The Colbertistes

Brest, home of the French Atlantic fleet.

The "Colbertistes" are the name commonly given to French Mercantilists.  They are named after their guiding spirit, Jean-Baptiste Colbert,  the powerful contrôleur général of King Louis XIV of France, in the latter part of the 17th Century. 

Colbertisme was born out of the peculiar political and fiscal situation of France.  Unlike England, which had achieved a internal political and economic unity and centralization quite early on, France had spent much of its existence broken up into pieces.  Although the largest and richest of European nations, the French state had been congenitally incapable of mobilizing those resources to its ends.  As a result, French monarchs were routinely bullied by their vassals and preyed upon by nimbler neighbors. 

France stumbled into the 17th Century, devastated by a brutal religious civil war (1560-1598), but at least politically united under the new Bourbon king Henry IV.  The first matter of business taken up by the Maximilien de Béthune (Duke of Sully), Henry IV's finance minister from 1598, was the reorganization of monarchical finances which were, at the time, in a mess.  

The Duke of Sully inaugurated his term by engineering the second French State bankruptcy in 1599, repudiating large chunks of the public debt, replacing them with new annuities in return for further loans. He instituted new taxes on office-holders (the paulette), lowered the official interest rate, improved tax-collection and reigned in court expenditures, gradually bringing the French crown back into solvency. Sully's most famous innovation was the finalization of the Cinq Grosses Fermes, grouping five major tariffs. .He also begins the build-up of a new network of roads and canals to improve transportation and the channeling of funds to improve agriculture. He also lifts restrictions on the circulation of grain and wine (1601). 

Sully also encouraged the formation of the first French East Indies companies to compete for spice trade in Asia with the newly-formed Dutch and English companies.  However, it was not a success.  The French merchant communities (mostly concentrated in the Atlantic ports of Brittany and Normandy) had tremendous problems drumming up the capital.  The first company - sometimes known as the "Saint-Malo company" - manage to cobble a little fleet in 1601 under the Sieur de la Bardeliere, but it was a failure.  Although the French East Indies charter would be passed around for the years, through various companies and incarnations, the next expedition was only sent out in 1617.  Sully was more apprehensive about the Canada and personally objected to the fur-trade monopoly granted to DuGua du Mons (who went to establish the colony of French Acadia in Canada in 1604).  Sully resigned in 1611, a year after Henry IV's assassination, unable to work with the new regent queen Marie de' Medici. French economic policy nonetheless remained in the hands of Henry IV's old advisors for a while, and continued to follow the example of Sully.

The rise of the Armand de Plessis (Cardinal Richelieu) in the 1620s opened a more energetic phase of French history.   Richelieu's active foreign policy and wars were costly, but Richelieu paid for them with increasing centralization, including the introduction of intendants (royal tax inspectors) in the provinces, granting them (in 1629) the authority to bypass local authorities and report directly to the crown, to ensure that taxes were delivered.  Richelieu also took an active interest in overseas commerce. In 1626, Richelieu granted charters to three new French companies: the first French West Indies company (Compagnie de Saint-Christophe) to establish sugar colonies in the Caribbean, the first African trading company (Compagnie de Dieppe and Rouen) to open the slave trade in West Africa, and a new Canadian fur-trading company (Compagnie de Morbihan).  After the "Day of the Dupes" in 1630, control of finances was passed firmly into the hands of Richelieu. Needing the political loyalty of the provincial estates, Richelieu scrapped plans to convert the Pays d'etat provinces into Pays d'elections.  He made up for fiscal shortfalls with the sale of new offices and heavily increasing taxes - the taille (property tax) and gabelle (salt tax) would be doubled in a few short years. But the French entry into the Thirty Years War in 1634 blew up the budget.  Richelieu increased taxes even more and made intendants (hitherto temporary) into permanent positions.  In 1636, Hapsburg armies invaded France, expected to exploit a tax revolt, but it failed to materialize. Richelieu also saw some significant monetary reforms, notably the introduction of the gold Louis d'or in 1640 and a new silver ecu in 1642.

Richelieu death in 1642 was followed a few month later by the death of his master Louis XIII.  The French state fell into the hands of Richelieu's successor as new chief minister, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who, together with the queen-mother Anne of Austria, headed the regency council for the toddler king Louis XIV.  Jean-Baptiste Colbert emerged from the shadows as an assistant to Mazarin.  After the death of Mazarin in 1661, Louis XIV appointed himself his own prime minister, and Colbert transferred to the king's service.  Colbert helped Louis XIV topple Nicolas Foquet, the powerful superintendant of finances, and, in 1663, Colbert was given the position of Comptroller-General of Finances (Contrôleur général des finances), the supreme head of the French state finances, and began setting France on a "Mercantilist" tack - transforming the vast agricultural country of France into a commercial and industrial power to rival Holland and England.  While external barriers went up, internal barriers were brought down to facilitate the growth of vital industries. e.g. 1664, Colbert turned the Cinq Grosses Fermes into a single internal customs union on north and western France, abolishing customs duties within them. The corvee was revived for road-building, connecting ports to internal industries.. Charter companies were revived and manufacturing luxury works were coddled with State assistance. Caribbean and African colonies were acquired.  The nautical and manufacturing industries of the Atlantic ports took off.

But for all of Colbert's efforts, Louis XIV's insistence on wars in Europe - and there were many wars - and the erection of a grand palace and maintenance of a court at Versailles stretched the sinews of the French state treasury.  Colbert miraculously managed to maintain some control and keeping it from busting the crown's finances.  But when Colbert died in 1683, the restraining hand was gone.  Louis XIV pursued ever more wars and ever greater extravagances.  At his death in 1715, the French crown was bankrupt.  Many of the state officials called for a return to the "Colbertisme" as a way out of the subsequent fiscal mess.


 

 

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