5.1 Problems in France

AGE 7. The Time of Wigs and Revolutions
5.1 Problems in France
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AGE 7. The Time of Wigs and Revolutions
5.1 Problems in France

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What is this lesson about?
Dissatisfaction about class society in France eventually set up the groundwork for the French Revolution. The third estate demanded that the privileges of the first and second estate, such as not having to pay taxes, should be abolished. The king’s spending on his court and several wars had made France almost bankrupt. Eventually, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General together to discuss the financial and political problems of France.

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important  people
king Louis XVI (16th)
queen Marie Antoinette

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After this lesson you have learned:

  1. how, in the 18th century, French society was structured according to the estates system
  2. why people of the third estate got dissatisfied with the social inequality of the estate system
  3. why many French people were dissatisfied with the king and queen.
  4. Why king Louis XVI called for a meeting of the Estates-General in 1789

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Word Duty

Ancien Régime: a period of time in which the French king had absolute power

Third estate: every French citizen who did not possess a noble title or was not a clergyman

Bourgeoisie: professional and wealthy people in the third estate, such as doctors, 
lawyers and bankers.

Estates-General: a meeting in which representatives of the three estates together 
discussed important matters

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Important dates in this lesson:

1778: France supports the patriots in the American Revolution

1789: King Louis XVI summons the Estates-General together to discuss France's financial problems

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1789 is an important year in world history: it was the year of the French Revolution. At this time, the way people in France thought about their place in society changed forever. Influenced by Age of Enlightenment ideas, French people demanded a new form of society, based on ideals of equality and democracy. They wanted to end the Ancien Régime that had been in place for centuries, but was now heavily criticised throughout France. 
Why did the people want to change French society? And how did the French Revolution help bring about the development of human rights laws that are in place today? In this chapter you will find the answers to these questions. You will also learn how just quickly a revolution can take place and change a country forever.

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The Three Estates
(de 3 standen)
All the people in the country belonged 
to one of the 3 estates.

An estate is a group of people 
you belong to from birth.
An estate is hereditary.

You can not easily 
change into 

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The Third Estate

In the eighteenth century, like many other countries, France was structured according to the estates system.  The inequality between the estates in France led to great dissatisfaction and eventually a revolution.
In France, more than 95% of the people belonged to the third estate: every French citizen who did not possess a noble title or was not a clergyman. In the Middle Ages these were the peasants and serfs, but now the third estate began to include professional people, such as doctors, lawyers and bankers. They were well educated and sometimes prosperous. This group was called the bourgeoisie.
More and more the bourgeoisie got dissatisfied with the social inequality of the estates system. The first and second estates had many privileges. For example, they did not have to pay taxes. So the third estate had to pay for the luxurious lifestyle of clergy and nobility.
As taxpayers, the bourgeoisie demanded the same power and privileges as the people of the first and second estates.

  1. write down the three estates.
  2. write down how the third estate had changed since the Middle Ages
  3. write down what the bourgeoisie demanded.

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1a. About society: What system had been used
since the Middle Ages?
the feudal system
the estates system
absolute monarchy

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1b. What was new in the estates system in the 18th century?

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1c. What kind of group was the bourgeoisie?

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1d What did the Bourgeoisie and the Nobility have in common?
they were both wealthy and prosperous
they both worked for their income
they both had to pay taxes
they both had political influence

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1st estate: clergy

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2nd estate: noblility / aristocracy

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The Third Estate
The Third Estate representatives in the Estates General was made up mainly of professional people such as doctors, lawyers, bankers and rich merchants. Many third estate people were just as rich as nobles.

These rich people in the third estate are called: bourgeoisie
Most 3rd Estate representatives in the Estates General were bourgeois people. 
Farmers and poorly paid city workers did not have time or money to come to Versailles to join the Estates General meeting that lasted several weeks.

So, despite the fact that bourgois people were just as rich as many nobles, they lacked the same rights as nobles. 

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3rd estate: peasants

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3rd estate: city workers

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3rd estate: bourgeoisie

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2. What kind of change did the bourgeoisie demand?
They demanded the same power and privileges as the people from the first and second estate.
They wanted better working conditions.
They wanted the first and second estate to reduce their spending and luxurious lifestyle.
They demanded a better salary for their hard work.

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4a. Which estates do the people in the source represent?

A cartoon about the Three Estates, published in the 1780s.
A : clergy B: nobility C: commons
A: commons B: clergy C: nobility
A: nobility B: commons C: clergy
A: nobility B: clergy C: commons

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4b. What do you think the stone on top of
the figure lying on the ground is
supposed to mean? (1 word)

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Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

In 1770, the dauphin (crown prince) of France married princess Marie Antoinette of Austria. Louis XVI was just fifteen years old, and Marie Antoinette fourteen. It was an arranged marriage, as royal weddings mostly were at that time. In this case, the wedding was arranged to improve the political relationship between Austria and France.
Four years later, Louis and Marie Antoinette became king and queen of France. However, their reign would be full of trouble and disappointment. The French people condemned the luxurious lifestyle of Queen Marie Antoinette. According to stories, she would throw extravagant parties with her rich friends and lovers and buy expensive clothes, extravagant wigs and jewelry all the time. King Louis XVI lived in the gigantic palace at Versailles, the residence of the French kings. He spent a lot of money on enormous numbers of people from the nobility that also lived in Versailles. The monarch appointed people from the nobility as his courtiers, to keep them in control.

  1. write why this wedding was arranged
  2. write down why the French people criticised Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (try to give as FEW examples as possible)
Wedding scene from the movie "Marie Antoinette" 2006.

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5. write down 2 elements from the source
that explain why many common people
hated queen Marie-Antoinette

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The winter of 1788/1789

1788 and 1789 were terrible years for the peasants. The rigorous winter of 1788/1789 caused harvest failure and famine everywhere in the countryside. Many farmers died of starvation. Meanwhile, the nobility lived a rich life with plenty of food. It also did not help that King Louis XVI waged wars against several countries, like Great Britain. In 1778, France fought against the British to support the American War of Independence. As a result, the public treasury was empty and France was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1789.

  1. write down why the winter of 1788 / 89 was a bad year for farmers, but not for nobles.
  2. write down why France was bankrupt in 1789.
The most famous part of Versailles is the 'Hall of Mirrors'. This room has 357 gigantic mirrors and impressive paintings. The room could be lit up with 3,000 candles, which made it look even more impressive.

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6. Explain how the winter of 1788 / 89 symbolised the distance that had developed between the farmers and the nobility.

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Would the Estates-General bring a change?

King Louis XVI wanted to prevent his country going bankrupt. He proposed that the nobility would also have to pay taxes. Not surprisingly, the second estate protested. On May 1st, 1789, Louis summoned the Estates-General together. This was exceptional, because the last time a French king summoned the Estates-General was almost two hundred years earlier. In the Estates-General, representatives of the clergy, nobility and citizens held meetings. They discussed the political and financial situation of their state.
About three hundred clergymen, three hundred nobles and six hundred civilians – representatives of the third estate - went to the Palace of Versailles to discuss the financial state of their country. The meeting took place in a hall called ‘Salle des menus-plaisirs’. Before the meeting, the civilians could submit petitions with all their political, social and economic ideas. With high expectations the third estate went to this special occasion in the Estates-General, hoping they could change France in a good way.

  1. write how the king wanted to solve his financial problems
  2. explain what the Estates-General was.
  3. write down why a meeting of the EG was exceptional
  4. write down what the 3rd Estate hoped to gain from this meeting.
the Estates-General, with 300 representatives from the 1st, 300 from the 2nd, and 600 from the 3rd estate.

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"Opening of the Estates-General in Versailles 5 May 1789."
Engraving by Isidore-Stanislaus Helman (1743–1806)

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7. Imagine that you’re a member of the third estate who is attending the Estates-General. You have to give a speech to the Estates-General about how you would change the situation in the country.
What would be the essence of your speech?

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Write down a question about something from this lesson that you don't understand.

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