The Effects of the French Revolution on France and Europe

Marie Antoinette's execution on October 16, 1793
Marie Antoinette's execution; the (dead?) head is being held to the crowd. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no doubt that the French Revolution changed France enormously in the short term. But the extent to which it changed France in the long term, versus the extent to which the revolution simply interrupted long term developments which really produced modern France, is hotly contested. It is fairly easy to conclude that the revolution produced in France an identity and ideology which was not only new, but self-consciously so, deliberately drawing nothing from the history which preceded the events of 1789-95.

The monarchy was removed from power, the king and queen executed, and new forms of government tried in an attempt to find stability. Even when the monarchy was restored – albeit temporarily in 1814 – there remained an elected legislature which has endured.

There was also, at various stages of the revolution, a deliberate attempt to build a new France, with a complete wiping away of seigniorial dues, aristocratic titles, a mass of taxation and tithes, and a whole host of other hangovers from the supposedly ‘feudal’ government of old regime France. The idea of three ‘estates’ was abolished, as were noble and church privileges; nobility was completely ended, and church lands were nationalized and sold, causing a full tenth of all land in France to change hands, a massive redistribution. The clergy became salaried officials of the state. Most of these changes took place in only two years, a tiny timescale for such sweeping reform.

You can see how people would be tempted to think there were massive, long-term changes as a result. 

The Question of Continuity and Return

Yet historians question the impact of these changes. For every example like the ‘departments,’ the new system of administration which literally rewrote the map of France, you have a case like the seigniorial dues, which by 1789 had been well on the way to being replaced with rents, a situation ardent supporters of the revolution like to claim as being the result of events after 1789.

For every standardization of weights and measures across all of France, you had the overstated claim that military and government careers were open to talent, not purchase, a situation which was already evolving under the ancien regime.

Yes, the church and state were split, and bitterness continued for decades over how priests dealt with the revolutionary laws. The end to their aid for the poor and sick meant that, in 1847, there were still over 40% fewer hospitals in France than before the revolution. But nobles were less persecuted than previously believed and were able to either hang onto, or later reclaim, a large percentage of their land and wealth.

It can be argued that war was certainly changed, as for the first time a nation mobilized en masse, prefiguring the conflicts of the twentieth century. But equally, the war – and the changes of the revolution - led to the creation of the Napoleon Empire, a state which was closer to the monarchy of France’s king than the demands of republican revolutionaries. Indeed, the Bonapartist government made great use of survivors from the government, economy and finance of the French monarchy, and some historians have identified this as indicative of a broader and gradual evolution of economy and government from the ancient regime, through to the twentieth century, only broken by a hyperactive period from 1789-1795, which may even have halted some of these changes rather than advanced them.

The ‘notables’ who governed France from the end of the first empire to 1880 and beyond included many former nobles, as well as wealthy landowners. Economic growth, once seen as having been freed from ancient regime stagnation, is now believed to have been growing under Louis XVI, reduced greatly by the revolution, and started to grow again only afterward. With the economy went living standards and prosperity.

The Village

Simon Schama is able to conclude his examination of the revolution by asking the question: how much would a standard village have been affected by it? There would no longer be a class of aristocrats at the top level, but this doesn’t mean the leading landholders would necessarily have been ejected, executed, or humbled: in many regions, there was simply a social transformation from nobility to citizen, and the chance to acquire even more land in the church sales.

Men would have been dragged away to war, and the clergy would have been interrupted, but these were passing events. They had more access to better courts and might have been able to pay off debts if they played the economy well and benefited from a reduction in taxes. Schama argues that little of any profundity changed. (Schama, Citizens, 854 – 55), while, in contrast, Jones argues that “Those who managed to survive the dearths of the Revolution…experienced a real improvement in purchasing power; the first such improvement in several generations.” (Jones, cited in Rees, France in Revolution, p. 173).


As France convulsed, the rest of Europe was faced with a massive ideological challenge. But although Jacobin agitators were present in cities across Europe, very few regions experienced an immediate challenge to their governments from their populace, and even in regions which did experience pressure, those had long-standing causes which ran alongside events in France.


That the ideology of French revolution was not spontaneously taken up by the rest of Europe did not reduce its effect, because France began to export the revolution at the points of its bayonets. Indeed, Europe experienced a war which would last until the final flurries of Napoleon in 1815 and which would see the map of the continent, and the types of governments ruling it, reformatted multiples times. Millions died and everyone was affected to some degree. It was this revolutionary warfare which would pose the stiffest challenge to the status quo in Europe, and the Holy Roman Empire – notionally a thousand years old in 1800 – would be the most famous casualty, ceasing to exist in 1806 and never being resurrected.

From this, over the long term, came the chance to unify Germany into a new empire. However, the French forces were defeated, and kings and emperors secured in power for longer, although their states had been altered. Venice and Genoa never became independent again and Belgium changed hands.

In order to fight the war, nations had to marshal their resources like never before, leading to governments which were more centralized and, in an attempt to battle back against the revolution and keep the status quo, actually more authoritarian than before. In addition, national identities began to coalesce like never before, with more people believing in their country rather than their monarch, and the nationalist ideology emerged. However, it's easy to talk about long- and short-term causes, of centralizing government and nationalism, while avoiding the fact that millions of people died as a direct result of the revolution.

The Modern Order

The boots of the French army didn’t have to make a lasting impression to change Europe deeply, as the ideological impact, which may have failed to cause immediate revolutions elsewhere, was great over the long term. With the French as an example, attempted and sometimes successful revolutions would take place after 1815 across Europe, especially in key years like 1830 and 1848.

The modern mindset, which includes concepts articulated in the revolution - even if they were never really practiced between by it - was heavily informed by the events of that era.

The French Revolution re-introduced republicanism as a realistic model of government, and showed that a European state didn’t have to be officially Christian; indeed, it could be completely anti-religious. Equality before the law, freedom of speech, and a sovereignty of the people rather than the monarch all took fertile hold. Modern liberalism, often based on a glorified myth of the revolution, and conservatism, often defined in opposition to the revolution, emerged. As mentioned above, Europe also experienced nationalism on a major scale.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Effects of the French Revolution on France and Europe." ThoughtCo, Aug. 4, 2017, Wilde, Robert. (2017, August 4). The Effects of the French Revolution on France and Europe. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Effects of the French Revolution on France and Europe." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).