What were inequalities in the social system in France before 1789?

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The rampant inequality of the ancien regime social system can be seen in the treatment of the so-called Third Estate, roughly meaning the French middle-classes. Although this group was becoming increasingly wealthy and more prominent in society, it was systematically excluded from power. Politics were ruled by the First Estate of the clergy and the Second Estate of the aristocracy.

Increasingly, members of the Third Estate were becoming restless. They were angry that they were prevented from exercising any control over politics and national events, despite their education and contributions to the nation's coffers through their taxes. Neither of the higher Estates paid taxes, and this was felt to be a grievous injustice.

When the Estates General was convened in 1789 to help resolve France's economic crisis—caused largely by a massive shortfall in government revenue—the Third Estate saw its opportunity to take control of its destiny. More tight-knit and united than the other Estates, the Third Estate proclaimed itself as a new National Assembly in the Tennis Court Oath. This newfound strength would go on to provide the main impetus for change during the early stages of the Revolution.

For years, the Third Estate was belittled and ignored. In 1789, that changed. As far as its members were concerned, the Third Estate was the nation; its interests were synonymous with those of France as a whole.

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