Faced with a catastrophic political and financial situation, Louis XVI was obliged to summon the States General, an assembly of the three orders or classes – Nobility, Clergy and Third Estate (commoners) – that alone could decide to levy new taxes and undertake the reform of the country. Its opening on 5 May 1789 in Versailles also marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
On 4 May 1789, the last great ceremony of the Ancien Régime was held in Versailles: the procession of the States General. 1,200 representatives from all over France assembled for this first day. Dressed in black and wearing a black and gold coat, the Third Estate representatives were in the majority. All held a candle in their hand, except the banner holders and the king’s falconers. The king wore a suit and coat of gold brocade and was surrounded by the highest officers of the Crown. On his hat gleamed the Regent, then the largest known diamond. The queen wore a dress covered with gold and silver embroidery. The king was acclaimed, but not her. The procession set out from Notre-Dame, crossed the place d’Armes and arrived at the church of Saint-Louis. Mgr de La Fare, bishop of Nancy, delivered a famous sermon condemning the luxurious life of the court. For the first time, a bishop was applauded in a church!
On 5 May, the solemn opening session began. Summoned on 5 July 1788, the States General had not met since 1614! A provisional assembly room had been set up behind the Menus Plaisirs building on the avenue de Paris devoted to the king’s amusements. Unlike what we see in the famous engraving of the event, the room was tiny. The king, surrounded by the queen and princes of the royal blood, sat on his throne at the back under a majestic canopy. The representatives sat on several tiers of seats. In June, those of the Third Estate, along with some from the Clergy, set up the first National Assembly.
Louis XVI opened the session with an address in which he recalled the circumstances leading to this convocation and what he expected from the States General. As a peace-loving king, he declared himself “the first friend of the people”! Then came speeches from Barentin, the Privy Seal, and from Necker, Minister of Finance, on the kingdom’s economic situation. The budget deficit was 56 million! New taxes would be enough to cover this, he claimed. Discontented with this inadequate speech proposing no reforms, and conscious of the expectations of the country, the Third Estate took things in hand. The Revolution had begun…