The Ferme générale (French pronunciation: [fɛʁm ʒeneʁal]) was, in ancien régime France, essentially an outsourced customs and excise operation which collected duties on behalf of the king, under six-year contracts. The major tax collectors in that tax farming system were known as the fermiers généraux, which would be tax farmers-general in English.
In the 17th and 18th centuries fermiers généraux became immensely rich and figure prominently in the history of cultural patronage, as supporters of French music, collectors of paintings and sculpture, patrons of the marchands-merciers and consumers of the luxury arts in the vanguard of Parisian fashions. In Ferragus, Balzac attributes the sad air that hangs about the Ile Saint-Louis to the many houses there owned by fermiers généraux. Their sons or grandsons purchased patents of nobility and their daughters married into the aristocracy.
Before the French Revolution, the public revenue was based largely on taxes known as:
- the taille – direct land tax imposed on French peasant and non-noble households, based on how much land they held.
- the taillon – a tax for military expenditure
- the vingtième (one-twentieth) – based solely on revenues (5% of net earnings from land, property, commerce, industry and from official offices)
- the gabelle – a system of salt taxes
- the aides – national tariffs on various products (including wine and tobacco),
- the douane – a local tariff on specialty products
- the octroi – a local tariff levied on products entering towns
- a local tariff levied on products sold at fairs
- the "dîme" – a mandatory tithe to support the church (and so, not formally a tax).
Tax farming before Colbert
The Ferme générale developed at a time when the monarchy suffered from chronic financial difficulties. The Affermage (leasing, outsourcing) of the collection of the traite (customs duties and taxes) had the advantage of guaranteeing the Treasury foreseeable and regular receipts, while reducing the perception of its role in tax-collection. The rights were initially contracted separately to various tax farmers, who were named traitants (who had the right to collect the traite) or partisans (who had a share in the collection of the traite). They were obliged to pay to the royal Treasury the sum stipulated in their lease, and they received a share of the income and a share of any unexpected surplus. Each right was leased separately, which caused great administrative complexity: the taking of goods out of bond could involve several tax farms. Prior to 1598, this system had developed so that the tax farms were allocated among five pays (provinces).
In 1598, Sully entrusted tax collection to one farm, instead of five and he subjected the collection of duties raised in the provinces to the rights of the King. The single tax farm was called the Cinq Grosses Fermes (five large farms). In 1607, he issued new rules (Règlement Général sur les traites) on the collection of duties in an attempt to harmonize procedures. He also attempted to constitute the whole of France into a single customs area and gather together, but without success, the provinces considered foreign into the zone covered by the Cinq Grosses Fermes. In the middle of the 17th century, France was divided for tax purposes into three principal zones:
- the provinces of the Cinq Grosses Fermes,
- provinces considered foreign and therefore had negotiated lower rates on some taxes, and
- provinces effectively following the example of the provinces considered foreign, which formed free zones.
Not all fermiers-généraux constrained their viewpoint to their own enrichment: Pierre-Paul Riquet, appointed collector in Roussillon-Languedoc in 1630, employed his fortune as the canal-builder responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi that links the southern coast of France to Toulouse to link to the canal/river system that ran across to the Bay of Biscay, one of the great engineering feats of the 17th century.
The farm under Colbert: traitants and partisans
The process was further developed under the aegis of Jean-Baptiste Colbert Minister of Finance to Louis XIV. To reduce the number of these farmers and to increase the share of the collection transferred to the Treasury, Jean-baptiste Colbert sought to gather a great number of rights together in fermes générales (general farms). The first fermes générales was instituted in 1680 to collect gabelles, aides, taille and douane .
Although sometimes of obscure origin, the financiers which took these rights often quickly accumulated immense fortunes which enabled them to play a significant political and social rôle. Their greed and excesses shocked public opinion and were turned into objects of ridicule in literature, for example by Alain-René Lesage in Turcaret, which was inspired by Paul Poisson de Bourvallais.
The Ferme générale (1726-1790)
In 1726, all the existing farms were gathered in a single lease. The forty farmers general, who went guarantee of the contractor of the lease, became powerful characters and fabulously rich persons. Among the representatives of the first generation of these tax farmers were Antoine Crozat (?) or the Pâris brothers.
Criticisms of the Ferme générale led the government in 1769 to introduce a system of regulation, into which the collection of taxes and the administration of the service to which the tax were entrusted to public organisations, with managers receiving a fixed remuneration. The public career of the reforming economist Turgot began with his appointment in 1761 as intendant of the généralité of Limoges.
In 1780, at the initiative of Jacques Necker indirect taxes were distributed between three tax farm companies: the Ferme générale (customs duties), the Ligue générale (taxes on alcohol) and the Administration générale des domaines et des droits domaniaux(land taxes and fees on land registration).
At the end of the 18th century, the Ferme générale had become the symbol of the inegalitarian society. The Ferme générale, with its colossal fortune, appeared to encapsulate the perversion of the political and social system. People blamed the injustices and the annoyances on the company, which actually arose from the complexity of the tax system, the brutality of the guards of the troops and the brutal repression of fraud and smuggling. The gabelle was the most unpopular of the taxes.
The Ferme générale was thus one of the institutions of Ancien Régime which were most highly criticized during the French Revolution and were depicted as birds of prey and tyrants; the Girondist Antoine Français de Nantes, for one, made an early reputation for himself attacking this prominent target. The Ferme générale was suppressed in 1790. The fermiers-générals paid the price at the scaffold: 28 former members of the consortium were guillotined on 8 May 1794, including the "father of chemistry" Antoine Lavoisier, whose laboratory experiments had been supported from his administration of the Ferme générale; his wife the chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, who escaped the guillotine, was herself the daughter of a fermier génèral.
The lease of the Ferme générale was concluded under six-year contracts between the king and an individual who was a figurehead for the company. The Ferme générale stood guarantee for the contractor. Their number of partners was fixed at 40, after having reached nearly 90 earlier. The contractor committed himself to paying the Treasury the amount of the lease and received in return any surplus. An upper limit was set for this remuneration from 1780.
The Ferme générale had its headquarters in Paris. It employed in its central offices nearly 700 people including two chaplains. Its local operations included up to 42 provincial offices and nearly 25,000 agents distributed in two branches of activity; that of the offices which checked, liquidated and charged the fees; that of the brigades which sought and suppressed smuggling with very severe punishments (such as hard labour or hanging).
The employees of the Ferme générale were not royal civil servants, but they acted in the name of the king and therefore benefitted from particular privileges and the protection of the law. The guards of the service of the brigades moreover had the right to bear weapons.
The direction of the company was insured collectively by the Ferme générale. They met as committees of experts and had control of the external services.
The day before the French Revolution, almost all the rights of drafts and rights indirect (gabelle, tax on tobacco and a number of local taxes) were awarded.
The income from the Ferme générale represented more than half of the public revenue.
The company built the Wall of the Farmers-General between 1784 and 1791 to ensure the payment of taxes to the Ferme générale on goods entering Paris.
Criticisms of tax collection methods
The Ferme générale was one of the most hated components of the Ancien Régime because of the profits it took at the expense of the state, the secrecy of the terms of its contracts, and the violence of its armed agents . Nonetheless, some regard the Ferme générale both favourably and as a precursor of the modern privatisation of tax collection. Criticisms of both the Ferme générale and modern privatisation include:
- public bodies were deprived of a resource;
- the service rendered was not always better in the long term;
- the cost could be higher for the taxpayer, who paid his taxes plus the margin taken by the Ferme générale ;
- the recovery of debts (of tax arrears) by the Ferme générale could be brutal;
- depriving itself of a resource, the community became involved in debt, and had to find new taxes to obtain additional money.
Thus at the end of the 18th century, the French State had become involved in considerable debt and this factored among the causes of the French Revolution.
Cultural roles of the fermiers
The fermiers généraux of the Ancien Régime figure prominently in the history of cultural patronage. The enlightened fermier-général Le Normant de Tournehem was the legal guardian of Mme de Pompadour, responsible for her careful education; in turn, thanks to her influence he was made directeur général of the Bâtiments du Roi in December 1745, and held the post, overseeing royal building works, until his death. “Without artistic prejudices,” Fiske Kimball observed, “he was a man of ability, honesty and simplicity, who devoted himself to efficient administration.”
As consumers of the luxury arts the fermiers-généraux were in the vanguard of Parisian fashions, like Ange-Laurant La Live de Jully, a connoisseur and patron of the arts who embraced the early form of neoclassicism called the Goût grec. Others merely made themselves notorious for their dissipation, like Ange-Laurent's brother, the estranged husband of the writer and saloniste Louise d'Épinay. The gastronome Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière was the son of the fermier général Laurent Grimod de La Reynière.
Sons or grandsons of fermiers-généraux purchased patents of nobility, and their daughters married into the aristocracy.
Voltaire and the fermiers
In 1770, hundreds of watchmakers fled the political ructions in Geneva and went to make a new life at Ferney. Voltaire helped them to set up a new watchmaking business. He negotiated a tax exemption for the watchmakers with the duc de Choiseul, Prime Minister of France. But by 1774, the business was prospering and the tax farmers started to take an interest. Three-way negotiations between the tax farmers, Voltaire and Turgot ensued. In December 1775, Turgot confirmed the watchmakers' exemption from the salt tax (gabelle) and from road maintenance duties (corvée) and a figure was agreed to compensate the tax farmers for loss of revenue. Voltaire addressed a public meeting on 12 December and the watchmakers accepted the settlement.
Two days later, Voltaire wrote to his friend Mme de Saint-Julien:
... while we were gently passing our time in thanking M. Turgot, and while the whole province was busy drinking, the gendarmes of the tax farmers, whose time runs out on 1 January, had orders to sabotage us. They marched about in groups of fifty, stopped all the vehicles, searched all the pockets, forced their way into all the houses and made every kind of damage there in the name of the king, and made the peasants buy them off with money. I cannot conceive why the people did not ring the tocsin against them in all the villages, and why they were not exterminated. It is very strange that the ferme générale, with only another fortnight left for them to keep their troops here in winter quarters, should have permitted or even encouraged them in such criminal excesses. The decent people were very wise and held back the ordinary folk, who wanted to throw themselves on these brigands, as if on mad wolves.
According to Davidson, good sense prevailed despite this violence, Voltaire was appointed a tax commissioner, profits peaked in 1776 and the watchmaking business survived the revolution and continued "well into the nineteenth century".
- This article is largely from fr:Ferme générale, which cites: Marie-Nicolas Bouillet and Alexis Chassang (eds), Dictionnaire universel d'histoire et de géographie, 1878.
- McKnight, Hugh (2005). Cruising French Waterways, 4th Edition. Sheridan House. ISBN 9781574092103.
- Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Alfred A Knopf. p. 73. ISBN 8124-0152-1 Check
- Kimball, Creation of the Rococo 1943, p. 186.
- Jean-Joseph de Laborde was one who purchased a marquisate for himself.
- Davidson, Ian, 2010, Voltaire, A Life, London: Profile Books