Friday, March 28, 2014

The Kingdom of France: Government

The trouble with describing, in a short and easy to understand way, the government of the Kingdom of France comes with the fact that the Kingdom of France lasted for almost a thousand years and, obviously, there were a great many changes in government during all of that time. That, in itself, puts the lie to the republican misconception that France under the monarchy (or any country under any monarchy) knew nothing but stagnation. On the contrary, the government of the Kingdom of France grew up in an organic way and changed according to the circumstances of the time, all under the unchanging supervision of the monarchy. When France as we know it today was originally formed there was very little government at all other than the monarchy, growing out of the barbarian customs of warrior kings and loyalty to your family chieftain. These were superseded by the Franco-German empire of Charlemagne and after the division of that body by the Kingdom of France most today would be familiar with. Because of its roots in the Dark and Middle Ages, the Kingdom of France was originally governed in a very diverse and decentralized way, not at all how most picture the Kingdom of France. However, those beginnings are significant and, really, never entirely went away.

While the King and his court focused on issues such as national defense and foreign relations, the provinces were mostly left to their own devices. They had their own governors, parliaments and their own laws which varied from place to place according to local custom and individual circumstances. The legal system was not uniform itself, being based more on tradition in the north (like English common law) while being much more similar to Roman law in the southern parts of the country. In theory the power of the monarch was absolute but, in fact, the vast majority of local issues were considered outside of the purview of the King and were left in the hands of local nobles, clerics and officials. Eventually there would be over thirty parliaments in France, spread throughout the country. Certain regions such as Brittany and Burgundy also had their own “Estates Provincial” which had local powers of legislation and taxation and consisted of representatives of the common people, nobility and clergy in that particular region. It was a system that could be quite confusing and difficult to manage with government bodies frequently overlapping in their jurisdictions. However, this also served as a check against overreaching by those in authority even if it was not particularly efficient.

The problem with this system was that, under the right circumstances, it could be a major danger to national unity and internal peace and order. This basically came about with the spread of Protestantism in France. Unlike the earlier Albigensians, the Protestants persisted in parts of France and local governors, nobles and finally members of the Royal Family embraced Protestantism and made it a powerful force in France. Naturally the Wars of Religion ultimately broke out between the Catholic and Protestant factions and this had a devastating impact on the country. In the end, it would also bring about major changes in how France was governed. It was the Wars of Religion that really ended the old de-centralized form of government France had known for centuries with most power being retained to the lower levels. This horrible series of brutal civil wars was something no one wanted to see return and the man in charge, who determined to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, was Cardinal Richelieu. In the name of King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu set about demolishing the castles of the nobility and centralizing power in France into the hands of the King (with the Cardinal of course being the ‘power behind the throne’) while during the same period Gallicanism became a powerful trend by which the Church became more subordinate to the Crown rather than the Pope in Rome.

The peak of this centralization of power in France, both political and spiritual, is usually illustrated by the reign of King Louis XIV of France; the quintessential absolute monarch. Because France had been so traumatized by the religious and other civil wars that preceded him, most people were quite happy to see King Louis XIV take charge of everything himself. He dismissed the man who was effectively his prime minister, placing everything in the hands of government officials chosen by himself. Louis XIV also brought about greater legal uniformity with his “Code Louis”, streamlined taxation (which brought in more revenue) and encouraged manufacturing as well as the arts. On the religious front, he clashed with the Church often in both the private and public spheres but he was a staunch enough Catholic to never think of doing something dramatic as the King of England and founding his own church. Nobles came and lived in Versailles where all real power was concentrated in the country. For a time, it seemed to work and after the War of Spanish Succession when the Bourbon dynasty was successfully transplanted to Spain, it is no wonder that the new Spanish monarchs followed the example of King Louis XIV and began to centralize power in that country as well.

King Louis XIV, however, was a very talented and energetic man, a larger-than-life figure, and, obviously, not every monarch could be expected to be just like him and the period when centralization in France was most successful was during his reign. Even when Louis XIV made mistakes, he did not persist in them but was quick to change course and try something new so that, it did not matter so much that he was no brilliant statesmen but that he had the drive to always take action. Power was centralized in France under Cardinal Richelieu and that worked fairly well given that the Cardinal was a clever (if sometimes unscrupulous) man. It worked under King Louis XIV for reasons just discussed, however, there would come a time when there would be no Cardinal Richelieu and no “Sun King” and that is when the flaws in this massive centralization of power became evident. Under “the beloved” King Louis XV, French power began to stagnate, corruption became problematic and the nobles and clerics often neglected their local people. After the death of Louis XIV, the French nobility saw their power rise again but too many did not use this to benefit those under their care. The classes in France or the three estates of the nobility, clergy and commons became increasingly alien to one another. The Estates-General itself, the national assemblies of the three classes, was not called into session throughout most of the long reign of Louis XIV and throughout the entirety of the reign of Louis XV.

What is tragic and all too often overlooked is that this decline, and the reasons for it, were things that the monarchy was not blind to. King Louis XVI did his best to put things back on the right track, trying to roll back some of the centralization of power that existed under his grandfather and great-great grandfather. He ordered the reinstatement of the local parliaments that had mostly been abolished after successfully opposing an effort by Louis XV to have the nobility pay taxes, he believed in listening to the voice of the people and he undid the work of Louis XIV by granting religious tolerance to Protestants and Jews in France. He called an Assembly of Notables to address the economic crisis and when that fell through took the more drastic step of recalling the Estates-General. As we know from history, things quickly got out of hand from that point on thanks to unscrupulous officials and a class of professional agitators who made the destruction of the Kingdom of France their primary goal in life. It was the ruination of a great and historic opportunity to see the Kingdom of France put on a more balanced framework after swinging between the extremes of centralization and de-centralization. In the person of King Louis XVI the French had a monarch who genuinely cared for his people and wanted to know their opinions while also appreciating the safeguards and sacred foundations of his own absolute power. He was, perhaps, the ideal figure to achieve the perfect balance in French government. Unfortunately, traitors saw that opportunity squandered.

This is all the more tragic in that, because the kingdom fell with the Revolution, most have assumed that there is nothing to be learned from it when, on the contrary, there is a great deal about the Kingdom of France that could be of benefit to people and governments today. In fact, one could reasonably predict that even under the very old, de-centralized version of the French government, with the passage of time and advances in modern technology, it could have worked extremely well. The possibility there basically being the argument of federalism; with so many parts of France doing this differently, people would naturally migrate (assuming they were no longer bound to the land of course) to those areas that had lower taxes, better jobs and so on, making them more successful and giving other regions the incentive to follow their example and adopt what methods work the best. However, the one institution which is, perhaps, worthy of the most consideration was the Estates-General and the Estates-Provincial. Obviously there were problems with these institutions which most people familiar with French history will have heard many times, the basic problem being that the vast majority of the people of France, the commons, were underrepresented and could always be outvoted by the clergy and nobility. That, however, is a reason to reform and not a reason to abolish.

The three estates
The only real problem with the structure of the Estates-General, as I see it, was that it was insufficiently sophisticated and was, obviously, unbalanced. However, the basic, fundamental principle of the Estates-General was perfectly sound; giving a voice to the nation based on social background rather than party, ideology or the geography of arbitrary lines drawn on a map. The basic idea of the Estates-General was very monarchist and very practical as it took into account the natural human condition of people to act in their own best interests. Therefore, rather than mixing people of various backgrounds, occupations and ideologies altogether with all of their conflicting interests, this system acknowledged those interests and tried, again in a rather too simplistic a way, to give them voice. It seems possible that it all could have worked much better with just a few changes to the system such as granting everyone an equal vote while at the same time dividing the third estate into more specific groups based on status or occupation, in whatever form necessary to gather together into groups with similar self-interests. In this way, all could conceivably be represented, all based on practical reality and the acknowledgment of various self-interests and by doing that, eliminating the need for and hopefully preventing the formation of dangerous political parties that lead to tribalism in politics and destructive social divisions. The government of the Kingdom of France was diverse, then more uniform but always very complex and subject to change, which it did considerably over time. However, no government can persevere in the face of outright disloyalty, treason and sabotage and although it fell, there are still lessons to be learned from the government of the Kingdom of France.


  1. Excellent & thoughtful article which I've thoroughly enjoyed reading.

  2. I love this article. I, myself, desire the restoration of France to the Catholic French Monarchy.

    1. The corrupt republic (ranked among least democratic in Europe, province of Eurabia now, thanks to EU) cannot be the future of the French nation.

  3. Very interesting article. I would like to know about how you would divide the Third Estate in our modern age.

  4. One Quick Question:
    Did the reforms of Louis XVI (specifically, his establishment of Provincial Assemblies in 1787/1788) imposed restrictions on his power? Administratevely speaking, of course. i DO know that he had neither will nor authority.


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