From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution

By Thomas E. Kaiser; Dale K. Van Kley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
From Fiscal Crisis to Revolution:
The Court and French Foreign
Policy, 1787–1789

Thomas E. Kaiser

Historians may legitimately debate when, exactly, France began to slide from a fiscal crisis into a full-scale revolution. But a good argument can be made for the week of February 22, 1787, the moment chosen by the controller-general Charles-Alexandre de Calonne to reveal to a stunned Assembly of Notables that the government was suffering from a massive deficit. The shaky state of government finance had long been suspected, for the symptoms were becoming clearer by the day. Among the more conspicuous signs was the French government’s declining ability to project power abroad, most critically in the Levant, where France appeared incapable of saving its “old friend” Turkey from imminent dismemberment by the ravenous Russian czarina Catherine II and her accomplice, the Austrian emperor Joseph II. What the Notables found shocking in Calonne’s message, therefore, was not the nature of the problem they had been called to address; rather, it was the unanticipated scale of the financial crisis and the urgency of its resolution. For although Calonne initially concealed the exact size of the current deficit, he made it clear that it would be “impos-

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