The French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799, ending the absolute monarchy that had been ruling over France for centuries. The late 1700s were not an economic golden age in France: the royal debt increased at an incredible rate, causing the king to sell noble titles to fund his government, and entrepreneurship lagged far behind France's rival Britain. Chris Butler, a history teacher who won the American Historical Association's Beveridge Teaching Award in 2001, says the consequences of these bad economic policies led to economic stagnation, widespread unemployment and severe food shortages in the 1780s.
The nobility in France enjoyed special privileges over the peasants during the late 1700s. Although most French peasants were ostensibly free, they still had to pay feudal dues. They owed the corvee, which was forced labor on public works projects such as roads and bridges. Peasants also had weak property rights with the captaineries feudal dues that allowed the nobles to destroy peasant lands in pursuit of their own goals. The nobility did not have to pay taxes but enjoyed many advantages on the backs of the peasants doing forced labor.
Most industrial workers were laid off from their jobs in the late 1700s during the French Revolution. The core industries in France included textiles and paper-making. Before the decline of the textile industry, spinning and weaving were popular jobs in France. Construction workers were another group that became unemployed in the late 18th century as the country became economically stagnate. Eric Lampard, Professor of History at State University of New York at Stony Brook, says that although France began to industrialize in the middle of the 1700s, progress stopped suddenly in the late 1700s because of the French Revolution and the subsequent wars of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Most peasants in French society during the late 1700s were still engaged in agriculture. It was difficult for France to transfer workers out of agriculture because there were never large surpluses and often major food shortages. Farmers around Paris, a city of 650,000 people in the late 18th century, consumed 80 percent of the food they produced. There were also slaves working on the plantations in the Caribbean, but the French Revolution devastated production, lowering production by one-fifth in the year 1800 from the level it had been in 1789.
French commerce increased eight-fold from 1715 to 1771, making it second in the world to Britain in trade. France exported crops from its Caribbean colonies, including coffee, sugar and indigo. The commercial sector employed many French people in shipbuilding, sales and many jobs related to the running of the ships.
- Oxford History: French Journals: Papermaking in Eighteenth-Century France: Management, Labor and Revolution at the Montgolfier Mill 1761–1805
- Flow of History: The Roots of the French Revolution
- Macro History and World Report: The French Revolution: Economic Conditions
- History Wiz: Slavery and the French Revolution
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