If it is not uncommon to refer the presidential function to the figure of the “monarch”, we know less that our National Assembly is also the fruit of a monarchical institution which dates from the Middle Ages: the Assembly of the States General .
The daughter of a monarchical institution
The National Assembly emanates from an assembly which first appeared in the Kingdom of France in the 14th century., but which depended exclusively on the will of the King of France. A consultative assembly made up of representatives of the three social orders (social classes) that once made up monarchical France (clergy, nobility, third estate), inherited from the medieval system based on feudalism. At first, it essentially served as advice to the king and only gradually became an assembly of states when the third Order (third estate) obtained its first bourgeois delegates to join it. The functioning of society then has nothing to do with ours since it is based on community and not individual values.
If the first convocation of the Estates General of the kingdom was held in 1303 at the request of Philippe IV le Bel, it was not until the 15th century that the deputies began to represent the interests of their social origin, because their primary role was to vote for the tax measures required by the king when the kingdom needs to recover. But above all, they have in their prerogatives, the possibility of formulating remonstrances to the king. The powers of the Estates General are therefore, from the outset, important since they have the possibility of limiting the monarchical authority. Except that class particularisms still prevail over national interests for a long time. To the greatest benefit of royalty, therefore, who uses their rivalries to better reign.
Under the monarchy, private interests still prevail over the public interest. Moreover, the vote of the royal proposals by Orders systematically disadvantages the third estate whose voice is canceled vis-a-vis the two privileged Orders. The only way in which the third estate manages to have its voice accepted is by using moments of rivalry between the nobility and the king, as at the time of the Fronde, and of course at the end of the 18th century. , to limit royal authority.
Since the 14th century, France was first represented by the two privileged Orders. But in 1789, the majority of French people wanted a profound reform of the institution, and opportunistic support from the nobles allowed them to operate a shift towards the greatest revolution in our history.
The revolutionary spirit of the Estates General of 1789
We have to go back to the 1770s, which marked a decisive moment for the political destiny of France, to understand the context in which the origins of national representation find their roots. The Third Order seeks to find the means of its political existence since it represents 98% of the population of the kingdom. The majority of French people are still subject to a minority of privileged people (Clerks and Nobles). This is the direct legacy of the vassalic ties that have bound the bourgeois and peasant class since the beginning of the Middle Ages to the lords of the kingdom to whom they owe loyalty and obedience.
Except that since his participation in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the kingdom of France is engulfed in financial difficulties. France is plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis which is widening the fiscal inequalities which weigh on the most modest, whose distress is increasingly under-represented. Louis XVI inherited a battered France and failed to find the right remedies to stem a crisis that was soon to be political and philosophical. The king fails to impose his financial reforms through his Ministers of Finance. Indeed, the nobles took a very dim view of the royal will to institute a tax that would be more universal and egalitarian. The latter are ready to do anything to keep their privileges and their rank. They rely on the ever-increasing protests of the popular and bourgeois classes (third estate) with which they strategically make common cause to challenge royal arbitrariness and encourage the king to convene the States General.
It was done in August 1788. The millennial institution had not been convened since 1614! But this time, popular consciousness is much stronger, because it is imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment which has made its way and has shaped the need to claim a general political will that takes into account the interests of the Third Estate. . If the States General are expected to settle the question of debts and taxation, the deputies bring with them the famous notebooks of grievances of the people whose central question is the question of royal despotism, the abolition of privileges.
May 6, 1789: the Assembly of the Three Orders meets in Versailles
In addition to convening the Estates General, the royal government agrees to double the number of elected members of the Third Estate (more than 570 out of the 1,100 deputies of all Orders), considering that they represent the majority of the French people. First shift. But the vote is always done by Order and not by head as claimed by the third estate. Because the traditional functioning of the Estates General is such that it must allow to privilege the first two Orders, the most able to preserve the habits and customs of the society of Ancien Régime, to the detriment of the third.
The States General meet on May 5, 1789 in Versailles.. Each Order meets in a different room and the deputies of the Third Estate urge the nobility and the clergy to join them. In vain. The third estate considers that the deputies should no longer represent a single Order, but the entire French nation. They could speak in the name of everyone and become “the interpreters of the general will” (Sieyès), a single body. The nobles are determined to defend the representation by Orders since it is out of the question for them to give up their privileges by supporting the claims of those whom they consider their duty bearers. They wanted the Estates General, but refused any association with the Third Estate. The idea made its way through the ranks of the clergy.
The deputies of the third estate proclaim themselves “National Assembly”
Then comes the question of the definition and denomination of the Assembly. The deputies of the Third Estate wonder in what form they should be constituted. Mirabeau opts for an “Assembly of Representatives of the French People”, Jean-Joseph Mounier for a “legitimate assembly of representatives of the greater part of the nation, acting in the absence of the lesser part”. It was on June 17, 1789 that they formed themselves into the “National Assembly”. Jean-Sylvain Bailly becomes its very first president. We opt for the name inspired by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyesa great theoretician of national advocacy and representation whose famous formulas have revolutionized social consciousness:
1° What is the Third Estate? All.
2° What has been up to now in the political order? Nothing.
3° What does he ask? To become something there (and therefore the National Assembly).
Starting point of the French Revolution
On June 20, 1789, the representatives of the National Assembly found the common room where they were to meet, closed and surrounded by soldiers. MPs go to the Jeu de Paume room considering that nothing can prevent its holding and its deliberations. All deputies who are members of the assembly lend the solemn oath never to separate and to assemble wherever circumstances require, until the Assembly gives a Constitution to France.
The king first declares illegal and contrary to the laws of the kingdom of France the deliberations taken by the deputies of the Third Estate whom he orders to separate according to their respective Order. But the deputies remain. It was at this precise moment that Mirabeau declared: “Go and tell your master that we are here by the will of the people and that they will only tear us away by the power of bayonets.“. The birth of the National Assembly marks the first act of the French Revolution. This is the point of no return, which is why on June 27, the king ends up inviting the rest of the deputies of the Clergy and the Nobility to join the third estate.
On July 9, 1789, the National Assembly officially declared itself “constituent” and sat until the fall of 1791, the time to give France a first Constitution. While the mission of the States General was initially to be limited to a reform of taxation, the deputies of this thousand-year-old institution operate a revolution by putting an end to the society of Ordersthus laying the foundations of a new regime under the aegis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which they voted on August 26, 1789. By this, they enshrine the principles of equality of all before the law, the sovereignty and the representation of the entire Nation then, above all, the very first liberal regime in France (Constitutional Monarchy) based on separation of powers.
🎧 LISTEN AGAIN – The heart of the story : May-June 1789, the Estates General become the National Assembly Ep 1 | Ep 2
🎧 LISTEN AGAIN – The heart of the story : The notebooks of grievances: the French take the floor
📖 READ – Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes : “What is the third state ?” (Available for free on Gallica, the BNF’s digital library)