THE French monarchy, particularly during the period between 1661 and 1789, is considered to present the most important lesson in political history in terms of its rise and fall. Observers stop at this point in their attempts to study and draw lessons from it.
The story of the rise and fall of the empire began during the reign of King Louis XIV, who was called the Sun King. His rule lasted for 54 years, during which he was able to move his country from a state of chaos and ignorance, into becoming a beacon of knowledge. He managed to establish a state that was strong internally, externally active, and economically solid.
He came to power at the age of five. A regent was appointed, who at that time was the prime minister Cardinal Mazarin, from 1661 until the king reached the legal age. When he took over, the fate of France was imprinted in its character to such an extent that its history cannot be overlooked at any point. His rule was glorious, and the foundation of his political work was based on obedience at home and a good reputation abroad. He considered himself as the source of powers, based on which came his famous phrase, “I am the state and the state is me”.
He was not keen about having fun and messing around. He learned from a very young age to work hard and struggled. Following the death of Mazarin, he handled the government strongly. He was fully convinced that he could manage the rule himself and no one could replace him, due to which he decided to remove his first minister, princes and public figures in the palace from the center of decision-making. He abolished many administrative institutions and reduced the role of those responsible for them.
Versailles Palace was built in 1682, making it a symbol of absolute monarchy. About 100 years later, it was inhabited by the last king, King Louis XVI, and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette, who were forced to leave the French Revolution in 1789.
This glory began to wane with the rule of King Louis XV for a period of 59 years. Despite enjoying a good reputation at the beginning of his reign, his internal and foreign policies led him to lose popular support.
In addition, he loved amusement and fun so much that a number of historians wrote, “Wealth was made for years and wasted in one night in Versailles on the gambling tables that abounded in the seat of government. While poverty was ravaging most of the people, the king and his entourage were indulging more in gambling. Many times King Louis XV used to leave important meetings to go deer hunting or to have fun with women. Bribery, corruption and all kinds of graft became widespread”.
All this led to the turn of public sentiment against the French crown. The opposition expanded, and hopes were placed on King Louis XVI, who was crowned in 1774. However, the reputation of Versailles could not be redeemed during his reign after the news spread about King Louis XV and his affairs with his mistresses, in addition to his bankruptcy of the state due to the losses he sustained when gambling.
The condition of King Louis XVI, who ruled for 18 years, was not better than his predecessor. He inherited an empire that was on the path of collapse, and did not work to fix it. So, he continued to live a leisurely life with his wife Queen Marie Antoinette whom he married at the age of 15 when she was about a year younger than him. They made the rule absolute teenage, indulging more in pleasure, so it was not surprising that the famous phrase “let them eat cake” haunted her when she was told that people are demonstrating because of hunger, and there was no loaf of bread in the market.
In 1789, these causes came together in the hands of opposition leaders who sought to overthrow the monarchy. Their inspiration, among other leaders, was Jean-Paul Marat, who was a writer interested in criticizing the executive force and the king himself. His articles helped in inciting the French to revolt against the regime.
In addition, Maximilian Robespierre, the most important leader to the revolution, defended the poor and controlled the prices of commodities, as well as abolished slavery and servitude in the French camps.
Four years after the success of the revolution, i.e., in 1793, Louis XVI tried to flee abroad with his wife Marie Antoinette but they were captured and executed through guillotine in Paris, thus bringing an end to the story of an empire that was lost by fun-loving, deer-hunting, and gambling, as well as not listening to the sufferings of people.
By Ahmed Al-Jarallah
Editor-in-Chief, the Arab Times