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States-General

The States-General of France

Origins

The French States-General owes its fame less to its importance than to the mode of its creation and the manner of its demise. The first French assembly known by that name was summoned in 1302 at Paris, by King Philip IV, in order to obtain national approval for his anticlerical policy. Philip may be said to have created the body only in the sense that he assembled a larger and more regular council than had before been assembled. From 1302 to 1789 its constitution retained the same division into the first, second, and third estates, i.e., the clergy, nobles, and commons. Its powers, never clearly defined, tended to vary inversely with those of the royal authority. The States-General of 1302 and 1308 dutifully approved, respectively, Philip's measures against Pope Boniface VIII and those against the Knights Templars; that of 1314 granted the king subsidies, but the grant was more or less nominal, with the king dictating his orders.

An Ineffective Counterweight to Royal Power

The French States-General never obtained the financial control that made the English Parliament a powerful institution. It did not always meet as a single body, but often convened separately as the States-General of Langue d'Oïl (N France) and the States-General of Langue d'Oc (S France). The more important of these, the States-General of Langue d'Oïl, made a strong bid for power in 1355–57, during the captivity of King John II in England. Under the leadership of Étienne Marcel it forced the dauphin (later King Charles V) to promulgate the Grande Ordonnance, which would have greatly expanded its financial and administrative powers and made it the virtual legislature of France. The dauphin, however, revoked his concessions almost as soon as he had made them and called a rival assembly at Compiègne. Although later States-General often opposed the king and even won temporary concessions, the continuous consolidation of the royal power prevented the emergence of a truly parliamentary body.

The States-General regained some importance in the chaotic period of the Wars of Religion (16th cent.). However, the opposing factions used it merely as an instrument for their own aims. The States-General of Paris of 1614 accomplished nothing, and the estates were not convoked again until 1789. Under the guidance of the chief ministers of state, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, and under the firm hand of King Louis XIV, royal absolutism reached its apex in the 17th cent. The only serious check to the royal power was the Parlement of Paris (see parlement), which was a judicial rather than a representative body. Provincial estates, however, continued to function in the so-called pays d'états, i.e., the provinces of Brittany, Flanders, Artois, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Franche-Comté, Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc, Béarn and Navarre, and several others. The major part of France, however, was more directly subject to the central administration.

The French Revolution

When in 1788 the Assembly of Notables (a meeting of the chief nobles, clerics, and magistrates) failed to solve the financial crisis of the French government, King Louis XVI ordered elections for the States-General as his last resort. Although no official pronouncement indicated that the assembly was to act as a truly deliberative body, its convocation was thus interpreted by the third estate and by the liberals among the nobility and clergy, who hoped to introduce English parliamentary government into France. At the same time, the government ordered the compilation of lists of grievances in the various provinces; these were to serve as a basis for discussing the necessary reforms. The preparation of the lists contributed to the impression that a general reform was impending and that the States-General was to act as a national assembly representing the sovereign will of the people.

On May 5, 1789, the States-General assembled at Versailles. Almost immediately the crucial issue of voting procedure came under debate. If the three estates adhered to tradition and voted as separate bodies, the third estate was bound to be continually outvoted. If voting was by head, the third estate (whose deputies equaled in number those of the combined clergy and nobility) was bound to win on most points, for many clerics and nobles sympathized with its aspirations. In June, 1789, the third estate, joined by a number of deputies from the clergy, forced the issue and declared itself the National Assembly. With this act of defiance the French Revolution may be said to have begun; and with Louis XVI's recognition of the fait accompli, the States-General ceased to exist.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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