The French government had many problems financially and politically before 1789 that built up over a number of years and a number of monarchs. The problems stemmed from a growing disorder in the finances, aristocratic privileges, new revolutionary philosophies, power struggles, and a weak monarch.
Due to lengthy and very costly wars, Louis XIV and Louis XV played a big hand in bankrupting France. The French had suffered big defeats and therefore had lost men and supplies. They also failed to gain any territory. France suffered defeat in the Seven Years War against Britain, had its army crushed by the Prussians and was unsuccessfully involved in the American War in an attempt to seek revenge on Britain.
It was not only these extravagant costs of very unsuccessful wars, but France’s whole financial system was extremely inefficient. At the forefront of the system were ministers. During the American War, Jacques Necker was made Director-General of Finance because of his ability to obtain loans for use in paying for the war. Necker did this successfully, but he lied about France’s financial surplus and had everyone believing that France could spend money when, in reality, it was in huge debt, and therefore he allowed Ministers of War to spend non-existent money.
Due to this, debts just continued to mount unknowingly to the rest of France, and around fifty percent of income was needed to pay for interests on loans and money spent. Necker was dismissed in 1781 and the politics and efficiency of the French financial system was unstable for years after that, with ministers resigning or being released, and the parlements even being exiled from Paris and government paralysed which led to the reformation of the Estates General that produced the cahiers list of complaints towards the king.
The French Government desperately needed to introduce tax reform into its system. The clergy were exempt from all taxes; the nobles paid little tax and all the taxes were placed on the bourgeoisie and peasantry. But only taxing the Third Estate was very inefficient and could not contribute enough to the French Government’s budgets. If this were to continue the deficit would only increase, but the Government had three main problems preventing the introduction of tax reform. Firstly the tax collection system was poorly run and inefficient as the government allowed private companies to collect taxes, and so not all the money was collected or not all of it reached the treasury. Perhaps if the First and Second Estate were taxed, the problem of inefficient tax collection would not have mattered as much.
But another problem was that the nobles were determined not to give up their tax privileges. This caused a great problem for the king, who because he was weak, allowed the nobles to influence him in dismissing any ministers, such as Brienne, that were pushing for tax reform. It was not just a case of further increasing the taxes placed on the Third Estate either to help decrease the deficit, as the bourgeoisie and peasants were also disgruntled due to the large amount of taxes that they already had to pay. The peasants increasingly found it almost impossible to pay these taxes, leaving the majority of France in dismay.
The French government also faced many political problems, not just within the financial system as relates to the ministers and rising deficit, but the politics of the whole country was being challenged. All sections of French society, particularly the Third Estate, were becoming increasingly unhappy. But in the time leading up to 1789, they discovered that they could actually make a difference and challenge government, as revolutionary mentality began to set in and the Ancien Regime was cracking at it’s foundations. This happened for a number of reasons.
In the late 1780’s there was a growth in trade and industry within town life. This new growth led to problems within the Ancien Regime. Business expanded and so prices gradually rose. This did not help the aristocracy whose incomes were fixed, but it was the bourgeoisie who largely profited from this growth and they became wealthier and more powerful. This also made the bourgeoisie view the current tax system more unfavourably as it meant using their money and profit to pay tax that they could be using to expand business. This also backs up that revolutions take place at times when the economy is getting better.
There was not just growth in business within the bourgeoisie, but also growth in ideology. This was sparked by “The Enlightenment’ that was taking place in France as a result of revolutionary thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, who heavily advertised liberality and attacked the government and Church. One thing that they were encouraging was free trade that would have appealed greatly to the bourgeoisie businessmen. As a result of The Enlightenment, the Third Estate were now willing to speak up about their criticism of divine right, the class system, privileges, and the lack of liberal rights, and there were more and more pamphlets being published.
But perhaps the biggest political problem in France was its king. In a country where the monarch had absolute power, it needed to be a strong person, but Louis XVI was not a strong person. He was not able to prevent The Enlightenment or the Estates General. He had his people against him, making strong demands that would entirely turn around French politics.
After highlighting the financial and political problems facing the French government before 1789, we can see that the problems began with the cost of wars over a number of years, made worse by the misleadings of Jacques Necker, and the inefficient tax system. These long-term financial problems led to the political problems, which also disallowed any tax reform. The bourgeoisie and the peasantry, with the aid of The Enlightenment, criticised the tax system and became less and less able and willing to pay taxes. The nobles did not pay all taxes and so the bourgeoisie resented the privileges of the nobles, but the main link between both financial and political problems is the king. He played part in the mounting deficit, ran an unstable government, and he did not want to annoy the nobility and therefore tax reform could never take place. All these factors combined helped to break down the Ancien Regime and push revolution.