France reached the first peak of her military power and diplomatic prestige under Louis XIV, the second under Napoleon I. Between the two reigns French foreign policy was no less active but a great deal less successful.
In retrospect, it seems that a realistic course could have been followed in the eighteenth century, based on two underlying principles. The first would have been the establishment of a period of peace and the avoidance of any commitment involving military intervention. This was necessary to enable France to recover internally from the economic problems induced by Louis XIV's designs. The second principle would have been an extension of the first. On recovering her internal equilibrium, France could have concentrated on maintaining the status quo in Europe by upholding the balance of power and avoiding a continental war. Instead, an active foreign policy could have been directed towards building up France's imperial and maritime power, and could have been instrumental in undermining France's greatest threat, Britain.
The Regency of the Duc d'Orleans (1715–23) and the administration of Cardinal Fleury (1726–43) fulfilled the general requirements of the first principle by concentrating on a pacific foreign policy. After 1740, however, the growing personal influence of Louis XV (1715–74) in French politics and diplomacy reversed this trend and introduced a period of intensive continental warfare. He made the disastrous mistake of giving priority to the struggles of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Meanwhile, during these wars, Britain attacked French commercial and imperial interests. The result of this was a serious decline in French power by the middle of the eighteenth century. France began to emerge from this between 1763 and 1774, due to the success of Choiseul, who laid the foundations for the policies of Louis XVI (1774–92). Louis XVI and Vergennes changed Louis XV's continental emphasis and fulfilled the general requirements of the second principle. France remained at peace on the Continent and concentrated instead on undermining British maritime strength by supporting the American cause in the War of American Independence (1777–83). France was well under way to recovering some of her military and naval power when the accumulated strains of the wars of the eighteenth century caused the collapse of the French finances and administration in 1789.
The Regency of Orleans (1715–23) was dedicated to reconstructing France after the hectic foreign policy of Louis XIV. Orleans was prepared to experiment with new ideas in diplomacy, although most of the details were carried out by Dubois, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1718.
Orleans and Dubois dealt successfully with what could have been a period of crisis in international relations and what Louis XIV would probably have transformed into a major war. The main threat to the peace of Western Europe came from Philip V. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) had recognized this Bourbon candidate as King of Spain, provided that he renounce any future claim to the French throne. Philip's wife, Elizabeth Farnese, and his Foreign Minister, Alberoni, aimed at reviving his candidature when the health of the young French king, Louis XV, was very much in doubt. Many statesmen began to wonder whether the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) would now be followed by a War of the French Succession.
The answer of the Regency was unusual and subtle—to form an alliance system which would protect France by bringing all the major powers of Western Europe to her side and to pressurize any potential rivals into joining. No state would be the target of this alliance because the underlying diplomacy lacked aggression and emphasized only peace and consolidation. Short conflicts might prove necessary but long wars were to be avoided at all costs; reconciliation and diplomatic contacts with France's opponents, rather than their defeat and humiliation, were seen as the most durable basis of peace. In 1716 the Anglo– French Alliance was drawn up, England also being anxious for a period of peace to enable her to resolve her own succession problem by overcoming Jacobite threats to the new Hanoverian dynasty. In 1717 the Netherlands joined, thus forming the Triple Alliance. This grew into the Quadruple Alliance as the Emperor came into the system in 1718. A short war followed, in which Britain and France felt obliged to frustrate Spain's expansionist policies in Italy. By the Treaty of London (1720) Philip V renounced his candidature to the French throne and brought Spain into the Alliance system. By patient diplomacy, therefore, the Regency overcame a major threat to the stability of France from Spain and, at the same time, secured a much needed rapprochement with Britain.
The policy of Orleans and Dubois was maintained for a time by Cardinal Fleury, who directed the French administration, finances and diplomacy from 1726 to 1743. He realized that a major war would cripple France, and that he needed to be able to concentrate on internal consolidation after the relatively unsuccessful domestic policies of the Regency. His main priorities were, therefore, to prevent the isolation of France in Europe, and to convince the more belligerent statesmen in France that the successful conduct of war required a full treasury and a just cause, neither of which were apparent at the time. His pacific aims were shared by his English counterpart, Sir Robert Walpole (Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742), who had similar difficulties in restraining a vociferous war faction. Fleury was so convinced that the interests of France were best served by peace that, when war did break out, he did his best to shorten it, even at the expense of French military prestige. The War of the Polish Succession (1733–5) was a case in point. The more militant politicians in France forced Fleury to advance the candidature of Louis XV's father–in–law, Stanislaus Leszczynski, to the Polish throne, which became vacant in 1733. France was supported by Spain and Sardinia, but was opposed by Austria and Russia, who backed the claim of Augustus III. Fleury refused to commit all of France's resources to the struggle and devoted his efforts not to winning the war, but to extracting France from the prospect of a more general European conflict like the War of the Spanish Succession. Above all, he avoided antagonizing Britain. He even kept French troops away from the Austrian Netherlands, thus foregoing the prospect of conquest, in case Britain should join the other side to protect what she regarded as a vital strategic area. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the next King of Poland was Augustus III, not Stanislaus Leszczynski, and that Fleury was virulently attacked by the war party in France.
The last few years of Fleury's administration saw the final failure of his pacific policies; by the time of his death in 1743 he was already discredited and France was deeply involved in the War of the Austrian Succession, the first major conflict in western and central Europe since 1713.
Louis XV (1715–74) had decided by 1740 that the period of influential ministers should end and that he should assume far greater personal responsibility. This proved to be detrimental in two ways. First, he was determined that any policy should be an active one, that France should become fully involved again in continental affairs. This decision put a severe strain upon France's military capacity, since she also had to deal with the growing threat of Britain. Second, he failed to pursue any consistent overall aim in his continental policy; he alternated between secret diplomacy, of which his ministers were frequently unaware, and open decisions hastily arrived at.
His desire for action was not without support. Many of the King's ministers became increasingly scornful of Fleury's methods after 1733. They backed any policy which would lead to an increase in French military involvement, with the prospect of acquiring territory in the Rhineland and the Austrian Netherlands. This would inevitably mean an anti–Austrian alliance. Other ministers, however, were thoroughly opposed to this trend. They feared a revival of the ambitious foreign policy of Louis XIV at a time when France was not as strong as she had been in the seventeenth century in relation to the other major powers. They therefore urged the King to concentrate on commercial and maritime consolidation, to prepare France for the conflict which was likely to occur with Britain sometime in the future, and to avoid military commitments on the Continent.
The policy pursued by Louis XV satisfied no–one and ultimately proved very unsuccessful. Under the influence of the war party he allied with Prussia in 1741, thus involving France in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8). Ranged against France and Prussia were Austria, Britain and Russia, and it soon became clear that there were no quick conquests or acquisitions to be won. In fact, France was seriously embarrassed in two ways. Firstly, she was duped by Frederick the Great of Prussia, who proved a treacherous ally. He deserted France in 1742, making peace with Austria by the Treaty of Berlin, re–entered the war in 1744 and withdrew unilaterally in 1745 by the Treaty of Dresden. While Prussia acquired Silesia from the war, France, who had maintained the struggle over a longer period, gained nothing. Secondly, Britain threatened French colonies and commercial interests. The French fleet was unable to protect these as it was defeated in 1747 by Anson off Cape Finisterre and by Hawke at Belle Isle. By the time that the Treaty of Aix–la–Chapelle was drawn up in 1748 to end the War of the Austrian Succession, France was nearing the point of exhaustion.
Louis XV's reaction to France's predicament in the war had a glimmering of perception but proved to be totally incoherent. For example, he secretly aimed, from 1745 onwards, to strengthen French links with Northern and Eastern Europe, particularly with Poland, Turkey, Sweden and Prussia. The intentions were to reduce Russian influence in Poland and to break the alliance between Russia and Austria, thus isolating the latter. Yet, in 1756, his official policy proved to be completely different. Frederick the Great, relying on continuing his friendship with France, formed the Convention of Westminster with Britain, thereby unintentionally precipitating the Diplomatic Revolution. Louis XV reacted to this Machiavellian diplomacy with fury and made a fundamental miscalculation in his desire to express his feelings about Prussia's treachery. He formed a very unpopular alliance with Austria by the Treaties of Versailles (1756 and 1757) on the mistaken assumption that the collapse of one alliance should always be followed by the formation of another. A more appropriate line of action would have been to maintain French neutrality in Europe and to concentrate French resources against Britain. France possessed sufficient military strength to deter either Prussia or Austria from considering unprovoked aggression against her, and Louis XV could have made the formation of non– aggression treaties the basis of his diplomacy, instead of alliances which led to military obligations. Besides, Prussia's main enemies were Austria and Russia, while Austria aimed primarily at regaining Silesia from Prussia. France was therefore, ideally placed to encourage continental conflicts between the other powers, while keeping out of them herself.
The alliance with Austria involved France in the Seven Years’ War (175663). This struggle was disastrous to France; it brought no permanent success on the Continent, and open failure at sea and in the colonies. Austria was of no practical use to France, and it was ironical that France was now committing her resources to helping Austria regain Silesia from Prussia, after having assisted Prussia in the previous war to steal it from Austria. The futility of this policy was seen by contemporaries, even those in office. In 1758, for example, Bernis observed to Choiseul that French policy had been absurd and shameful. Anti– Austrian feeling ran high in France and never really subsided.
While France was heavily committed to a continental war, Britain was concentrating all her resources on attacking French shipping and colonies. William Pitt (the Elder) organized raids on the French coast, naval blockades and expeditions to capture French colonies like Goree, Quebec, Montreal, Martinique and the West African fortresses. British foreign policy was carefully planned and took full advantage of the miscalculations of Louis XV. Pitt ensured that Prussia was given adequate subsidies to enable her to continue the war against France and to distract the attention of the French government from the substantial losses which France was incurring overseas.
The Seven Years’ War was ended in 1763 by two treaties, both of which were humiliating to France. The continental war was concluded by the Treaty of Hubertusberg, which acknowledged Prussian possession of Silesia but gave France no territorial compensation for her efforts. The maritime and colonial war was settled by the Treaty of Paris. By this, French losses to Britain included Canada, West Indian islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique, and several Indian possessions. France paid a heavier price than any other participant in the Seven Years’ War. But then she had also been more extensively involved. Britain had conducted a naval and imperial war; Russia, Prussia and Austria had fought an exclusively continental struggle. France had fallen between two stools and had been the only combatant to be involved in both spheres.
The last ten years of the reign of Louis XV and the short reign of Louis XVI saw the gradual revival of France as a major power and the pursuit of a more purposeful and successful policy against Britain. The precedent was established by Choiseul, who worked to achieve French stability in Europe and power at sea in order to switch the aggressive capacity of France from the Continent to the Atlantic. Of particular importance was his revival of French naval power, which he effectively doubled between 1763 and 1775. The process was continued by Louis XVI. The new king had a far greater interest than his late grandfather in foreign policy, and his ability has been generally underrated. He displayed greater perception and followed a more meaningful strategy for France, assisted by Vergennes, who had been heavily influenced by Choiseul. The basis of French foreign policy was now to shake off the Austrian alliance, maintain peace with other continental countries and undermine the strength of Britain, now, at last, identified as France's natural enemy.
Between 1740 and 1774 France had been duped by the other powers. Now it was Austria's turn. Joseph II, although a reformer of real ability in the domestic field, made some monumental blunders in his foreign policy after 1775, which worked in France's favour. In 1778, for example, he claimed the Bavarian throne, anticipating French support against the hostile reactions of Prussia; he discovered instead that France was now prepared to ditch the Austrian connection. Vergennes now aimed at maintaining the balance of power in Europe so that he could withdraw France from military commitments. The result of France's change of policy was a hectic round of alliance–making and breaking in Central and Eastern Europe which kept Russia, Prussia and Austria preoccupied and left France free to concentrate on Britain.
Vergennes’ main priority was to rebuild French naval power and to reverse the British advantage gained in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The ideal opportunity arose with the War of American Independence (1777–83). In 1778 France assisted the American colonists and, in 1779, formed an alliance with Spain. Britain, meanwhile, was isolated, committed to fighting a war in North America while, at the same time, struggling to maintain her naval power. France, by contrast, had withdrawn from complications in Europe and was leaving the main burden of the fighting in America to the rebels. She also had the support of a neighbouring power (Spain) with maritime resources and no continental ties. It appeared that Vergennes had turned the tables and proved that, given the right strategy, French success against Britain was still possible.
Unfortunately for France, this policy was not quite as effective as it might have been. Although Britain experienced defeats in America itself, for example at Yorktown in 1781, she was able to cling on to her naval power, and it was this which prevented the French from regaining by the Treaty of Versailles (1783) the colonies which had been lost in the Seven Years’ War. It seemed, therefore, that the sad neglect of maritime, naval and imperial interests by Louis XV had given Britain a head start over France which Louis XVI found impossible to make up fully. Moreover, the situation was now complicated by impending financial collapse within France. The French economy had been seriously weakened by decades of warfare. Most of the damage had been done by Louis XV, but the War of American Independence had the most spectacular results as a series of Controllers General tried to grapple with the threat of bankruptcy. It was ironical that the War of American Independence was, for France, the right struggle pursued at the wrong time, and that the most successful period of French foreign policy between 1713 and 1789 coincided with the worst internal crises.