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Taxation is a burning issue in many revolutions – and it was a significant cause of grievance in late 18th century France. National debt and personal taxation were economic dilemmas that plagued French leaders, who pondered how to lessen the former without increasing the latter. There was little scope for reducing debt, thanks to decades of fight-now-pay-later foreign policy and profligate spending by the royal court. In the meantime, France’s people, especially the farmers and workers in the Third Estate, suffered under one of the highest-taxing regimes in Europe. The level of taxation in France was significantly higher than in Britain because French trade interests were smaller, so income from tariffs and customs duties pumped less revenue into the treasury. Now, the ancien regime had reached a point where temporary measures and patch-up responses could no longer be used; a serious overhaul of the taxation system was essential.
Florian Aftalion, historian
It is ironic that France decided to involve itself in the revolution in America that was sparked by unfair taxation because the French leadership had themselves imposed an inequitable tax regime on her people, particularly those in the Third Estate who seemed to carry most of the burden. Personal taxes like the taille (a direct tax levied on each family, based on the amount of land owned) the gabelle (a state duty payable on salt, then an important commodity) the capitation (a poll tax) and the vingtieme (a one-time tax to ease the state deficit) were compulsory for all members of the Third Estate — but members of the clergy and the nobility were either exempt from these or were able to subsequently claim exemption using the parlements. In addition to state taxes, the peasants were also liable for a one-tenth contribution to the church (the tithe) as well as seigneurial dues. Meanwhile, the two privileged classes managed to avoid most if not all personal taxation. The church had a particularly light taxation burden: it paid a voluntary contribution to the state every five years called the don gratuit (‘free gift’) though this was neither regulated or compulsory. The nobility paid no personal taxation because it was said that, as representatives of a military elite, they paid their taxes in service and in blood.
It was not only that the nation’s system of taxation was unfair: it was also irrational and highly inefficient. There were many indirect taxes that had to be paid by everybody: various excises, customs duties and levies, each of which had been tacked on to revenue policy haphazardly, one after the other as the need for greater revenue dictated … there was no single fiscal plan. And the taxes themselves were collected not by government officials but contracted ‘tax-farmers’, many of whom were either notoriously corrupt or hilariously incompetent. There were several attempts in the 1700s to reform the taxation system, both to make it more efficient and to allow the nobility to share some of the burden; however the parlements, which had a reputation for protecting and preserving aristocratic interests, generally proved impassable. Louis XVI turned to successive finance ministers to solve his debt crisis but this had little impact, finally resulting in the Assembly of Notables.