The Old Monarchic Regime
author Gilda Stoica, December 2015
The French Monarchy, Louis XVI of Bourbon and Marie Antoinette Josepha Johanna ďAutriche Lorraine. The administrative Chaos and the French system of taxation

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The French Monarchy was an absolute monarchy. The kings’ power was not limited by any representative body, such as Parliament, since they considered themselves to be responsible only to God.

The Bourbon dynasty dominated the history of France for almost four centuries. It started with Henry IV, King of France and Navarre, who laid the foundation of the absolute monarchy and eased France of internal wars between Protestants and Catholics. It ended with Henry V whose reign lasted only seven days because of the revolutionary disturbances France was passing through. The dynasty lives on today in the kings of Spain and Luxembourg.

The French monarch's power was not despotic, since this was prevented by both the laws and the customs of his kingdom. There were several independent bodies, such as the Assembly of the Clergy, counselors, and especially the superintendent of finances.

Louis XV involved France in a series of wars which led to the loss of almost all French colonial territories to England. From this moment, France began to enter an economic and financial crisis. Louis XVI of France's Bourbon dynasty was also called ‘the Sun King’ because he changed the French monarchy into a classic absolutist monarchy. His great-great-grandfather was Louis XIV.

Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, thus succeeding his grandfather to the throne, but did not succeed in achieving the financial reform France was so much in need of. The French financial system was in full collapse because Louis insisted on defending the privileges of the clergy and nobles.

Louis XIV of Bourbon, the French leader, was considered an indecisive and therefore a very influential person, especially by his adviser Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux Count of Maurepas, who made all important decisions until his death. Louis was also awkward and embarrassed in public. He did not inspire respect, but was still seen with affection.

Louis XVI took a popular measure by giving power back to the parliaments, but obstructed any major reforms.

Marie Antoinette, an Archduchess of Austria, daughter of Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa, married Louis XVI of Bourbon at the age of fifteen, despite the rivalry between the two countries. The rivalry was caused mainly by France's defeat in the Seven Years’ War, after which it lost most of its colonies.

Marie Antoinette had a very controversial personality because of her decadence and extravagance, but also because of the frivolous circle of favorites gathered around her at court. She had the firmness Louis lacked but was considered frivolous and arrogant.

She was unjustly implicated in the diamond necklace affair, which discredited the monarchy. She also managed to accumulate half a million pounds of gambling debts in just one year. Her brother-in-law, the Count of Provence, gave her the nickname of Madame Déficit. Her decadence and arrogance attracted general hatred and thus contributed to the onset of the revolution by increasing antipathy towards the monarchy.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, the King's decisions were influenced by her. She advised Louis to oppose the attempts of the National Assembly to limit the royal prerogatives. She became the target of the revolutionaries, who attributed to her the famous reply "Let them eat cake!" upon learning that the peasants had no bread.

France was divided into 34 financial constituencies in which royal power was represented by the superintendents of "police, justice and finance", appointed by the king, to whom they reported directly. They supervised tax collection and ensured that proper respect was paid to the king, they enforced law and order, and they were responsible for public works, communications, commerce and industry.

Centralization coexisted with lots of privileges and autonomies. Justice, for example, was exercised jointly by royal officials, by elders who inherited the right to do justice on their own properties and by ecclesiastical courts.

The noblesse of the robe also played a political role. No law could be applied until recorded by all the parliaments. Before recording an edict, they could criticize it in a "remontance" (protest) sent to the king. If he wished, the king could ignore a protest and insist, through "lit de justice" (bed of justice), that parliament record his edict.

Kings were creating new structures, but they could not abolish the old ones, continually adding new structures to the old. In 1789 in France there were 35 provinces, 135 dioceses, 38 military regions, 34 généralités and 13 parliaments.

The Parliaments, numbering 13, were privileged bodies that limited the king's power, being the last courts of appeal in those areas. The Parliament of Paris was the most important, since its jurisdiction covered a third of the French territory. The 2300 judges of these courts formed the "noblesse of the robe". These magistrates bought their positions and could not be dismissed unless the king reimbursed the amounts they paid for their position.

The States Provincial and the Parliaments were obstacles in the path of royal power. The States Provincial operated in areas on the outskirts of France, such as Brittany, which were the last independent territories joined to the French monarchy. They covered half of the kingdom and possessed ancient rights and privileges in matters concerning justice and finance. They were exempted from paying certain taxes.

There were different functional legal systems: Roman law in the south, various local laws in the north. France was divided into internal border zones and taxes were paid to transport goods from one part to another. There were many systems of weights and measures. There was no uniform administrative system to cover the whole country.

The Parliaments opposed many royal edicts to change the tax system and defended both the law and human rights against authoritarian monarchy, but were seen in history as an obstacle to reforming the monarchy. Provincial and parliamentary estates contributed to the administrative confusion that reigned in France under the Old Regime because as kings were creating new structures, they could not abolish the old ones, but could only add to them.

The tax regime was very grievous. Taxes were distributed unevenly, being borne almost entirely by the third estate. There were numerous financial reform attempts even in the time of Louis XVI, by the ministers Anne Robert, Jacques Turgot and Jacques Necker. These attempts were thwarted by the king.

The main direct tax was the taille, land tax paid by the non-nobles, especially by the peasantry; other major taxes were: the capitation, a poll tax, and the vingtième, representing 5% of total revenues. The indirect taxes on purchased goods were much more grievous, such as: the Gabelle, tax on salt that varied from one French region to another, les aides - on food and drink, and ľoctrois on goods that entered the cities.

The tax collection was very chaotic, which meant that the amounts reaching the State administration were not what they should be. Corruption reached high levels. For example, general farmers increased the indirect taxes, paid a lump sum in advance to the government and kept everything over this amount for themselves.

Direct taxes were collected by hundreds of clerks, who often used the money for personal purposes. They had immunity because they could not be dismissed. Such positions were most often purchased, sometimes even left as an inheritance from father to son.

Because there was no central treasury in which to pay all the state revenues, the inspector never knew how much money was spent in a year. This also encouraged corruption, which reached its peak among clerks and relatives of the royal court.

The financial crisis haunting France at that time was also exacerbated by the various wars in which it was involved, which weighed heavily on the state treasury. Failing to cover its expenses, the monarchy was forced to take out loans. This led to interest swallowing up more than half of the state expenses.