The Estate System in France
French social life in the 1700s was marked by class divisions among its population. The entirety of the country was broken up into three estates, or levels of status, which determined almost every aspect of an individual’s life. The first, second, and third estates can be thought of as fixed social positions, and it was extremely difficult for someone of a lower estate to move up to a higher estate. Before the French Revolution of the late 18th century, this was the system used by the Ancien Régime, or the “old order”, and was glorified by the monarch Louis XVI.
In the highest estate, the 1st Estate, one would find members of the Roman Catholic clergy. These included bishops, priests, and nuns among other religious figures in the country. Only about 0.5% of the population was part of the 1st Estate.
The 2nd Estate consisted of the Nobles, representing about 2% of the population. Members of the 2nd Estate also owned approximately 20% of the land, which was another symbol of wealth and status in France. Nobles could be high ranking members of government or even family members of Louis XVI.
Although the 1st and the 2nd Estate members did not pay any taxes, they nevertheless reaped all of the benefits of a tax-paying country. Indeed, they were exempt from paying many of the taxes from which France gained its money. This was the cause of the extreme inequality between the 1st and 2nd Estate compared to the 3rd Estate.
Finally, the 3rd Estate comprised the rest of the population. They had very little rights and paid nearly half of their income in taxes. Individuals in the 3rd Estate could be peasants, lawyers, laborers, or land workers who were toiling away on the lands of the Nobles. They lived a life of poverty and food insecurity, meaning they frequently did not have enough food to feed their families. The success of the higher estates was therefore dependent upon the work that the 3rd Estate individuals performed to essentially keep the country running. This created an unfair tip in the scales.
Today, a similar debate rages in many countries around the world regarding the distribution of taxes. While many argue about the unfair ways that taxes are split up among members of society, others stand by the idea that taxes should be raised for the upper class so that they pay their fair share and alleviate the strain put on the backs of the lower class.