1 France as a superpower 1700 - 1715

France was the superpower when Louis XIV took the reigns of government into his hands in 1661. Its motto was 'Nec Pluribus Impar' or 'not unequal to many' a statement which perfectly reflected the miltary balance of power at the time. For details: French Army in 1700.

It could therefore be logical to conclude that European society was dominated by what happened in France at the time and many present day tourists would suppose this. In other fields than the military France was however just one of the great powers. In 2010 the United States of America is a political superpower, but it also dominates in science and technology; economics, music; literature and so on. In 1700 France excelled in all of these, but did not dominate. Here I'll try to describe some aspects of Baroque France. It's a rather limited and random list.

2 Population of France in 1700

In 1700 France counted about 21 million inhabitants. The biggest city was Paris with about 500,000 inhabitants. The second city was Lyon with about 100,000. Other major cities were Marseille with 75,000; Rouen with 60,000 and Lille with 55,000. Of the total population of France about 17 million lived in the country side, giving a rural population of about 80%.

The French population did not speak the same language. The main distinction between languages was that between the langue d'oil of northern France and the langue d'oc of southern France which were quite distinct. Apart from this there were linguistic minorities in Alsace (German), Britanny (Celtic) and French Flanders (e.g. Dunkirk still spoke Dutch). The consequence of this was that loyalty and identification were much more local than later on.

3 Political Organization

3.1 Two sources of power

Louis XIV's monarchy is the classic example of absolutism, and one can therefore suppose that all authority was derived from the king. In fact France still knew two sources of power. The royal authority and all that depended on it was dominant. Next to that the people had its own institutions. A most obvious example were of course community councils and city councils, but there were also provincial states (états provincial) representing the people of a province, and the States General (Les états Généraux).

3.2 Royal Institutions

The most important royal institute was the king himself. Louis XIV exercised executive, law-making and judicial power and was thus absolute. The only limits on his power were the fundamental laws, i.e. only males can succeed to the throne, the order of succession cannot be altered, and the domain royal is inalienable. In medieval times there had been severe limits to the king's law-making power, primarily that he could not levy any (new) taxes without the consent of his subjects.

From about 1600 the logic of the Raison d'état gave the kings a reason to liberate themselves from the limits that the medieval theorists had placed on their power. By the end of the 1650's theory had shifted from the divine right (origins) of the power wielded by the king to the divine right of the king himself. 'Le glissement s'opère d'une théorie de droit divin du pouvoir a une théorie de droit divin du roi' Jean-Marie Goulemot

3.2.1 The King's Councils

In order to be able to govern the king had councils ordered and manned according to his will. The more important councils deliberated in his presence, others deliberated without him. Some of the most important councils were:

Le Conseil d'en haut or Conseil d'État. This treated primarily Military, Naval and Diplomatic affairs. Present were the 4 'secretaires d'état' (but not always all of them), the contrôleur général des finances, Louis XIV, le Grand Dauphin and le duc de Bourgogne (grandson of Louis). It is about equivalent to a council of foreign affairs, but also treated very important internal affairs. All members of the Conseil d'en haut had the dignity of minister.

Le Conseil des dépêches. This council treated the interior daily affairs. It was named after the 'dépêches' by which it used to communicate its decisions. Its members were the same as those of the Conseil d'en haut + the chancellor and the president of the 'Conseil des Finances'.

Le Conseil royal des finances handled financial affairs. It fixed the height of taxes and the areas were they were levied. Members were the King, the Chancellor, the president of the 'Conseil royal des Finances', the controleur general des finances (as counselor) and two councelors.

3.2.2 The King's Ministers

Being a minister of the king meant being a prime councelor of Louis XIV. Here is a list of the ministers, and the functions of those of them that were secretaire d'état.

3.2.3 The King's parliaments

As indicated above the king wielded judicial power in France. He had however delegated most of this power to the parliaments. These were the highest courts of the kingdom, handling mostly appeals against decisions of lower courts. Some important civil and criminal cases were handled directly by the parliaments. The largest and most important parliament was seated in Paris, others for example at Toulouse and Bordeaux.

The parliaments also had a public law function, which was to register laws (édits). The registration of a law was a condition for its validity in the resort of the parliament. Before Louis XIV the parliaments could delay or refuse to register laws (and would do so if they conflicted with other laws or privileges) by making protests, but the king could force them into registration by holding a special ceremony. During Louis XIV's reign the parliaments had to register laws directly, and could only make protests after registration.

With regard to this function in the registration of laws one has to mind that a taxation law was also subject to registration. If a parliament could actually refuse a tax law and stand by this decision, the parliament would for that power evolve from an advisory institute to a representative power. One of the decisive moments in French history is the First Fronde, where in early 1648 the parliament de Paris and others refused royal taxation laws. When Louis made peace with the parliament in 1652 it lost its power to influence taxation in this way.

3.2.4 The King's feudal power

By 1700 the king could no longer directly impact affairs by using his capacity as feudal lord of France, but it continued to be very important. The feudal mechanism still ruled everybody's position in society and also determined whether one was obliged to pay taxes.

3.3 The People's Institutions

3.3.1 Etats Généraux

The Etats Généraux was a representative body that had last been convoked in 1614 and would not be so till 1789. Convocating the Etats Généraux meant that each class (état) of the population chose representatives, thus representatives were chosen by the clergy, the nobility and the (well to do) population. The only reason for convoking them would be to surmount a crisis in the state, or to ask for an extraordinary tax. When the king and the Etats Généraux worked together they also tended to strengthen or restore the bond between the king and the population. This is why their convocation was deliberated on the death of Louis XIV.

3.3.2 Etats Provinceaux

Originally the whole of France was divided into provinces (like Normandy, Bretagne, Languedoc etc.) a lot of these had acquired a more or less permanent representative body. The king used to ask these representative bodies for taxes. By the time of Louis XIV however, most of these Etats Provinceaux had not been called to convene for a long time, because the king had ways ('elections') to tax these areas without intervention from the Etats Provinceaux.

The members of an Etats Provinceaux would commonly be the nobles of the province, certain clerical dignitaries, and civilians representing towns. Their most important task was to grant the 'don gratuit' or Contributio to the king, and to negotiate about it. Though not at liberty to flatly refuse the don gratuit, this modus operandi assured some representation of the population in government. The most important Etats Provinceaux remaining at the time were: Languedoc, Artois, Bretagne, Bourgogne and Provence.

If one compares the almost extinct power of the états provinceaux of the French provinces to the constitution of the United Provinces they look exactly opposite. Whereas the Bourbon kings had done away with the états provinceaux of the French provinces, the Dutch états provinceaux had done away with their king. A very disturbing constitutional invention for a king.

4 Financial organization

4.1 Taxes levied by the crown or privatized

The taxes the French crown levied can be divided into those levied by the administrative organization of the crown itself e.g. La Taille, And those whose imposition was rented to private companies (tax farming): a.o. La Gabelle, Income of the domains, Aides, Traites.

4.2 Pays d'états and pays d'élections

The difference between pays d'états and pays d'elections was very important in French tax gathering done by the crown. The pays d'états were the provinces that (still) had regularly convening états provinceaux that undertook tax gathering for their king. In the pays d'élections this was done by the royal administration.

4.3 Le Conseil Royal des Finances

Le Conseil Royal des Finances was the highest financial institution. On 16 November 1700 it contained:

The Conseil Royal des Finances met twice a week and treated the fiscal and financial policy of the state. It is however important to note that Louis XIV reserved all rights to expend money to himself. Meaning Louis himself served as his own surintendant des finances. In practice its most important tasks were:

4.4 The intendances

France was divided into intendances. In the pays d'élections these covered the area of a généralité. In the pays d'états the intendance covered the province. The intendant was a public servant that had a temporary (on average 6 years) appointment in his intendance. His task was to see to it that the orders of the central government were followed in the provinces. The intendant also played a key role in tax gathering on the local level. In gathering taxes he had all but taken over the role previously played by les bureaux des finances.

4.5 Les bureaux des finances

On the financial level the généralité was controlled by a bureau des finances. A bureau des finances was a college of treasurers of which there were about 500 in France. The bureaux des finances registered the édits et déclarations sent to them by the king, and played a minor role in levying taxes.

4.6 Les élections

The élections were colleges of public servants responsible at a local level for gathering all taxes but la gabelle, les traités and the décimes. These servants are called élus.

4.7 The généralités

The généralités (originally recette général) were the finanicial division of the kingdom. In the pays d'élections the territory covered by the généralité was the same as that covered by the intendance.

5 Taxes

5.1 Ressources Ordinaires and Ressources Extraordinaires

The most basic distinction between sources of income of the French crown is the distinction between ressources ordinaires and ressources extraordinaires. Originally this designated the difference between the income from the crown lands (ressources ordinaires), and the extraordinary income (ressources extraordinaires). The latter could originally only be levied with the consent of the états généraux. By the year 1700 Louis did not have to ask for consent for taxation in most of France, and most taxes were thus designated as ressources ordinaires, with only loans and the sale of offices still seen as ressources extraordinaires.

5.2 Direct and Indirect Taxes

Taxes an be divided into direct taxes (taxes on income or property), and indirect taxes (taxes on alcohol and tobacco). The taxes the French crown levied can furthermore be divided into those levied by the administrative organization of the crown itself:

And those whose collection was delegated to private companies i.e. les Fermes (companies of financers):

This roughly works as follows: The government established a tariff. Let's say a euro tax on a bottle of wine. The ferme promises to collect one million euros of wine taxes. If it collects more than one million it makes a profit, otherwise it looses money. The big advantage for the crown was that these fermes were able and willing to advance money to the crown while reimbursing themselves on the populace later.

5.2.1 La Taille

La Taille was a tax levied differently in northern France and in Southern France. In the North (pays de taille personnelle) it was levied from civilians (Nobility and Clergy were exempt). It involved:

In the south (pays de taille réelle) it was a tax levied on civilian land (lands were themselves noble lands or civilian lands regardless if they were owned by the nobility or civilians). Anyone owning 'civilian' land thus had to pay regardless of whether the owner was noble or not. There was also a difference in the way it was levied in the pays d'états and in the pays d'élections.

Originally in July of each year the conseil royal des finances sent the bureaux des finances a message about the amount of money they had to levy for the 'taille'. In the pays d'élections the bureau des finances then investigated their généralité with regard to the ability to pay of each election, made a report of this and combined it with the reports of the élus that had made a report of their visits to the parishes. The bureau des finances then made a proposal about how this amount should be divided over the elections (by 1700 this was done by the intendant), and sent this proposal back to the council. The conseil royal des finances then asserted the height of the taille to be paid by each election and authorized its levy. The bureau des finances registered this act and sent it on to the elections.

The élus under the presidency of a treasurer asserted the amount to be paid by each parish of the election. In the parish the priest then convoked the general assembly of the parish. In this general assembly were then elected asséeurs (sort of administrator) et collecteurs (receivers that had to guarantee the levy with their own goods), the latter mostly wealthy farmers. In the pays de taille personnelle the amount to be payed was then divided between persons, in the pays de taille réelle the cadastre (a register describing ownership of real estate) played a big role in dividing the burden. In the pays d'états the levy of taxes was done by the états, with the élus playing no role in it.

The taille thus seems a reasonable form of taxation at first glance. It had however three weak points:

The English Land tax of the same era which imposed a tax on rents received by a landlord was a far clearer system which did not suffer from these disadvantages.

5.2.2 La Gabelle

La Gabelle was the infamous tax on salt. In the centre of the kingdom in the 'pays de grande gabelle' salt was most heavily taxed, with the inhabitants being forced to buy a minimum amount each year. In the southwestern part 'pays de petite gabelle' salt was less heavily taxed, but the inhabitants were forced to buy more each year. In the southwest salt was almost not taxed and cheapest. In Alsace, Lorraine and Burgundy cheap mineral salt mined in Lorraine was consumed. French Flanders, Artois and Brittany paid no taxes on Salt. Prices of salt could thus range from 0.5 Sous (tax-free) to 13 sous in the 'pays de grande gabelle'.

Salt was very important for the conservation of food at these times, especially since there were no refrigerators, and food did not come from the factory conservatives included. Nowadays consumers would not care that much if a kg of salt cost 26 Euro, but if he were a fisherman that could not throw his catch in the fridge, or a farmer that would have to conserve a recently slaughtered pig he would. The Gabelle was thus again a tax that fell heavy on the poorest inhabitants.

5.2.3 Les Traites

Les Traites were a tariff levied on certain goods transported within the kingdom.

5.2.4 Les Aides

Les Aides were indirect (sales) taxes on a list of goods that became steadily longer during Louis' reign. They included amongst others wines, liquors, candles, soap and leather.

5.2.5 La capitation

La capitation was a tax that had been introduced in 1695 and revoked after 1697, but reintroduced during the Spanish Succession war. It was a progressive income tax, and thus very modern. It meant that all subjects of the king were divided over 22 classes, with the clergy exempt and the lowest class paying only 1 livre. The problem here was the lack of an objective measure, meaning the tax-payers had an opportunity to fraud (corrupt) themselves into a lower class.

5.2.6 La Dixième

La Dixième was an income tax of ten percent introduced in 1710. It included: a tax of ten percent on the income from bonds levied at the source, a tax of ten percent on the revenues from offices, a tax of ten percent on the revenue from real estate, a tax of ten percent on the revenue from industry and trade levied from the corporations. It could have been a good tax, but the problem was that the income of individuals was hardly assessable. The majority of the privileged classes simply refused to pay and got away with it.

5.3 Other sources of income

Apart from taxation the French state had some other sources of income, which were not taxes.

Le don gratuit or free gift was the contribution the clergy made to the government. This way the clergy contributed to the state though it was exempt from taxation.

The sale of offices was a very important source of income for the state. The buyer bought an office and in return got a salary. This way buying an office was comparable to buying an annuity. And looking on it in this way the sale of offices increased the debt of the state.

Something that really created money was selling patents of nobility.

Issuing paper money started in 1701. It was in itself a good way to get cash, but the French government of course issued too much paper money, meaning it lost more than half its value.

6 Foreign Policy

After the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659 France was a military superpower. It had enough revenue to embark on any foreign policy it chose. In its foreign policy the private and dynastic interests of its king dominated over the national interests. These royal interests were also over-ambitious and were perceived as an ambition to conquer the world.

6.1 Foreign policy goals

Louis XIV had a lot of goals for example:

6.2 Phases in foreign policy

Louis did not try to achieve these goals all at the same time. We can discern different phases in French foreign policy:

6.2.1 Attempts to conquer the Spanish Netherlands

The first phase runs from the start of Louis's personal reign in 1661 to 1666. France bought Dunkirk from England and had a conflict with the pope. It took measures to strengthen its position in the Americas and promoted national manufacture. With regard to the succession of the Spanish throne (Charles II was not expected to survive his childhood) Louis concluded alliances with Brandenburg and the United Provinces. This to isolate the emperor in case the king of Spain would die.

6.2.2 War of Devolution

When the king of Spain died in 1665 his fragile son Charles II (1661-1700) seemed to be able to survive for some time. Louis therefore started the War of Devolution in 1677. The rapid advance of the French troops was stopped by the United Provinces, England and Sweden signing the Triple Alliance against France. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668 did grant France a dozen cities in the Spanish Netherlands, but its aggression disturbed other countries.

6.2.3 Franco-Dutch War

From the War of Devolution Louis concluded that he had to strike against the United Provinces in order to get a free hand in Spanish Netherlands. This policy started with hurting the Dutch economy by implementing higher tariffs in 1667. France then succeeded in breaking up the Triple Alliance by getting England and Sweden on its side, as well as the bishops of Cologne and Münster, and a whole string of other states, practically isolating the Dutch. In 1672 Franco-Dutch War started by England, France and the bishops all attacking the United Provinces.

The attacks were stopped by inundations, the fleet and the small Dutch army. It's kind of typical for Louis that when the Dutch proposed peace he made such outrageous demands that the Dutch decided to fight on. Slowly the Spanish, the emperor and other nations swung sides and France had to fight against a coalition. At the 1678 peace of Nijmegen the Dutch made an advantageous peace for themselves by not giving up any territory and regaining the favorable 1664 tariff. The Spanish paid the price by losing Franche Comté and a large strip of the Spanish Netherlands.

6.2.4 The Reunions

After the peace of Nijmegen France instituted a number of courts that had to prove that certain territories had belonged to France (or one of the territories of France). By their verdicts these territories were then reunited to France. Of course this was a mere judicial operetta before French troops marched in. For the taking of the free city of Strasbourg in 1681 Louis did not even order its performance.

The reunion policy made clear that Louis was no longer just aiming at the Spanish Netherlands, but aimed at the whole left bank of the Rhine. Apart from the conquest of Strassburg the courts bluntly annexed a Rhineland territory that belonged to Sweden and a territory that belonged to the Duke of Würtemberg. Louis was thus well on his way in annexing large chunks of territory without having to fight for it.

On 14 July 1683 the Turks had started the Siege of Vienna. On 1 September 1683 Louis invaded the Spanish Netherlands and started to besiege Luxemburg. Louis counted on a Turkish victory that would crush the emperor and depose him. Louis would then have the opportunity to march on Vienna, to save Christendom and have himself proclaimed emperor. Events then took a very different turn than he had expected with the Imperial and Polish armies routing the Turks at the Kahlenberg on September 12 1683, raising the prestige of the emperor to unprecedented heights.

Louis then offered a 20 year truce on the basis of the Status Quo, which was signed in Regensburg in August 1684. By the truce France continued to occupy the Reunion territories and gained Luxembourg, but left its (unofficial) Turkish ally to fight for itself. This truce gave Louis a lot of advantages because most of the reunions became French permanently. The disadvantage was that the emperor got a free hand against the Turks and secured his easter flank by conquering parts of Hungary.

6.2.5 The Nine Years War

After the truce of Regenburg in August 1684 Louis revoked the edict of Nantes in 1685. It led to the massive flight of French Protestants and not only hurt the French economy, but also antagonized the whole of protestant Europe. Louis' claim for a part of the Palatinate at the death of the elector palatine in 1685 did not immediately lead to open war, but did lead to the formation of the Leaque of Augsburg in 1686 between the Elector Palatine, the Elector of Bavaria, the Emperor, three Reichskreitsen, and the kings of Spain and Sweden on account of their imperial fiefs. Prussia made a defensive alliance with emperor.

To make matters worse Louis then infringed on the treaty of Nijmegen by re-implementing the tariff list of 1667 in September 1687 and argued with the pope over the succession of the electoral bishop of Cologne in 1688. When the pope ruled against his candidate he occupied the papal possessions in southern France and sent an ultimatum to the emperor to recognize his candidate, the reunions, and his claim to a part of the Palatinate.

At the time Louis faced two strategic threats. First he had information that Stadholder William III was planning to invade England. Against this he could mobilize his fleet, or even directly march to the United Provinces to prevent the Dutch from shipping their army to England. This might lead to a reaction from the empire, but would prevent England from joining the alliance. On the other hand Louis probably doubted that William III could be successful.

The other strategic threat was the Habsburg advance in Eastern Europe. In August 1688 they had started the Siege of Belgrade. If Louis kept his peace with the Empire it was uncertain where the imperial advance would stop. It's not known whether this was a consideration for Louis, or whether his (i.e. Liselotte's) imaginery right of succession in the Palatinate was paramount. Anyway, on 2 September 1688 Louis marched into the Rhineland and laid siege to Philipsburg, starting the war of the ligue of Augsburg, also known as the Nine Years War.

As a consequence William III became king of England. Louis then sent an expedition to Ireland and so antagonized the English population in fully supporting the war against France. Spain and Savoy also joined and soon Louis was fighting the whole of Europe. France only escaped by the defection of some of its enemies. At the peace of Rijswijk in 1697 Louis lost some of the reunions, but kept some others. The strategic outcome was however dramatic for France. England became a dynamic enemy attached to the Protestant cause. Austria became a major power.

6.2.6 War of the Spanish Succession

On the eve of the Spanish Succession War Louis still had some options open, but the situation was far less favorable than in 1661. Austria had become a great power and William held England and the United Provinces in personal union. He also had solid alliances with the German states in order to prevent any further thrusts to the Rhine. By 1700 France was also deeply indebted.

Succeeding to the Spanish throne would however drastically change the strategic situation west of the Rhine, in Italy and on sea. This is also one of the justifications that is often given for the policy to accept the Spanish crown: It would put an end to the 'Habsburg encirclement of France'. Looking at the map of Europe this sounds plausible. The facts are however that the Habsburgs were too weak to be aggressive at all, the real encirclement would come from English fleets and English money fighting proxy wars on the continent.