parlement (pär´ləmənt, Fr. pärləmäN´), in French history, the chief judicial body under the ancien régime. The parlement consisted of a number of separate chambers: the central pleading chamber, called the Grand-Chambre; the Chambre des Requêtes (to deal with petitions) and the Chambre des Enquêtes (to handle inquests); the Chambre de la Tournelle (to settle criminal cases); and finally the Chambre de l'Édit (to process Huguenot affairs), which was active only in the 16th and 17th cent.
Composed at first of bourgeois judges who obtained vacant seats by election or cooptation, the law courts increasingly became strongholds of a hereditary caste of magistrates. As early as the 14th cent. seats were bought, although the premier président, or parlement head, could only be a royal nominee. Despite several attempts to suppress venality, French monarchs, notably Louis XIV, actually encouraged the trend toward salable judgeships and even attached titles of nobility to them in order to raise funds.
Duties and Powers
At first the duties of the parlement were strictly judicial, but it gradually gained considerable political power through its function of registering all royal edicts and letters patent before they became law. The "right of remonstrance" empowered the parlement to point out any breach of monarchic tradition and thus provided a substantive check on capricious royal authority. The king, however, could force registration if he ordered a special lettre de jussion [peremptory order] or if he held a lit de justice, a solemn meeting of the parlement with the king in personal attendance. Moreover, the parlement lacked any right of political initiative. Its own moves were often dictated by the entrenched selfish interests of its almost exclusively noble members.
Originally there was only the Parlement of Paris, which grew out of the feudal Curia Regis [king's court] and may be said to have had a separate existence from the reign of Louis IX (1226–70). Provincial parlements, similar in organization but less extensive in jurisdictional authority, were established from the 15th cent. onward. In 1789 there were, besides the Parlement of Paris, provincial parlements at Aix-en-Provence, Arras, Besançon, Bordeaux, Colmar, Dijon, Douai, Grenoble, Metz, Nancy, Pau, Rennes, Rouen, and Toulouse.
Opposition to Royal Reforms
From the late 16th cent. onward the parlements systematically opposed royal reform measures. They joined the Fronde (1648–53), the abortive aristocratic revolution against Cardinal Mazarin. A century later in the parlements protests against a tax on all income from property, including offices such as judgeships, aroused such an uproar that the project eventually collapsed. In the decade after the conclusion (1763) of the Seven Years War, the continuance of wartime taxes was vigorously opposed by the parlements.
Attempts to Abolish the Parlements
Through his chancellor, René de Maupeou, Louis XV attempted to centralize political control by abolishing the parlements (1771) and substituting law courts that had no influence over policy. The new judicial system eliminated the sale of magistracies, judges becoming appointive salaried officials. After Louis XV's death (1774), however, Louis XVI pacified the privileged classes by restoring the old parlements.
Thereafter clashes over taxation between the crown and the parlements gained momentum. In 1787 and 1788 the Parlement of Paris and the provincial parlements successfully opposed the fiscal reforms proposed by Archbishop Loménie de Brienne to save France from bankruptcy; they claimed that only the three estates of the kingdom gathered in the States-General possessed the authority to pass on new taxes. In May, 1789, Louis XVI finally summoned the States-General, a move that started the French Revolution. As bastions of reaction and privilege, the parlements were among the first institutions to be abolished in the early days of the Revolution.
See J. H. Shennan, The Parlement of Paris (1968).