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What tensions existed in French society during the Ancien Regime? Essay

“Sovereign power resides in my person alone…; the power of legislation belongs to be alone. To me belongs all legislative power. Public order in all its entirety emanates from me… it is not dependant on or shared with anybody else…” Louis XV (1766)

Between 1774 and 1792, France lay under the hand of King Louis XVI, the man to whom the above quote is often attributed. He ruled France as an absolute monarch – with very few limits to his power. Responsible to none but God, he held the “divine right of kings” – the same idea that had led to the execution of Charles I but 143 years ago. He was the head of both the army and the treasury, though the latter was in the hand of the Controller General for much of the year. However, Louis was by no means a despot.

The laws and customs of his realm bound him: many old and established institutions held their own rights and privileges, with which the king could not interfere. Yet the power to pass laws still lay in his hands alone: any parliamentary rebuke could be silenced with a lit de justice. Under him, as previously mentioned, stood the Controller General in charge of the finances of the country. Below him the king’s ministers: the most proud and rich of all the nobles. Then there fell the thirteen parlements and Pays d’etats, or border territories. Finally, in the government, there were those who carried out his laws: the Intendants de Police, the Intendants de Justice and the Intendants Financier.

The rest of France was divided into three “Estates”. The First Estate consisted of the French clergy. Numbering around one hundred and thirty thousand, and separated between the religious orders and the secular clergy, the first estate was what kept Louis XVI’s “divine rule” divine. They were exempt from all taxes: therefore, by this time they had amassed great wealth through collection of tithes, and become the largest single landowner in France, possessing around 10% of the territory in the country. The clergy was split again into two groups, the upper clergy; who enjoyed the privileges of nobles and were often seen in court, and the lower clergy. On a parish level, the First Estate kept lists of births, deaths, and marriages, and provided basic welfare or cures. They were also vital to the king as they informed parishes of government policies.

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The Second Estate was the French noble families; a group that contained between one hundred and ten thousand and three hundred and fifty thousand. The most powerful of these were the Noblesse d’ep�e, the four thousand or so nobles whose ancestry could be dated to before 1400 a.d. Officially, they included the kings ministers, but it was the reality that only those who could afford to live at Versailles could gain the ear of the King. Second in political importance were the Noblesse de Robe: the administrative nobility, which included one thousand two hundred magistrates of parliament.

However, the majority of the nobility lived in rural France: the Hobbreaux. Proud, but often very poor, they were rarely seen at Versailles. Within the second estate, the law of primogeniture prevailed. The first-born son would inherit the title and land, and whilst the second born would still gain the privileges of the nobility, it was not uncommon for them to take a high-ranking position in the army or the upper clergy. Yet the second estate was not closed: through the purchase of a venal office, a member of the Third Estate could gain a noble title.

The Third Estate consisted of the rest of the French population. Split by great disparity of wealth, there existed the bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The bourgeoisie were the rich merchants, industrialists and businessmen – numbering around two point three million. They were, due to an improvement in industry, a rising class: aspiring to join the second estate and become ennobled through the purchase of a venal office. The peasantry consisted of the laboreurs or serfs, a small group of large-scale farmers, a group of urban workers, and finally small property owners and artisans in Paris: the sans-coulottes.

The problem for the king was that he was limited by regional and institutional privileges. Louis could not pass a law before registration with all thirteen parlements; and each parlement could oppose this with an official remonstrance: and since the parlements collected the king’s taxes and so controlled his funding, it was unwise for him to issue too many lits de justice. Local differences in the law made it difficult for the king to find common ground: the north of France fell under “Customary” law, whereas the south held “Roman” law. In addition to this, the church, Nobles, and landowners all had separate and distinct privileges to which he had to cater.

The parlements were slow, inefficient, and corrupt. The Paris parlement was particularly proud of its right to remonstrate, and so to effectively pass laws it took months. Another condition that held back change was the lack of communications between the areas of France- it made it difficult to execute government business effectively. The financial system was in chaos – widespread abuse of the tax system led to dislike since many groups were exempt from it. This led to problems with a lack of a centralised treasury: debts could not be dealt with and if a lit de justice was issued to reform this, he would be seen as a despot and the parlements would cut his flow of taxes. Louis XVI was a good natured man, and wished to aid his country: he spoke of social reform, but due to his limitations and his lack of courage he failed to put anything into effect.

The First Estate was a hugely powerful organisation at this time, but resentment from outside was mounting due to the rise of the Enlightenment. Within the church, there were great conflicts. The lower clergy were bitter that the money raised in tithes went straight to the upper clergy: funding their life at Versailles; and not on local parish projects such as poor relief, education, and medical care. Pluralism also meant that one person could hold many positions, amassing huge wealth from tithes. No real tensions existed between the Nobility and the Clergy, since a large proportion of the upper clergy were nobles.

Historians have often suggested the idea of an aristocratic reaction caused by the power of nobles declining and the strength of the bourgeoisie. Many Noblesse d’ep�e faced derogation if they took part in retail or manual work: since they were lacking in funds they could not therefore live in Versailles and so lost a large amount of power. However, many nobles were involved in industries, and were major investors in trade and banking. As landlords, they benefited from rising rents as populations increased, and so this old view of the aristocratic reaction has been discredited. Yet many nobles, especially the Hobbreaux, stood to lose a lot from a loss of privileges. The Noblesse de Robe were growing in power: fed by the rich bourgeoisie they were able to afford the living prices in Versailles and so gain the ear of the king. There was little resentment to the nobles from the Third Estate, that is the bourgeoisie, since they aspired themselves to join the Second Estate.

The Third Estate was rife with discontent: much of it due to taxation. The taille was the main direct tax – accompanied by the gabelle or salt tax, and the tithes to the church. One of the most unpopular taxes was the corvee, forced labour on the roads – even when the peasantry could pay to avoid it. Two more taxes existed, the Vingteme and Capitation (for funding of wars), such that over 40% of a peasants money was lost through taxation. In addition to this, rising populations meant rising rents and so there were more complaints about bourgeoisie landlords and money lenders.

It was almost impossible for the peasantry to escape economic misery. The urban bourgeoisie kept guild monopolies running that prevented new businesses starting; and since farming was still old-fashioned and productivity was down, it forced people to go under waged labour for the gross fermiers: yet even then high demand for these jobs forced wages down. On a parish level, enclosure had irritated the laboreurs greatly: they needed common land for grazing and it was no longer available. These burdens meant that not only did the peasantry resent the First and Second estates, they resented the bourgeoisie even more.

The effects of these problems are intertwined. Perhaps the most serious long-term cause of the revolution that existed from the Ancien Regime is the burden put upon the Third Estate, which is the peasantry of the Third Estate, by the Bourgeoisie, the Clergy, and the Nobility. Taxation crippled their finances to such a point that they were sometimes unable to survive: the rest lived in economic destitution: the cahiers were proof of this problem. The corvee disheartened and irritated the peasantry: unpaid and hard, it was blight. The second most serious threat to French society was the inability for peaceful change.

The king could not be an effective reformer without being seen as a despot; and issuing too many lits de justice would turn the parlements against him and remove his source of financial income. The corruption of the tax system and the lack of a centralised treasury meant that he could not cut funds to force the country into order, and he could not pay off any debt to get outside aid. Finally, a real problem for French society at this point was the connection, or rather the dislike of the connection with Rome. The lower clergy wanted a Gallican church to be formed, and the Tie with Rom also controlled the organisation of the clergy that had prevented the lower orders from gaining revenue from the tithes to spend on social reform.

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