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Prehistory to Roman
French kingdoms
Normans and Capetians
The Valois dynasty
16th century
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
18th century
     The legacy of Louis XIV
     Mississippi Bubble
     French and British on land
     French and British at sea
     Seven Years' War
     The ancien régime

Political turmoil
Third Republic
Fifth republic
To be completed

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The legacy of Louis XIV: 1715

When Louis XIV dies in 1715, at the end of a 72-year-reign (fifty-four of them with himself firmly at the helm), the effect of his policy of national grandeur appears to be disaster.

The nation's finances are in such a dire state, after twenty-five years of almost continuous warfare, that Louis' descendants remain weakened by financial constraints throughout the 18th century. Industry and commerce are in disarray. The population is declining. In years of bad harvest there is famine. The king himself, by the end, is profoundly unpopular.


Yet the reign of Louis XIV gives France a special status in European culture. His method of absolute rule, and his palace at Versailles, provide the examples to which lesser European monarchs aspire in the coming century. The French style in furniture and interior decoration is everywhere the fashion. French authors are in the vanguard of European literature. The French dynasty is on the Spanish throne.

And the French empire, though starting late compared to other Atlantic powers, now rapidly becomes the leading rival to Britain. In broad terms this all adds up to a splendid achievement. Louis XIV is widely viewed in popular estimation as Europe's greatest monarch since Charlemagne. The Sun King's publicity has prevailed.


Mississippi Bubble: 1720

In 1716 the French royal finances are heavily in deficit after the expensive wars of Louis XIV. The regent, the duke of Orléans, is persuaded by a Scotsman, John Law, to undertake an experiment in banking. Law has published in 1705 a treatise entitled Money and trade considered, with a proposal for supplying the nation with money.

Law's theory is that a national bank issuing notes as currency will have the effect of stimulating the economy, while also lowering the public debt. He is allowed to set up the Banque Générale in 1716 for this purpose. In 1717 he launches a separate venture, the Louisiana Company, to develop the French territories in the Mississippi valley.


At first both enterprises thrive, and Law acquires ever greater responsibilities and commercial power. All the French chartered trading companies, to the East Indies and China, to Africa and the West Indies, are brought under his control, as also is the national mint and the collection of taxes. As more and more people rush to invest in this octopus of an enterprise, Law has the power and the freedom to issue shares and bank notes at will to keep his creature alive and well.

The result, by 1719, is rapid inflation and speculative hysteria. The price of Law's shares rise 36-fold, from 500 to 18000 livres. At the end of 1720 the bubble bursts. Law flees from France, dying in penury nine years later in Venice.


The experience of 1720 leaves the French with a lasting distrust of national banks with the power to issue paper money. Not until Napoleon needs funds for his war effort, in 1800, is the Banque de France finally established - long after the same step is taken in other European countries.

While Law's shares are still rising, in the early months of 1720, the same phenomenon is occurring across the Channel in England - where the shares of the South Sea Company have an equally irresistible allure to speculative investors.


French and British on land: 1744-1745

After the War of the Spanish Succession the French and the British often act in a somewhat uneasy alliance. The main reason is that both nations have political leaders, Cardinal Fleury and Robert Walpole, who see peace as a necessary aspect of national prosperity. But Walpole resigns in 1742 and Fleury dies in 1743.

There is nothing now to restrain the long-standing enmity between these two Atlantic nations, each with a developing empire overseas. In March 1744 the French declare war on Britain and make plans for an invasion across the Channel in the company of the Jacobite pretender Charles Edward Stuart.


Bad weather damages the French fleet and causes the plan for an invasion in 1744 to be abandoned. In the following summer the French divert their energies to an attack on the Austrian Netherlands. Maurice Saxe, commanding a French army which includes an Irish brigade, wins a victory at Fontenoy in May 1745 over a combined force of British, Hanoverian, Austrian and Dutch troops under the duke of Cumberland, son of the British king.

Saxe continues his successful campaign, conquering the whole of the Austrian Netherlands by the end of 1746. For much of this time he has no opposition from the British army. The regiments and the duke of Cumberland are recalled in October 1745 to meet a new threat in Scotland.


French and British at sea: 1745-1748

French successes in northern Europe under marshal Saxe, in 1745-6, prove in the long run less significant than Britain's stranglehold on French trade by sea. Once war is officially declared, in 1744, the British navy harasses French merchant fleets en route for the West Indies or India. Closer to home the harbours of France are blockaded, preventing the transport of commodities up and down the coast (by far the easiest route in the age before decent roads).

By 1748, after four years of low-keyed naval warfare, France is ready for peace. Significantly the only important territories which have changed hands are overseas.


In 1745 militiamen from British north America have seized from France the harbour of Louisbourg, at the entry to the Gulf of St Lawrence (of strategic importance in relation to French Canada). In India, in 1746, the French have occupied British Madras.

Both are returned in 1748 in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle - restoring the status quo, but also postponing an inevitable colonial conflict between what are now Europe's leading powers. Frederick the Great says of France and Britain: 'they see themselves as the leaders of two rival factions to which all kings and princes must attach themselves'. Within less than a decade the kings and princes will again have to take sides, in the Seven Years' War.


Seven Years' War: 1756-1763

At the start of the Seven Years' War the balance between the empires of France and Britain looks much as it has been since the late 17th century. By the end of it, in 1763, the situation is transformed. The change is less great in India. Even so, British rule in Bengal, established informally from 1757, represents an unprecedented level of European involvement in the subcontinent - and a level unmatched by France.

If the difference in India appears as yet slight, these years change out of all recognition the colonial situation in America. British victory over the French, clinched in the capture of Quebec in 1759, is followed by dramatic French concessions in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.


France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in continental America (only New Orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.

The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana Purchase.)


The ancien régime: 1715-1789

In 1774 the king of France dies. Louis XV has been on the throne for nearly sixty years, since succeeding his great-grandfather Louis XIV at the age of five in 1715. During most of that time the royal finances have been in a perilous state. Severely depleted by Louis XIV's schemes for the greater glory of the French monarchy, they have been further drained by the major wars of the century (Spanish Succession, Austrian Succession, Seven Years' War).

The French monarchy is ill-equipped to put into effect any necessary reforms. The king technically has absolute power, but neither Louis XV nor his grandson Louis XVI (who succeeds him in 1774) proves capable of transforming that supposed power into effective action.


French society in the 18th century later acquires the title ancien régime, because it combines ancient privileges for the aristocracy with a complete lack of any modern accountability in government.

Lack of accountability is epitomized in the notorious lettres de cachet. These documents, issued by the king, can consign someone to a state prison for an indefinite period without even giving a reason. Such behaviour prompted Magna Carta six centuries previously in Britain. Yet this royal privilege (not in fact used or abused as much as rumour at the time suggests) does nothing to help the king restrict the privileges of his nobility.


Traditionally the aristocracy and clergy in France are exempt from most forms of taxation. Government efforts to end this injustice, and to spread the burden more fairly, founder repeatedly on well orchestrated campaigns of aristocratic resistance - mainly through the parlement in Paris. Two reforming finance ministers, Turgot in 1776 and Calonne in 1787, are dismissed as a result of opposition in parliament to their measures.

These unseemly manoeuvres to preserve feudal privileges are taking place in the most sophisticated of Europe's kingdoms. The ideas of the Enlightenment have their roots in France. The philosophes have long criticized the abuses associated with the clergy and the nobility.


Yet the royal attempts at reform cut little ice with the opponents of privilege. The court of Louis XVI and his Austrian queen Marie Antoinette is widely regarded as frivolous and corrupt.

This impression is reinforced in 1785 when news breaks of a court scandal, involving the theft by deception and forgery of a valuable diamond necklace. The queen appears to be implicated (wrongly as it turns out). A cardinal who has acted as an intermediary is arrested as he prepares to conduct a service at Versailles. The noblewoman responsible for the crime is flogged and branded. Tongues wag.


In this atmosphere, if the struggle between the privileged classes and the king escalates into a real crisis, neither side is likely to win much sympathy from the French public.

Unwisely and unwittingly the king's enemies provoke just such a crisis. The royal exchequer is on the verge of bankruptcy, partly owing to the expense of supporting the American rebels against the British monarch. The Paris parlement now asserts that taxation is only valid if voted by the estates general - a body not summoned since 1614. Most reluctantly, but with little choice, the king's ministers announce in July 1788 that the estates general will assemble in Versailles on 1 May 1789.


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