Although the French Revolution is usually said to have started in 1789 with the actions of the Estates General, one city in France lays claim to an earlier start: in 1788 with the Day of Tiles.
Background: Parlements Under Attack
In late eighteenth century France there existed a number of 'parlements' with various judicial and governmental powers covering all of France. They liked to think of themselves as a bulwark against royal despotism, although in practice they were as much a part of the ancient regime as the king. Yet as financial crises beset France, and as the government turned to the parlements in desperation to have their monetary reforms accepted, the parlements did emerge an opposition force arguing for representation instead of arbitrary tax.
The government tried to get around this obstacle by forcing through laws which would effectively shatter the power of the parlements, reducing them to simply panels of arbitration for the elite. Across France, the parlements gathered and rejected these laws as illegal.
Tension Erupts in Grenoble
In Grenoble, the Parlement of Dauphiné was no exception, and they declared the laws illegal on May 20, 1788. The magistrates of the parlement felt they had support from a large group of urban workers angry at any challenge to their city's status and the prospect of their local income. On May 30th the royal government ordered the local army to banish the magistrates from the town. Two regiments were duly sent, under the command of the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, and as they arrived on June 7th agitators stirred up feeling within the town. Work was shut down, and an angry crowd marched to the house of the parlement's president, where the magistrates had gathered. Other crowds formed up to shut the city gates and harangue the governor at his house.
The Duc decided to counter these rioters by sending in relatively small groups of soldiers who were armed, but told not to fire their weapons. Unfortunately for the army, these groups were too small to coerce the crowds, but large enough to enrage them. Many protesters climbed to their roofs and started hurling tiles down onto the soldiers, giving the day a name.
Royal Authority Collapses
One regiment stuck to their orders, despite injury, but another opened fire causing casualties. Literal alarm bells were rung, summoning assistance for the rioters from outside the city, and the riot increased in intensity. As the Duc scrabbled for a solution that was neither a massacre nor a surrender he asked the magistrates to leave with him to calm things down, but they felt the crowd would prevent them from leaving. Finally the Duc pulled back, and the mob seized control of the city. As the governor's house was looted, leading magistrates were paraded through the town and asked to host a special session. While these magistrates were heroes to the crowd, their reaction was frequently one of terror at the chaos developing in their name.
As order was slowly restored, older magistrates fled the city for order and peace elsewhere. However, a number of younger members remained, and they began turning the impromptu riot into a politically important force. An assembly of all three estates, with improved voting rights for the third, was formed, and appeals sent to the king. The Duc was replaced, but his successor failed to have any effect, and events outside Grenoble overtook them, as the king was forced to call an Estates General; the French Revolution would soon start.
Importance of the Day of Tiles
Grenoble, which saw the first major breakdown of royal authority, mob action and military failure of the French Revolutionary period (in brief /in depth), has thus claimed itself to be the 'cradle of the revolution.' Many of the themes and events of the later revolution had a precursor in the Day of Tiles, from crowds changing events to the creation of a modified representative body, all a year 'early'.