France Under Louis XV and Louis XVI

It is often assumed that France under Louis XV and Louis XVI saw a dearth of reform when compared with those countries in which enlightened despotism became established. This is far from the truth. The theme of this chapter is that reforms were attempted which, in some cases, rivalled those of the enlightened despots. Unfortunately, resistance from the conservative elements of society proved stronger and more stubborn in France than elsewhere, with the result that these innovations were greatly impeded. Finally, the monarchy itself lacked the personal authority to overcome the obstacles; there was a marked contrast between, for example, Louis XVI and Frederick the Great.

On taking over the direction of domestic policy from Cardinal Fleury in 1743, Louis XV possessed no clearly defined attitude towards reform and certainly developed no fundamental plan. Under the pressure of war, however, several of his ministers felt impelled to introduce changes which would have more widespread effects than those of Fleury. After the accession of Louis XVI in 1774 the impetus of reform increased rapidly, as a result partly of the deteriorating financial situation and partly of more direct influences from the Enlightenment.

The economic reforms of the 1740s were precipitated by the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8), into which France had been dragged despite Fleury's resistance. By 1749 the annual expenditure had regularly exceeded revenue, making a balanced budget impossible without a basic change in the taxation system. A start was made by Marchault, an efficient administrator who had accumulated considerable experience of the nation's fiscal problems while he had served as an intendant. As Controller General (1745 –54) he cut back the amounts payable on the taille and, in an effort to spread the burden of taxation more evenly, introduced the vingtième in 1749. This was a significant attempt to end the exemptions of the clergy and nobility, and it imposed a basic tax of 5 per cent. The subsequent distorted operation of the vingtième induced Choiseul (1758–70) to conduct a general land survey in order to overcome the unequal assessment. This process was continued by Terray, who served as Controller General in the Triumvirate (1771–4). Although the vingtième never operated as it was intended, it did become the least burdensome of all the taxes in eighteenthcentury France and gave a certain amount of social justice, at least whenever it could be enforced.

Louis XVI was served by a succession of Controllers General who advocated more sweeping measures, Turgot (1774–6) was a leading Physiocrat and had been closely associated with the philosophes. He therefore possessed more radical views, based on the theories which were influencing the enlightened despots. In 1774, for example, he justified his edict to eliminate controls over the price of grain with the consideration that it was necessary ‘to remove monopoly. in favour of full competition’.1 His Six Edicts of 1776 were the most complete programme of economic reform that France had yet seen, and included the ending of the compulsory corvée (to be superseded by another property tax), and the abolition of the system of restrictive trade guilds in which the majority of the craftsmen ‘were reduced to a precarious existence under the sway of the masters, with no choice but to live in penury’.1 Turgot appealed to the King to make his choice between backing privilege and considering the grievances of the oppressed, adding that ‘he must judge in favour of the people, for this class is the most unhappy’.1 Turgot hoped that the whole system of taxation could be restructured so that, in Voltaire's words, ‘chacun donne, non selon sa qualite (ce qui est absurde) mais selon son revenu’.2 After Turgot's fall, the subsequent Controllers General (excluding Clugny) all began as critics of Turgot but ended by pressing for reforms as the urgency of the situation impressed itself upon them. Necker (1777–81) tried to reduce the extravagance of the court. Calonne (1783–7) switched in midstream from a policy of expenditure (popular with the court) to one of fiscal reform. His main proposal was the introduction of the subvention territoriale, a single, universal land tax similar to the impot unique suggested by the Physiocrats and currently being drawn up by Joseph II in Austria. Calonne also made a direct appeal for the restructuring of the existing taxes ‘which bear heavily upon the most productive and laborious class’.1 Brienne (1787–8) continued to press for the subvention territoriale against heavy resistance from the Assembly of Notables and the Paris Parlement, although he was to be no more successful than his predecessors. The whole period between 1774 and 1788 shows an impressive record of attempts at economic reform, with no lack of warning as to what would happen if these were not implemented.

Proposals for institutional reform were confined largely to the period 177089. Although they were not consistent in their application, they were all based on a desire to facilitate economic reform. The major change of Louis XV's reign was the abolition of the Paris Parlement by Maupeou in 1771 and its replacement by a Supreme Tribunal, the purpose being to end the constant opposition of the noblesse de robe to the financial and religious policies of the administration. The provincial Parlements were also dealt with, being replaced by Conseils Supérieurs. The policy as a whole was similar to the reduction of the role of the aristocratic assemblies and estates in Austria and Prussia. Whether this would have eased the passage of reforming legislation must remain a matter for speculation, for Louis XVI restored the Parlements in 1774 and his ministers focused their attention on another institutional change—the introduction of provincial assemblies. First put forward by Turgot as a scheme to reform local government, this became, under Calonne, an essential part of the scheme to alter the taxation system. The provincial assemblies would replace the ‘farming out’ methods currently employed and would be responsible for their own tax assessment and collection in their own area. These plans, however, were never implemented, and the period 1787–9 saw a constitutional crisis in which the Crown resorted to the use of historic expedients like the Assembly of Notables and the Estates General.

This was done more under pressure of those who resisted the reforming proposals of the ministers than in the name of reform itself. Such resistance was more firmly entrenched in France than in any of the states governed by enlightened despotism. It was made possible by the survival of traditional forces not fully dealt with by Louis XIV, and given new freedom during the period 1715–43. It manifested itself in three ways, leading to the gradual disillusionment of the enlightened element which the King's government undoubtedly possessed.

It appeared, first of all, in the administration itself. The centralizing policies of Richelieu and Louis XIV had aimed at reducing the influence of the noblesse d’épée, identified as the main obstacle to royal power. A counter–balance had therefore been established, and all the key administrative positions under Louis XIV were filled by recently ennobled members of the bourgeoisie, who were dependent of royal favour. Little attempt was made, however, to set up a structured bureaucracy, and many of the offices connected with the ‘farming out’ method of tax collection remained untouched. Furthermore, Louis XIV failed to control the number of offices for sale in both central and local administration, not wanting to cut off a valuable source of revenue. By the first half of the eighteenth century the administration was in a grave state. The new nobility had established a monopoly on all the lucrative posts and had merged socially with the noblesse d’épée , creating the very aristocratic stranglehold on government which Louis XIV had feared. Even the office of Intendant became a semi-autonomous aristocratic preserve. Assuming, therefore, that the impetus of reform had to come from the top, how could it be sustained below ministerial level?

Social privilege was jealously guarded throughout the two reigns and both sections of the nobility resisted any attempt to redistribute the burden of taxation. They opposed the introduction of the vingtième in 1749, the Six Edicts of 1776, the proposals for the subvention territoriale and the abolition of sinecures. They were given the lead by the Court at Versailles, which was instrumental in the dismissal of all of Louis XVI's most able ministers. Joseph II referred in 1777 to ‘the aristocratic despotism’3 of this court, even though his sister, Marie Antoinette, was one of its most irresponsible members. Joseph was also surprised by the intensity of the struggle put up by the Church against reform proposals and took measures to weaken the political influence of the Church in Austria. The higher clergy of France were drawn exclusively from the nobility and expressed their determination to uphold the privileges of the Church in matters of taxation through their main mouthpiece, the Assembly of Clergy. In 1749, for example, they fought Marchault's proposal to make the First Estate subject to the vingtième and declared in 1750 that the Church would not be forced to give up its traditional exemptions; any contributions would continue to be made ‘volontairement et par don gratuit’.4 The Church refused to countenance any of the proposed reforms of Turgot and his successors and the Assembly of Clergy in 1788 actually reduced its don gratuit to 25 per cent of the expected amount. Altogether, the contributions made by this method were insignificant, amounting to a total of only 3.5 m. livres between 1715 and 1788.

Reaction was most effectively displayed in the Paris Parlement, of which there was no equivalent in Prussia or Austria. Here the noblesse de robe represented all the privileged interests of the First and Second Estates and displayed its new solidarity with the noblesse d’épée. By using its right of remonstrance (restored by the Regency in 1715) the Paris Parlement resisted virtually every economic edict brought before it for registration, with the result that the King either had to resort to a series of lits de justice to force the measure through or abandon it altogether. To give only a few examples, the Parlement fought edicts concerning taxation in 1749, 1756, 1763, 1768, 1769, 1776 and 1787, and a constitutional edict for the establishment of provincial assemblies in 1780. In 1788 it resisted the King's lits de justice to force through Brienne's land tax and placed pressure on bankers to withdraw loan facilities essential for the conduct of the administration.

What made the Parlement a particularly formidable opponent to the reforming ministers was its discovery of an effective method of protecting privilege. In addition to its appeal to its historic rights and powers, it claimed in the eighteenth century to represent the freedoms of the nation and to be the one major guarantee against despotism. In 1755, for example, it claimed to be ‘la vraie cour de France’, its purpose being ‘temperer le pouvoir absolu de la souverainete’.4 It evenmadeuse of the theories of limited sovereignty and the balance of power advanced by Montesquieu, and acquired some sympathy from the philosophes (except for Voltaire) during the period of its abolition (1771–4). By the late 1780s the Paris Parlement was projecting itself as the only defence against encroaching royal powers, and it attracted considerable popular support. Eventually the Parlement advanced its arguments to their logical conclusion and insisted that the reform proposals of the administration needed the consent of a fully assembled Estates General. After Louis XVI agreed to summon the first meeting of this body since 1614, the Parlement demanded that the voting procedure should be conducted by Estate rather than ‘par tête’, thus ensuring a veto on any proposals put forward by the Third Estate. In so doing, it revealed itself as the bastion of privilege and the main obstacle to reform.

The role of the king himself was inevitably impeded by such reactionary moves. Much therefore depended on the extent to which he was able to exercise his authority. France needed an active monarch more desperately in the eighteenth century than ever before, and it was her misfortune that Louis XV and Louis XVI were less capable of dealing with entrenched opposition than their own predecessors or their contemporaries in Austria, Russia and Prussia.

Much has been made of the deficiencies of Louis XV, especially by d'Argenson, who developed a strong aversion to his king after being dismissed in 1747. But, even allowing for exaggeration, it cannot be denied that Louis XV was a pale imitation of Louis XIV. He lacked his great–grandfather's sense of dedication and, as Voltaire told Frederick the Great, ‘was indifferent to his post’.5 Choiseul echoed this view: ‘He displays the most repulsive indifference to every sort of business and all kinds of people.’3 He therefore found difficulty in maintaining his absolute power; as Sorel states: There was the most intolerable incoherence in despotism, irresolution in omnipotence, anarchy in centralization.’6 On the whole, he resorted to the line of least resistance. Although he was prepared, on occasions, to assert that ‘it is in my person that the sovereign power resides’,7he rarely backed this up by a consistent course of action. When Marchault introduced his vingtième in 1749, Louis gave way to the demands of the Parlement and the Assembly of Clergy that the traditional exemptions should be continued. Marchault became so much of an embarrassment that he. was eventually dismissed in 1754. Choiseul's attempt to establish the vingtième more evenly gained slightly more support, and Louis XV held lits de justice in 1759 and 1761 to force the Parlement to consent to a land survey. Further resistance followed, as the provincial Parlements raised their objections, and Louis once again dropped the issue. His firmest decisions came in 1771, when he supported Maupeou's abolition of the Paris Parlement. But this was not followed by an extensive reform programme, and there is no reason to suppose that Louis XV had undergone any basic change of attitude or character.

Louis XVI showed a more highly developed sense of royal responsibility and a more definite commitment to reform. The jibe of the Count of Provence that he was as indecisive ‘as balls of ivory that you try in vain to hold together’6 can be discounted as inaccurate, particularly in view of the eminent opinions pointing in the opposite direction. Joseph II observed: ‘Il a des notions, il a du jugement.’8 Prince Henry of Prussia appeared to confirm this: ‘He had sound ideas in politics’.1 Goethe added that he ‘evinced the best intentions’,1 while Frederick the Great simply told d'Alembert: ‘You have a very good King.’1

His main problem was that he lacked staying power, the capacity to hold out against prolonged resistance. In this respect he differed from Joseph II, who showed a remarkable degree of perseverance, or Frederick the Great, so ruthless in eliminating dissent. Prince Henry believed that the reason for Louis XVI's reticence was that ‘he distrusted himself too much’.1 Although he was sincere in his intentions to reform, he lacked the enlightened despot's characteristic ruthlessness in pushing it through. The growing constitutional crisis of his reign resulted partly from his failure to support his ministers beyond a certain point. When five of Turgot's Six Edicts were rejected by the Paris Parlement in 1776, Louis XVI observed: ‘I see well that there is no–one here but M.Turgot and myself who love the people.’1 He then proceeded to hold a lit de justice. But, as the opposition to Turgot mounted in the administration and the court, the King yielded and dismissed his minister. When Necker sought greater authority and was opposed by the other officials, Louis responded in the same manner. Calonne and Brienne also became victims of Louis's desire to escape a final confrontation with the combined forces of the opposition.

It would probably have been unwise for Louis XVI to resist the demand of the Paris Parlement for the convocation of the Estates General. But during the course of 1789 he committed his most serious mistake, one which may well have cost the King his life and France her monarchy. Against all his reforming instincts he agreed that the Estates should convene and vote separately, thus aligning himself with privilege and reaction. In so doing he seemed to identify himself with the famous paradox of Marie Antoinette: The nobility will destroy us, but it seems to me that we cannot save ourselves without it.’3

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