There’s not an easy answer to this question, as for over a hundred years France went back and forth between republics and various monarchies (the current French Republic, established in 1958, is widely known as the fifth republic). You’re probably thinking however, about the first French republic, established during the French Revolution.
By the 18th century, the French king and aristocracy had become increasingly detached from the problems facing the country. The King and his courtiers lived in the lavish palace of Versailles, explored in these two Odyssey Traveller articles: Constructing Versailles, Living at Versailles and Conserving Versailles. At the same time, a rising class of businessmen were making increasing amounts of money – but had no political power to match – while overpopulation, inefficient agriculture, and widespread unemployment meant that life got tougher for France’s poor. The result was increasing resentment against the aristocracy and the King.
In response to a growing debt crisis, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General, an ancient meeting of the three ‘estates’ of the French realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the ‘third estate’ or the people. At the convention debates over procedure broke out – a proxy for the fact that, though the ‘third estate’ contained by far the majority of the French population, the clergy and nobility could easily outvote it.
Finally, the deputies of the ‘third estate’ declared that they were not simply the ‘third estate’ but a national assembly. Soon afterwards the people of Paris – who had faced a prolonged food shortage the previous year – rose in rebellion in the famous Storming of the Bastille. Peasants in the countryside also rose up as insurgents.
Soon afterwards, the Assembly met, sweeping away all the old aristocratic privileges and drafting the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
However, the king and the aristocracy continued to resist further reform. In response, in June 1792, a huge crowd of Parisians stormed the royal palace. The legislative assembly declared a Republic.
The first French Republic would prove to be short-lived. Even before the Republic had been declared France went to war with a coalition of Prussia and Austria. Massacres of prisoners led many representatives to fear anarchy. In the midst of crisis caused by the war and continued revolt in the provinces, power was centralised by the Jacobin faction of the assembly, which declared a ‘terror’ against those deemed to be enemies of the revolution. During this period around 17,000 people were executed, frequently by guillotine.
The fall of Maximilien Robespierre brought the Terror to an end, and inaugurated the Thermidorian period.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, a general who had risen to fame due to his skill in the Revolutionary War, seized power in a coup and the First Republic came to an end. However, Napoleon’s reign cemented many of the legacies of the French Revolution and spread these to the rest of Europe.