Where Britain was strong, France was weak. Barriers to social mobility were more difficult to surmount, though commoners who were rich or aggressive enough did overcome them. France suffered particularly from the rigidity of its colonial system, the inferiority of its navy refused to allow the colonies administrative control of their own affairs.
The numerous controls stifled the initiative of the colonists. The mother country, however, prospered, as commercial activity doubled in the ports and refineries were set up to process the raw sugar imported from the plantations of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
The French navy needed greater resources and better leadership. Since Dutch and British vessels carried much of French commerce, the merchant marine was small. French naval officers, rigorously trained in the classroom, lacked the practical experience gained by captains with a lifetime at sea.
French rulers neglected the navy in favor of the army, since France was, above all, a land power. and its vulnerable northeastern frontier invited invasion. However, the troops were poorly trained, and the organiza- tion was top-heavy; there was one officer to fifteen men. compared with one to thirty-five in the more efficient Prussian army. Many aristocratic officers regarded a commission as simply a convenient way of increasing their personal wealth.
Both the navy and the army were reformed after the defeats suffered by France in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The number of warships was increased, the army officer corps was cleared of much deadwood, and more aggressive military tactics were introduced. These improvements accounted in part for the excellent showing made by France in the American Revolutionary War and in the military campaigns resulting from its own revolution. They came too late, however, to save the vanishing prestige of the Old Regime.
The Old Regime was weakest in the monarchy itself. The duke of Orleans, regent from 1715 to 1723, gambled with the nation’s treasury. He tried to get the nobility to play an active role in government, but the nobles, who had been reduced by Louis XIV to ceremonial roles, lacked the knowledge and ability to apply themselves to the daily routine of government. The French second estate had, it seemed, outlived its usefulness.
The remaining stronghold of the nobles of the robe were the important courts (known as parlements) in Paris and in some provincial capitals. The parlements took advantage of the regency to extend their claim to register government edicts before they were published and enforced.
A papal bull condemned the doctrines of the influential French Catholic minority of Jansenists, who had family ties with the judges of the parlements; when the Parlement of Paris refused to register the bull, Orleans held a special royal session obliging the Parlement to follow the royal command. The judges of the parlements in Paris and elsewhere retaliated by going on strike, refusing to carry on their normal court business. There followed a crippling feud between the king and the judges.
In 1726 power passed to Cardinal Fleury (1653— 1743), who remained chief minister until his death. Fleury brought together the most able team of ministers in eighteenth-century France and set out to put royal finances in order by avoiding foreign wars. He stabilized the coinage, restricted tax farmers to a comparatively modest profit, made loans more readily available by establishing state pawnshops in the chief cities of France, encouraged new industries with subsidies and other privileges, embarked on a new program for building roads and bridges, and restored relative peace and prosperity to the countryside.
Louis XV began his personal rule in 1743. Intelligent but timid, lazy, and pleasure loving, he did not have the interest or patience to supervise the details of government. He appointed and dismissed ministers on personal whim or at the bidding of his mistresses and court favorites. In thirty years he had eighteen different foreign secretaries and fourteen chief fiscal officers.
Each change in personnel meant a shift in policy, and Louis aggravated the instability by conspiring against his own appointees. France sometimes had two conflicting foreign policies: that of the diplomatic corps, and that of the king, secretly conducted by royal agents who operated at cross- purposes with the regular diplomats.
Nevertheless, France remained a great power. Still the most populous country in Europe, France possessed great reserves of strength; its army, though enfeebled, was the largest in the world, and its navy was the second largest. France led the world in overseas trade until Britain forged ahead in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.