Late eighteenth-century France was, in retrospect, a nation ripe for revolution. In some respects, it was still feudal. Its leader, King Louis XVI, was indecisive. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, was a turning point for the nation, and its reverberations were felt throughout Europe and the world.
France was divided into three estates: the clergy, nobles, and the third estate. The third estate was primarily made up of peasants, but it also includes merchants, civil servants, and attorneys. The third estate had to pay most of the taxes. Also, many of its members, particularly successful businessmen, chafed under old laws that limited their opportunities. By 1789, the estates were an outdated class system.
France's king had traditionally ruled by divine right. By 1789, his status was not unchallengeable. The philosophes had undermined his authority by stressing that the king's subjects possessed certain natural rights.
In 1789, the king faced bankruptcy, so he called the Estates General into session. It had not been called since 1614, but the king had little choice. The convocation of this assembly touched off the French Revolution. The third estate broke away from the other two estates and set up a National Assembly. France became a constitutional monarchy, and numerous, enlightened reforms were passed.
However, the French Revolution did not remain moderate. There was terrible violence, such as the September Massacres of September 1792, and that violence presaged the Reign of Terror.
Another reason for the onset of extremism in France was foreign pressure. Emigres had fled France, and they spread misinformation and fear around Europe. Other European nations invaded France. If the foreign armies captured Paris, the French revolution would have been extinguished.
King Louis hoped the foreign armies would win. Then he would rule France again—without a National Assembly. He was arrested and charged with treason. His arrest and execution in January 1793 ushered in a new, more radical stage of the French Revolution.
The National Convention ran the country after the end of the constitutional monarchy, but its members fought each other and there was the Reign of Terror. Jean-Paul Marat, an important leader, was assassinated. Georges Danton, who tried to reign in the extremism, was guillotined.
Domestic violence, foreign interference and war, the king's mistakes, and the emergence of radicals all combined to produce the radicalization of the French Revolution.