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Fiscal crisis


Food in french
Food in french

During the 18th century, criticism of the French monarchy also came from people who worked for the Old Regime. Some of the king’s own ministers criticized past practices and proposed reforms, but a more influential source of dissent was the parlements, 13 regional royal courts led by the Parlement of Paris. The parlements were empowered to register royal decrees, and all decrees had to be registered by the parlements before becoming law. In this capacity, the parlements frequently protested royal initiatives that they believed to threaten the traditional rights and liberties of the people. In widely distributed publications, they held up the image of a historically free France and denounced the absolute rule of the crown that in their view threatened traditional liberties by imposing religious orthodoxy and new taxes.

These protests blended with those of others, most notably an influential group of professional intellectuals called the philosophes. Like those who supported the parlements, the philosophes did not advocate violent revolution. Yet, they claimed to speak on behalf of the public, arguing that people had certain natural rights and that governments existed to guarantee these rights. In a stream of pamphlets and treatises—many of them printed and circulated illegally—they ridiculed the Old Regime’s inefficiencies and its abuses of power. During this time, the parlementaires and the philosophes together crafted a vocabulary that would be used later to define and debate political issues during the Revolution. They redefined such terms as despotism, or the oppression of a people by an arbitrary ruler; liberty and rights; and the nation.

The discontent of the French people might not have brought about a political revolution if there had not been a fiscal crisis in the late 1780s. Like so much else in the Old Regime, the monarchy’s financial system was inefficient and antiquated. France had neither a national bank nor a centralized national treasury. The nobility and clergy—many of them very wealthy—paid substantially less in taxes than other groups, notably the much poorer peasantry. Similarly, the amount of tax charged varied widely from one region to another.

Furthermore, the monarchy almost always spent more each year than it collected in taxes; consequently, it was forced to borrow, which it did increasingly during the 18th century. Debt grew in part because France participated in a series of costly wars—the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), and the American Revolution (1775-1783). Large existing debts and a history of renouncing earlier ones meant that the country was forced to borrow at higher interest rates than some other countries, further adding to the already massive debt. By 1789 the state was forced to spend nearly half its yearly revenues paying the interest it owed.

Financial reform was attempted before 1789. Upon his accession to the throne in 1774, Louis XVI appointed the reform-minded Anne Robert Jacques Turgot as chief finance minister. Between 1774 and 1776 Turgot sought to cut government expenses and to increase revenues.

He removed government restrictions on the sale and distribution of grain in order to increase grain sales and, in turn, government revenue. Jacques Necker, director of government finance between 1777 and 1781, reformed the treasury system and published an analysis of the state of government finance in 1781 as a means to restore confidence in its soundness. But most of these reforms were soon undone as the result of pressure from a variety of financial groups, and the government continued to borrow at high rates of interest through the 1780s. Charles Alexandre de Calonne was appointed minister of finance in 1783, and three years later he proposed a new general plan resembling Turgot’s. He wanted to float new loans to cover immediate expenses, revoke some tax exemptions, replace older taxes with a new universal land tax and a stamp tax, convene regional assemblies to oversee the new taxes, and remove more restrictions from the grain trade. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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