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France Under the Regency and Cardinal Fleury 1715–1743

Louis XV did not assert his full authority until 1743. Before this France was governed, during the king's minority, by the Regency of Orleans (1715–23) and then, as the king accustomed himself to his role, by Cardinal Fleury (1726–43).

This interim was of the utmost importance for the development of the French monarchy in the eighteenth century and had far–reaching results. The Regency was a period of experimentation, an attempt to draw away from Louis XIV's system. But attempts at constitutional progress were overshadowed by aristocratic reaction, while the Regency's economic experiments ended in failure and precipitated revulsion against any further changes. By the 1720s the power of absolute monarchy had been greatly undermined and the future was uncertain. At this point France's third great Cardinal took the helm and, after 1726, introduced a period of retrenchment and consolidation which restored political and economic stability. He did not, however, deal with some of the more crucial issues raised by the failures of the Regency; too often he sidestepped the major constitutional problems and left them to work themselves out in the future.

The death of Louis XIV in 1715 left the anticipated power vacuum which had to be filled by yet another Regency. How would this temporary Régime respond? The Duc d'Orleans was a known moderate in politics (if not in his private life), ordering the release of many political prisoners and suspending the use of lettres de cachet. He was also sympathetic towards the English parliamentary system. This was not, however, to be the direction in which he steered France. He succumbed instead to safer and more reactionary counsels, typified by Dubois's words: ‘Let your wisdom avert from France the dangerous project of making the French a free people.’1 His experiments were conducted in favour of the aristocracy, who gained ground temporarily in the conciliar system and permanently in the Paris Parlement.

The major institutional change brought about by the Regency was the alteration of Louis XIV's structure of Councils, which had been dominated by Secretaries of State and which had not drawn upon the services of the noblesse d’épée. Orleans was persuaded by articulate spokesmen of this section of the nobility to restore their constitutional role. The result was the establishment of the Polysynodie, consisting of the Council of Regency and seven subordinate Councils for internal affairs, finance, religion, foreign affairs, war, navy and commerce. The experiment was a miserable failure, as the noblesse d’épée proved incapable of responding to the demands of routine and committee work. Saint–Simon, who had been instrumental in establishing the Polysynodie, was taken aback by ‘l'ignorance, la légèreté, l'inapplication de cette noblesse’,2 while the Duc d'Antin remarked ‘that men of this class are not suited to government affairs, they are good only to be killed off in war’.3 The system was in trouble by 1718 and had collapsed by the end of the Regency. Nevertheless, the noblesse d’épée had no intention of being left once more in obscurity. One of the manifestations of their revived self–consciousness was a willingness to sink their differences with the more recent noblesse de robe by a process of social integration through intermarriage. The noblesse de robe, in turn, upheld the interests of the entire aristocracy, old and new, by means of the Paris Parlement.

The Paris Parlement underwent its customary revival during a Regency period, although this time, in the absence of a Richelieu or a Mazarin to cut it down to size, it maintained its influence. Ironically, it was Louis XIV, who had formerly written the Letters Patent of 1673 which had weakened the Parlement, who provided the occasion. His Political Will stated that Orleans was to possess no more than nominal authority in the form of a casting vote in the Council of Regency. In this way Louis hoped to limit the powers of the noblesse d’épée by restricting its leader; he was merely con firming the distrust of the old aristocracy in a political context which he had shown throughout his reign. Orleans found the restriction incompatible with effective government and appealed to the Parlement, as the repository and interpreter of the nation's law, to remove it. This was done, on condition that Orleans restored the traditional right of remonstrance against royal edicts. The Regency therefore released the Parlement from the restraints of Louis XIV in order to release itself. The result was momentous. Although Orleans emphasized in 1715 that it was to behave ‘avec tant de sagesse et de circonspection’, the Parlement soon increased its claims and attempted to become, according to Saint–Simon, ‘le tuteur du roi et le maitre du royaume’.2 The Parlement challenged the Regency's financial reforms in 1718 and the prolonged conflict over the issue of Jansenism (including the registration of the Bill Unigenitus) resulted in an uneasy compromise. The Regency had clearly revived the most powerful and conservative of all the instruments of the nobility. The full effects of this were not to become apparent until the second half of the century.

The economic situation offered greater scope for innovation, although there was a desperate tone to the reforms introduced. France was on the verge of bankruptcy on the death of Louis XIV; according to Noailles: ‘We have found matters in a more terrible state than can be described. Both King and his subjects are ruined.’4 The overall debt stood at 3,000 m. livres, a testimony to Louis XIV's active foreign policy; and annual expenditure continued to outstrip revenue from taxation. Orleans tried the usual methods of reissuing the coinage and investigating the worst cases of corruption through a Chambre de Justice. Eventually, however, he turned away from the economic theories prevalent in the previous reign, and gave John Law the opportunity to introduce radical changes. The first requisite, in Law's words, was to increase the flow of trade, for ultimately ‘wealth depends on commerce’. This could best be achieved by ending the mercantilist policies of Colbert, based on the backing of bullion for all transactions. Instead, Law emphasized the importance of free circulation and stressed, therefore, that ‘what is needed is credit’.5 Gradually an enormous new economic structure was built, linking commercial expansion to the state revenues. In 1716 Law formed the Banque Générale which was linked to the new Mississippi Company in 1717. By 1719 this had been united with other companies to form the Company of the Indies and, by 1720, it had assumed responsibility for the collection of taxation and the reduction of the national debt. Unfortunately, this remarkable experiment was short–lived, for it left too much to chance and operated with inadequate safeguards, owing to a complete lack of experience with this type of reform. Wild speculation brought about the collapse of the Company and the Bank in 1720, with serious long–term consequences. Distrust of credit and paper issue hampered the flow of trade for the rest of the century, and the Bank of France was not set up until 1800. Law's attempts to alter the tax collection system were also suspended; the ‘farming–out’ process was restored in full, and any prospect of re–examining the methods by which taxation was apportioned and raised was ended. Reaction was able to justify itself for some time to come on the grounds that reform had failed.

Although Cardinal Fleury (who replaced the incompetent Duc de Bourbon in 1726) was never formally entitled First Minister, he exercised more power than any of the king's servants since Mazarin. He used this authority to make the best of the status quo by following a general policy of retrenchment. According to Voltaire, ‘The good of the state was for a long time in accord with his moderation.’6 At the same time, he made no attempt to introduce fundamental reforms and his ministry had fewer long–term effects than that of Richelieu, which also followed a period of Regency and aristocratic reaction.

Fleury's main constitutional achievement was to re–establish harmony in the conciliar system which had had to be restored after the failure of the Regency's Polysynodie by 1718. But this was accompanied at a personal level by effective leadership, rather than by any institutional surgery. To his credit, he brought out the best qualities of Louis XV so that, according to d'Argenson, the King, in 1730, ‘works with his ministers, does it admirably, and reaches just decisions’.7 He also made effective use of the best available personnel in administration: Orry as Controller General, d'Angervilliers as Secretary of State for War, Maurepas and d'Aguesseau. Fleury acted as policy co–ordinator, and knew when to exert pressure or to maintain a low profile. Unfortunately, his talents were less appreciated by the late 1730s. In 1738 d'Argenson observed: ‘His credit wanes from day to day … the King hopes to drive him to resign by petty slight.’7 Fleury's influence faded after his death in 1742, and the Councils assumed a noisy and disjointed character– according to d'Argenson ‘celestial thunder could not have been heard in them’.8

Fleury's handling of the recently liberated Paris Parlement was not unlike the method used by Mazarin in the 1640s and 1650s: harsh measures alternating with retreat. The main difference, however, was that the Parlement never reached the point of rebellion under Fleury; it backed up its claims with constitutional and legal argument rather than the use of force. This meant that Fleury was in an anomalous position: the aspirations of the Parlement needed to be controlled, but the bad old days of the Frondes had to be avoided. Fleury tackled the problem with short–term success but provided no long–term solution. In 1730 the Parlement had to be compelled by a lit de justice to register an edict enforcing general acceptance of the Bull Unigenitus by the clergy. In the ensuing clash over the right of the Parlement to hold up royal legislation, the Parlement refused to conduct its normal judicial duties. The government, faced with vast numbers of resignations, exiled 139 judges to the provinces. Eventually Fleury recalled the officials; he had shown the weight of royal displeasure and was amenable to a compromise. The powers of the Parlement were not, however, curbed, and were to reassert themselves with greater force in the 1750s.

In his economic policy, Fleury was careful to avoid the type of experiment which had failed so disastrously during the Regency period. Unlike Law, he advanced no blueprint for reform, and his whole approach was pragmatic rather than theoretical. His first major act was to stabilize the value of the coinage in 1726, thus reviving confidence in the medium of exchange after the wild fluctuations of the early 1720s. There is no doubt that commerce benefited from this revaluation but the short–term gain was partially offset by the long–term effects of Fleury's return to mercantilist policies. Preferring the methods of Colbert to the theories of Law, Fleury reimposed heavy duties to reduce imports, and re–established many privileged industries with which the ancien Régime is normally associated. Similarly, the state finances received effective short–term treatment without radical change. The Controller General, Orry (1730–45) produced the only balanced budgets of the century through rigid economy and more systematic accounting. Nevertheless, the traditional methods of tax collection by the fermiers, receveurs des tailles and receveurs généraux des financeswere retained; in fact, Orry and Fleury yielded to the ‘farming out’ system to the extent of allowing the officials to keep between 30 and 50 per cent of the revenue collected. The result was the confirmation of privilege and the inadequate use of France's economic resources. Fleury's conservatism worked well in the 1730s but only because of careful management and the pursuit of a peaceful foreign policy. Active involvement in warfare from 1740 placed an intolerable strain on the whole financial structure, resulting eventually in attempts at more radical reforms by Marchault, Choiseul and Turgot.

It would be difficult to disagree with G.P.Gooch that Fleury presided over ‘the happiest phase of an unhappy reign’ or to deny the evident capacity of the cardinal to restore order from chaos. But it could be argued that many of his achievements were cosmetic and that his very success created serious delusions about the health of the financial structure until the 1780s.

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