the power of the King. This marked the first stage of the revolution.
Day of The Tiles in Grenoble (France) on June 7th, 1788. Painted by Alexandre Debelle in 1889
One of the major events of this period is the "journee des tuiles" (the day of the tiles) on June 7th 1788 in Grenoble. The King attempted to pass a law in parliament that would allow him to take a significant loan to mop up the French deficit. However, the parliament refused which led to the minister of justice to fire them. The wealthy and powerful parliamentarians of Grenoble decided to protest by openly refusing this decision. The king sent his soldiers to Grenoble to disperse the crowd that had gathered in Grenoble to support the parliamentarians. The king's soldiers were welcomed by roofing tiles flying from the citiy's rooftops. From now on, the victorious parliamentarians decided not to pay taxes to the King anymore and asked representatives of all the other regions of France to do the same. Jacques Necker, the finance minister of the King, acknowledged the Dauphine assembly and became very popular.
The King was at an impasse. He couldn't raise more taxes and didn't have the power to find the money he needed to govern. His last chance was to call for the meeting of the Estates-General. This meeting hadn't been called for over 300 years and represented the last hope for the King to find a solution to the country's financial turmoil.