By the 1750s the Enlightenment had reached high gear. At the same time, the monarchy was becoming increasingly entangled in controversy. A gradually escalating crisis in the state made the French people open to new possibilities. This crisis had many sources. First, the battle over the anti-Jansenist papal bull Unigenitus was fought repeatedly during the early and mid-18th century, despite Fleury’s efforts to quell the conflict with moderate anti-Jansenist policies. The Jansenists published an underground newspaper and hundreds of pamphlets, and made multiple parlementary protests in an effort to mobilize public opinion against the crown. Jansenist publications represented the crown as despotic because it had repressed those appealing to the Paris parlement against the hated papal bull. Although the controversy around Unigenitus had diminished by the 1760s, many Jansenists continued to agitate against the monarchy in later crises.
Second, French foreign policy raised profound questions about the monarchy’s competence. In agreeing to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the monarchy threw away its hard-won conquests in the War of the Austrian Succession.
Then in 1756 the crown reversed France’s historic diplomatic position by allying with Habsburg Austria. In the ensuing Seven Years’ War, France was humiliated by its archenemy Britain and Britain’s new ally, Prussia, leading many to think that France had lost its “natural” position as Europe’s leading power. Louis XV did not help matters when he instituted a policy regarding succession to the Polish crown that he kept secret from most officials, including his own foreign minister.
Third, the state’s finances were beginning to crumble again. The Seven Years’ War cost France an immense 1.5 billion livres, of which one-third was paid from new taxes but two-thirds was paid through borrowing. Creditors became increasingly unsure the state could repay them and, for this reason, charged higher interest rates. Taxpayers grumbled over their rising tax bills.
Fourth, Louis’s personal conduct made it all too easy to attribute the state’s mounting problems to the onset of a true despotism, in which decisions were made by sinister figures behind the throne. Louis took up with a series of mistresses, most notably the marquise de Pompadour, to whom he appeared more devoted than he was to the nation. Although the extent of Pompadour’s personal power is unclear, she did provide a rallying point for some of the king’s ministers. The dévot faction at court opposed Pompadour and tried to get Louis to dismiss her by carrying out a publicity campaign blaming her for causing many of France’s problems. Pompadour kept her position until her death in 1764, but the publicity campaign made Louis appear weak and vacillating. This impression was confirmed by his tendency to change ministers abruptly, and it helped discredit the monarchy.
Louis’s reputation as a despot peaked during the last years of his long reign. In 1770 Chancellor René Nicolas de Maupeou abolished the parlements. Their objections to royal policies had elicited uncharacteristically strong restatements by the crown of its absolute authority. The result was an outpouring of pamphlets that condemned not only Maupeou but also the king. Louis was caught in the crossfire between members of the parlements, who sought more limits to royal power, and the dévot faction, who wanted to maintain absolutism in its traditional form. By the end of his reign, he had managed to turn his sobriquet, the Well-Beloved, into a satire. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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