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French Mercantilism
By: Jamie

Mercantilism, the collection of governmental policies that regulated economic- mainly commercial - activities, by and for the state, that spread throughout Europe, especially in France, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This theory held that a nation’s international power was based upon it’s wealth, specifically it’s gold and silver supply. The mercantilist theory, also known as Colbertism or Bullionism, that swept though France had a major impact upon its changing domestic and foreign policies throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and was geared toward strengthening the economic vitality of the state at the expense of one’s real or potential enemies. The three main architects of French mercantile policies, the economic side of absolutism, were Maximillian de Bethune, Duke of Sully ( 1560-1641), Armand du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), and Jean-Baptist Colbert (1619-1683). Henry IV’s great economic advisor, the Duke of Sully, laid the foundation for mercantilism in the French economy by recognizing the importance of commercial activities and overseas trade, as well as state encouraged economic growth and expansion. Sully, during his lifetime, proved himself as a financial genius within the court of Henry IV of France, and in the twelve short years before Henry’s death in 1610, Sully had restored the public order in France and defined the basis for economic prosperity, with the government growing into one that was progressive and promising by standards of the time. Sully was able to reduce the royal debt by reviving the paulette tax on people who purchased financial and judicial offices. Sully, implementing the concepts of merchantilism, was one of the first French officials to establish the importance of overseas trade, and from this, he was able to subsidize the French Company for Trade with the West Indies in support of a more favorable balance of trade.. Sully was also able to organize a country wide highway system and had even hoped to secure an international organization for the maintenance of peace. In 1628, Cardinal Richelieu became the first minister of the French crown under Louis XIII. Richelieu set in place the cornerstone of French absolutism along with merchantilism, its economic counterpart whose seeds were sown under Sully, with his work serving as the basis for France’s cultural hegemony in the later seventeenth century. Cardinal Richelieu’s constructive genius was best reflected in the administrative system he established using merchantile principles. Richelieu divided France into thirty-two generalities, in which he placed royal intendents who had the responsibility of keeping each generalities own justice, police, and finances. The intendents also recruited men for the army, supervised the collection of taxes and regulated economic activities-commerce, guilds, trade, marketplaces-within their districts. As the power of the intendents grew, so did the power and of the centralization of the state, a policy continued by Richelieu’s successor Mazarin. As for Richelieu’s foreign policy based upon merchantilism aimed at the destruction of the Hapsburg territorial fence that surrounded France, he would permit no trade or domestic relations to tie them. Consequently, Richelieu supported the Hapsburg’s enemies, and in 1631, Richelieu even signed a treaty with the Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, which promised French support against the Catholic Hapsburgs in the Swedish phase of the Thirty Years’ War. French influence became an important factor in the political future of the German Empire, based upon the merchantile theory that for a nation to prosper others must decline. Under the reign of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptist Colbert was named controller general of finances for France. Colbert eventually came to manage the entire royal administration, and in doing so, proved himself to be France’s greatest financial genius. Colbert’s main principle was that the wealth of and the economy of France should serve the state. Although he did not invent the thoery of mercantilism, he was able to apply it rigorously to France. Colbert believed that a successful economic policy meant more than a favorable balance of trade, therefore, insisting that the French sell abroad and buy nothing back. France should be self-sufficient and able to produce everything the subjects of the French king needed within it’s borders. Colbert attempted to accomplish self- sufficiency by supporting and subsidizing both old industries and newly created ones. To ensure order within every industry, Colbert compelled all craftsmen to organize into guilds, and within every