The political structure of France from the Late Middle Ages until the French Revolution is known as the Ancien Régime. It refers to the French Monarchy.
In 1788, facing mounting debts, and the inability to generate funds, Louis XVI called for the convening of the Estates-General, or estates of the realm, who would convene in 1789 for the first time since 1614.
This national assembly was made up of three tiers representing the three social classifications of the Ancien Régime(with a roughly equal number of delegates for each group): 1. The Clergy 2. The Nobility 3. The Commoners.
The Commoners represented 95-98% of the population.
France had grown rapidly during the 18th century- the population had grown by about a third, and by the time of the French Revolution the nation contained some 28 million people.
The availability and price of bread played a key role during the French Revolution. Bread prices fluctuated, and there were periodic shortages and bread riots.
During "the Great Panic" of 1789 the French countryside became increasingly distrustful of the aristocracy. They had heard about the revolutionary happenings in Paris, were increasingly worried about crop yields, and even believed the aristocrats might be plotting to sabotage their crops.
The Bastille in Paris had been raided on July 14th, 1789. The revolutionaries had sought gunpowder and ammunition.
The guillotine was used heavily starting in the early days of the French Revolution. As ominous and haunting as it appears, it was originally thought to be a fair and democratic development. Under the Ancien Régime, nobles who were condemned had been subject to a quick execution, while commoners could be executed in more brutal ways (Davidson, pg. 106).
Maximilien Robespierre was one of the most prominent revolutionaries. He was a part of Estates-General assembly, and represented the interests of the third estate (the commoners). He was an opponent of the death penalty (before being a huge supporter of state terror), and "was an outspoken advocate for the poor and democratic institutions."
There was an effort to "dechristianize" French society during the French Revolution. The sale of lands owned by the Church by the revolutionaries was likely the largest attempt of redistribution of wealth in French history (Davidson, pg. 121).
Some revolutionaries, in a humanist zeal, went as far as trying to replace the Catholic Church with the "Cult of Reason." This was to be an atheistic and rationalist alternative to the Church- a kind of sanctification of Enlightenment thought. This "campaign" was uncoordinated due to it not coming from above (was not endorsed by revolutionary leadership); it had sprang up in rural areas outside of Paris (Davidson, pg. 207).
Robespierre had countered the Cult of Reason with the "Cult of the Supreme Being." Many of the revolutionaries wanted to reject Christianity, but were still opposed to atheism. "Robespierre believed that reason is only a means to an end, and the singular end is virtue."