Power and Politics in Old Regime France & The Ancien Regime

  • Power and Politics in Old Regime France 1720-45
    by Peter Campbell (Routledge xii + 420 pp.)
  • The Ancien Regime: A History of France 1610-1774
    by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (trans. by Mark Greengrass) (Blackwell vii + 586.pp)

The ancien regime has long been up for grabs. Historians of the Revolution used it as a quarry on which to grind their axes and seek the origins of the political culture that shaped revolutionary activity. The distinctive political culture of France before 1789 was overlooked. While Ladurie belongs to this tradition, Campbell reacts against it and demonstrates how the old order worked, rather than how it failed.

Survival is one thing and a quiet life another. The regime lived dangerously. Far from the effective concentration of coercive authority usually associated with absolute monarchy, government in Early Modern France was the art of managing thinly concealed chaos. Independent-minded corporate interest groups, noble, ecclesiastical, bureaucratic and financial, were the culprits. Campbell redefines absolutism as 'the baroque state', which eliminates discredited despotic overtones, and lists its techniques as negotiation, bargaining and bluff, rather than domination by a ruler monopolising and centralising power. Though he plays down the special features after c.1650 which made for greater stability, not least the restoration of religious consensus, his basic premise is sound: the balance was precarious. It depended on deft management by virtuosi like Louis XIV and Fleury. In the 1780s royal incompetence brought the regime down.

In the first part of his book Campbell demolishes one of the oldest myths of French history – that Louis XIV had stripped the high nobility of power by diverting them to the triviality of life at court, while policy was made and administered by ministers and bureaucrats. The notion presupposed that what was important in government was bureaucratic and separate from courtly frivolities. This is a reasonable nineteenth and twentieth-century perspective. But in the eighteenth century formal administrative institutions depended on an informal process of power alongside them, based on social networks of personal clients and supporters without which ministers fell and bureaucrats were powerless. This social hierarchy was a pyramid with its base in the localities and its apex at court, which is now consequently seen as the political fulcrum. Ministers and bureaucrats therefore had to be courtiers as well, or know those who were. Aristocratic courtiers could and did influence policy.

Campbell probes elusive areas of the court and its factions. Court culture is hard for the modern mind to recover: much was never written down and most of what was is misleading. Court memoirs were usually moves in the faction struggle and rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story. Courtiers masked their feelings: rivals could not be permitted to deduce the result of a royal interview from overt expressions of anger or disappointment. And if participants were left guessing, what chance have historians?
Yet Campbell wields a scalpel that lays bare the hidden sinews of politics. Well-versed in the coded language of the court, he teases out and pieces together long-vanished conversations and undercover negotiations. The main factions are identified in Orléans, Condé or Noailles, and we are alerted to the deftest wire-pullers and wheeler-dealers. The result is a rare snapshot of how high politics actually worked – a walk behind the scenes. Events like the rise of Fleury and the fall of Chauvelin are given new depth and significance. With this manual in hand the reader could survive at the court of Louis XV – and probably score.

In the second part of his book Campbell charts the government's relations with the Paris parlement and its Jansenist leadership – the latter being one of the few groups whose activities are classified by the author as conspiracy rather than cock-up. The pivot of the book is the regime of Fleury, of which it is the first serious study, but its scope is wider than this suggests. His investigation of the battle between Fleury's ministry and the parlement of Paris in 1730-32 exposes a crisis not different in kind from that of the 1750s. From this Campbell builds a powerful case against the rise of a new political culture after 1750, now something of an orthodoxy, and for its continuity between c. 1600 and the Revolution. His important conclusion is that the breakdown of 1787-88 was a typical crisis of the ancien regime rather than a pre-revolutionary meltdown.

The book's greatest drawback is its deliberate omission of the provincial perspective – Estates, parlements and urban communities. Campbell cannot be expected to squeeze everything into a limited space; nevertheless, we get only half the picture. For a sense of France's vastness and diversity we need Le Roy Ladurie, following up his first volume on the period 1460-1610. Though his study is political, the celebrated social historian never permits the whiff of wide-open spaces to remain far away. Viniculture and deep-sea fishing rub shoulders with royal iconography and lits de justice, as the growth of the French state is set in its socio-economic context.

On the whole Ladurie displays a sure touch in composing his huge canvas, which dramatises the immensity of the challenge confronting Bourbon administrators – the forging of national identity, for instance, among elites in the peripheral territories. The danger of this scale is loss of focus. 'Perhaps we may be permitted to make an incidental comment', he waffles. If the comment is pertinent, permission is unnecessary. If not, it should be refused – if only by his copy-editor. The translation also contains some award-winning howlers. In an analysis of the French economy under Colbert we are informed that 'the semi-pubic [sic] sector rendered the sphere of the private sector relatively impotent'.

As usual with the Annales school, ministerial strategy and its economic and demographic context are interwoven with varying degrees of success. Ladurie acclaims Colbert's economic regulation for its contribution to economic expansion, though most economic historians have now given up trying to establish any link between industrial growth and government policy. His social perspective does, however, enable him to destroy even more conclusively than Campbell the myth of an autocratic government imposed on a passive population. The regime recruited and worked through existing society and its institutions – with the grain and not against it.
Why then does he continue to call it 'absolutism', a concept now under siege? Relying overmuch on his French compatriots Bluche and Antoine, he underwrites the tired old tradition that the government of Louis XIV and the cardinals represented a radical break with the past. The Sun King's distinction as manager of elite groups, rather than constitutional and administrative innovator, arguably positions him in a much older tradition of kingship. Yet Ladurie believes in a new 'administrative monarchy' based squarely on its bureaucrats. He discounts without clear justification Emmanuelli's description of Colbert's intendants as accomplices in league with local communities, rather than bureaucratic agents imposed on them. Also dismissed is Dessert's exposure of the spoils system that passed until the 1980s for a 'modernised' fiscal administration. This is an 'absolutism' that fails to engage with the main points of current debate.

Unlike Campbell, who dissects twenty-five years, Ladurie chronicles 164. Whereas Campbell's Fleury takes four chapters to rise to power and another to become premier ministre, Ladurie's rises in two pages and is appointed in three lines. Available space is not the only consideration. Though stating that the political history of the French state is autonomous, he believes that long-term institutional and socio-economic structures were ultimately decisive. He neglects the unpredictable and personal factors explored by Campbell and other British experts on the royal court and its factions. Nor is he aware of the research of Rogister and Swann on the role of faction in crown-parlement relations. They demonstrate that the origins of conflict were rarely ideological, that magistrates did not act as a homogeneous block and that the parlement's behaviour cannot be understood without investigation of its internal politics.

Ladurie's conclusion is unoriginal – except in so far as Louis XVI is executed in 1792, instead of the more normal 1793. Given his premises, it fails to explain how a modernised bureaucratic state could unravel so swiftly in 1788-89. Cheerfully acknowledging its debt to hindsight, it also presents the period after 1774 as one of terminal 'deconstruction' of the regime. In spite of disclaimers that nothing is inevitable until it happens, the atmosphere is heavy with portentous metaphors of impending doom. One misses Campbell's sense that smarter statesmanship might have delivered a different outcome.

Nicholas Henshall is the author of The Myth of Absolutism & Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (Longman, 1992)

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