I was wondering, if any elections allowed in France during the period of absolutism. In the Middle age, people with civil and political rights were allowed to elect some kind of city council (also in France) (wiki). After Louis XIV became king, he ruled as an absolute monarch.

But did people with civil/political rights continue to elect anything despite the absolutism? If "yes", what was it?

2 Answers 2



Absolutism is rarely, if ever, as absolute as the name suggests. Even after the ascension of Louis XIV, the Estates of France continued to meet in assemblies. The most famous and powerful was of course the Estates General, a national body which admittedly only met once in this period. And it ended up ushering in the French Revolution.

However, on the local level, the Estates Provincial met regularly. French provinces under the Ancien Régime could be divided into two types based on the arcane constitution of Medieval France: the pays d'élections and the pays d'états. The latter had a right to regional assemblies consisted of representatives from the three Estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. Most survived till their suppression during the Revolution.

For example, in Brittany:

The Estates grew substantially larger in the seventeenth century. Very few delegates came in the sixteenth century, whereas the seventeenth-century meetings attracted enormous numbers of people ... the Third Estate had an average of sixty deputies, representing some twenty -five to thirty-five towns.

- Collins, James B. Classes, Estates and Order in Early-Modern Brittany. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Despite what the other answer states (at the time of writing), these were not merely "groups of citizens got together and voted amongst themselves for things". Rather, they were fully legitimate constitutional government bodies of the Kingdom of France, and they dealt with the royal court in that capacity.

One of their responsibilities was taxation. Though the king could tax the pays d'élections at will, technically the provincial assemblies formally voted their consent in the pays d'états. In practice, though, the king essentially determined the amount without their input.

France was divided in pays d'élections and pays d'états, that is, provinces with or without a provincial parliament. There were two kinds of administrative districts, each with its own system of taxation ... [the pays d'états] managed to preserve a representative provincial assembly that voted the don gratuit ('gratutious offering').

- Onnekink, David, and Gijs Rommelse, eds. Ideology and foreign policy in early modern Europe (1650-1750). Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011.

Nonetheless, the assemblies were very much an active branch of the French state. They played an active part in local politics and governance, and while ultimately unable to defy the king, they often negotiated with and petitioned the royal court on behalf of local interests.

In the 1660s, the Estates again acted vigorously to protect the mercantile interests of the province ... one of the constant themes of the contracts of the Estates was the abolition of the periodic prohibitions on grain exports, clearly protecting their own economic interest ... the towns often came to the Estates with specific local problems and the Estates frequently came to their aid, even against noblemen.

- Collins, James B. Classes, Estates and Order in Early-Modern Brittany. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

  • I think calling them " fully legitimate constitutional government bodies " may be overstating things a tad. It seems that during the period in question, when the king didn't like what they "decided" he simply, ignored them. And even then, they were representing the interests of the nobility, not the people. A good example during the time of Louis XIV was the Revolt of the papier tibre.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 18, 2015 at 17:29
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    @T.E.D. Having relatively little power does not de-legitimise a constitutional government institution. Whose interest they represent seems wholly irrelevant as well. But in any case, I cited a distinguished historian detailed the activities of the Britanny Estates n defending the people and merchants, "even against noblemen". Another example in the text is when the Estates refused to allow grain exports (as the king wanted) during the famine of 1661.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 18, 2015 at 17:55

As a French speaker you would probably have access to much better resources on this than I. But...

My understanding for France in that period is that the only national political power the common people had came from the Estates General. It didn't have a lot of power, and most of what it could do was only advisory in nature. But it could provide for new taxes to the crown if for some reason the monarch didn't feel strong enough to simply impose them on his own.

There was no Estates General called between 1614 and 1789. That encompasses the entire reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715).

Of course some localized groups of citizens got together and voted amongst themselves for things. For instance, some of the Estates Provincial still met during that period. However, I don't think there was any such vote that produced any results that The Crown felt bound to respect.

The only incidents of civil unrest I could dig up during this period were led by members of the First or Second Estates (Clergy and Nobility respectively), and didn't seem to have any popular elected element.

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    Uh ... I'm not quite sure about this, but didn't they arrest Nicolas Fouquet at the Estates General meeting in Nantes?
    – Ricky
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:23
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    @Ricky - The English Wikipedia said it was the "provincial estates of Brittany". Not a general one. But its a good point nonetheless. I've tweaked the answer accordingly.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:27
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    Oh. Thanks you. You're absolutely right. That'll teach me to rely on Dumas alone (in translation, no less) when it comes to French history.
    – Ricky
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:35
  • @Ricky Many parts of France retained local assemblies. Those are known as the Estates Provincial (vs the more famous and national Estates General).
    – Semaphore
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:45
  • @Semaphore: Well, stands to reason, doesn't it? There's no such thing as unadulterated absolutism, or perfect democracy. Even the Romans pretended to be a republic till the very end.
    – Ricky
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:51

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