The Nested Conflicts Leading to the French Revolution

The causes of the French Revolution are complex. This tile discusses the multiple internal conflicts in France that made conditions ripe for upheaval.


Complex causes of the French Revolutions

It’s difficult to pin a single cause on the revolutions that upturned France in the period 1789-1799. The narrative often portrayed in films and novels is one of an oppressed nation rising as one to depose a tyrannical king. But most historians agree that revolution really came as a result of **multiple nested conflicts** – a confluence of different struggles and vested interests that had long been bubbling under the surface.


Animosity developed towards the monarchy in France from many different sections of French society – **including from the nobility and the courts of justice**, who were far from being motivated by any high republican ideals. This was in addition to a new intellectual bourgeouisie, inspired by the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau, and a working population growing tired of France’s economic stagnation.

Taken on their own, any one of these nested conflicts might have been resolvable for Louis and his regime. But when combined these conflicts created a perfect storm, one that would prove impossible for the ancien régime to weather.

Nested conflicts 1: monarchy vs nobility

Louis XVI’s reign saw a major tension develop between the leading nobility and the monarchy. ‘Les Grands,’ the leading noblemen from the great families, had been progressively severed from positions of political power and high military ranks as absolute monarchy took hold. Absolute monarchy was not in favor with many aristocrats, who undermined the king’s administration.

The sale of offices and titles of nobility was a way to replenish the royal treasury. However, the sale of offices **increased social tensions** as the ‘noblesse de robe,’ those who had bought their way into the nobility, were not as well-considered as the ‘noblesse d’épée,’ those who inherited their titles and positions.

This lack of prestige of ‘la robe’ was mirrored into the material difficulties of ‘l’épée.’ Unlike in countries like Britain, noblemen from the oldest families were expected not to work. On the other hand, recently ennobled families could make fortunes as barristers or even as merchants, feeding resentment.

Nested conflicts 2: monarchy vs the courts

In the French monarchy, ‘Parlement’ was the name given to a high court of justice in each region (unlike today when it refers to the legislative body). Parlements had been openly challenging the king’s prerogative since the Duc d’Orléans re-established their right of retort (retort meaning ‘respond’ or ‘provide comments’) to the monarch in 1715. Members of Parlements were aristocrats, usually from ‘new families.’

​​**In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Parlements became increasingly involved in political disputes**. They acted as a check on the king’s power, but also started to assert their own authority. The Parlements wanted to limit the king’s power, while the king wanted to assert his absolute authority.

This conflict came to a head in the early 18th century, when the Parlements started to **refuse to register royal edicts**. This led to a standoff between the king and the courts, which was only resolved when the king at the time (Louis XV) agreed to give the Parlements a role in drafting legislation.

Nested conflicts 3: monarchy vs the commoners

Even though many ministers, lawyers, and sometimes even merchants had been ennobled, access to prestigious positions was still limited for commoners. Aristocrats and the clergy were largely exempt from taxes. **The whole burden thus fell onto commoners.**

Furthermore, justice in courts was administered unequally with wealthy individuals having access to faster proceedings while poorer citizens faced long delays or denial of their cases altogether.

Practically no one in 1789 was against the monarchy as a political system, let alone in favor of a republic. But large swathes of the Third Estate hoped the king would move further away from absolute monarchy toward a more liberal system. The chief demons were equality of access to positions (in particular in the army), fiscal equality and taxation with consent.

Nested conflicts 4: monarchy vs the economy

The French monarchy was heavily reliant on the economy for its own survival. The government had a monopoly over many industries, such as salt and tobacco, which provided much of its revenue. This meant that any economic downturns or changes in policy could have serious consequences for the royal coffers. Furthermore, Louis XVI’s attempts to reform taxation systems were met with resistance from both the nobility and commoners alike who saw it as an attack on their rights and privileges.

This tension between the monarchy and economy was further exacerbated by France’s involvement in costly wars abroad which drained resources away from domestic projects. In addition, high bread prices due to poor harvests caused widespread discontent among citizens who felt they were being unfairly taxed while not receiving enough food in return.

Nested conflicts 5: monarchy vs philosophy


The early 18th century was the peak of the era now known as The Enlightenment. This was a time of radical change in the intellectual culture of the West – ranging from incredible advances in science to major innovation in the arts.

Political thought also underwent huge changes during The Enlightenment. Many traditional assumptions started to be challenged, with some radical thinkers even going so far as to question the idea of monarchy, which had been the dominant system of government in Europe since time immemorial.

This school of thought was gaining traction across Europe, but some of its most vocal proponents were French. Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau were some of the most influential. The ideas of these thinkers would be cited by many of the leaders of the Revolution as vital inspirations.

The role of intellectuals in causing the revolution should not be overstated, however. Most historians agree that widespread poverty and national debt were far more potent issues in the eyes of most revolutionaries.

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