The origins of the French Revolution are the source of much controversy. Most historians agree, however, that the Revolution was the result of serious systemic problems under the Bourbon monarchy. While class distinctions in eighteenth century France, particularly those between wealthy merchants and hereditary nobles, have been overstated by Marxist historians, it is also true that most of the privileges inherent in French social structure were not enjoyed by the productive "Third Estate."
These problems underscored a serious fiscal crisis. By 1789, the French government had reached the point that it could barely afford to service even the interest on the massive debt that it had accumulated, partly to maintain the lifestyle of the royal court at Versailles and partly from French assistance to the American revolutionaries in their struggle against Great Britain a decade earlier. The nobility were largely unwilling to accept the reforms necessary to revise the tax system, and attempts by the king to force all parties involved led to a revolt of the Third Estate at the Estates-General, the event that sparked the Revolution.
These problems also coincided with a period of economic dearth in France, partly caused by the fiscal crisis and partly by a series of very poor harvests that left many poor Frenchmen in the cities and the countryside struggling to feed their families. When word reached Paris that a political revolt had taken place at the Estates-General, the people of Paris rose up and attacked the Bastille, long the symbol of royal oppression. In the countryside, thousands of peasants attacked manors, destroying feudal records in what became known as the "Great Fear."