Extracts from Necker’s Compte Rendu (1781)

Unlike in Britain, where the crown’s finance minister gave an annual report to Parliament, the French royal treasury’s accounts were a closely guarded secret. However, Louis XVI’s second minister of the treasury, Jacques Necker, thought the crown would be better positioned for raising funds if it were to issue a public report of its finances. In 1781 Necker wrote and published 100,000 copies of his account, titled Le Compte Rendu (‘The Balance Sheet’). He hoped it would facilitate support for reforms among parlement magistrates and other regional elites. This excerpt comes from the introduction to Necker’s report:

“Having devoted all my time and my strength in the service of YOUR MAJESTY since you appointed me to this position, it is important for me to give you some public explanations concerning the success of my works and the actual state of the Finances.

In France, the state of Finances has always been a mystery. If sometimes somebody talked about it, it was only in the preambles of Edicts, and always when money had to be borrowed. But these words, too often the same to be true, have necessarily lost their authority, and men of experience only believe in it because of the moral nature of the Finance Minister. It is important to found confidence on more solid bases…

The sovereign of a kingdom such as France can always, when he wants, maintain the balance between ordinary expenses and incomes. The reduction of expenses — which is always the wish of the public — belongs to the King. When circumstances require, only he has the power to increase taxes. But the most dangerous, as well as the fairest of resources, is to blindly look for some temporary aid and to borrow either through increases of income or through savings.

Such an Administration, which seduces because there seems to have no more immediate problems, only increases difficulties and leads to the precipice. On the other hand, a more simple and frank behaviour would multiply the means of the Sovereign and would save him forever from any kind of injustice.

It is then a great view of Administration from YOUR MAJESTY to have been allowed to give a public report on the state of your Finances. And I wish, for the happiness and the strength of the Kingdom, that this happy institution is not temporary. What is there to fear from such a report if [you] … make expenses proportional to incomes, and guarantee lenders, every time the needs of the State require their confidence!”