In fact, the nation’s difficulties were not the young queen’s fault. Eighteenth-century colonial wars–particularly the American Revolution, in which the French had intervened on behalf of the colonists–had created a tremendous debt for the French state. The people who owned most of the property in France, such as the Catholic Church (the “First Estate”) and the nobility (the “Second Estate”), generally did not have to pay taxes on their wealth; ordinary people, on the other hand, felt squeezed by high taxes and resentful of the royal family’s conspicuous spending.
Louis XVI and his advisers tried to impose a more representative system of taxation, but the nobility resisted. (The popular press blamed Marie Antoinette for this–she was known as “Madame Veto,” among other things–though she was far from the only wealthy person in France to defend the privileges of the aristocracy.) In 1789, representatives from all three estates (the clergy, the nobility and the common people) met at Versailles to come up with a plan for the reform of the French state, but noblemen and clergymen were still reluctant to give up their prerogatives. The “Third Estate” delegates, inspired by Enlightenment ideas about personal liberty and civic equality, formed a “National Assembly” that placed government in the hands of French citizens for the first time.
At the same time, conditions worsened for ordinary French people, and many became convinced that the monarchy and the nobility were conspiring against them. Marie Antoinette continued to be a convenient target for their rage. Cartoonists and pamphleteers depicted her as an “Austrian whore” doing everything she could to undermine the French nation. In October 1789, a mob of Parisian women protesting the high cost of bread and other goods marched to Versailles, dragged the entire royal family back to the city, and imprisoned them in the Tuileries.
In June 1791, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fled Paris and headed for the Austrian border–where, rumor had it, the queen’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, waited with troops ready to invade France, overthrow the revolutionary government and restore the power of the monarchy and the nobility. This incident, it seemed to many, was proof that the queen was not just a foreigner: She was a traitor.