Controller-General of Finances
The Controller-General or Comptroller-General of Finances (French: Contrôleur général des finances) was the name of the minister in charge of finances in France from 1661 to 1791. The position replaced the former position of Superintendent of Finances (Surintendant des finances), which was abolished with the downfall of Nicolas Fouquet.
The term "contrôleur général" in reference to a position of royal accounting and financial oversight had existed in various forms prior to 1547, but the direct predecessor to the 17th century "Controller-General" was created in 1547, with two position-holders whose job was to verify the accounts of the Royal Treasurer (trésor de l'Épargne), who was at that time the head of the royal financial system. Their name came from the account book, or contre-rôle, in which they kept their accounts. The office was thus, in the beginning, not a high administrative or governmental position, but merely an accounting position. In the period following 1547, the financial administration in France continued to change, resulting in the creation of intendants of finances (created in 1552), of which one was to become the Superintendent of Finances (1561). Also
In 1661, the last Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet, was arrested and Jean-Baptiste Colbert became head of the royal financial administration, first with the title of "intendant", then, from 1665, with the title of "contrôleur général des finances". Under Colbert's administration, the Controller-General's responsibilities were greatly redefined. Louis XIV suppressed the two positions of Controllers-general, replacing these with a single office, but this position was no longer transmissible; the king could revoke the commission at his pleasure. In addition, the position was far more behoven to the Royal Finance Counsel (Conseil royal des finances). In these ways, the position of Controller-General became a true governmental post.
The function of Controller-General would continue until 1791, with an interruption during the Polysynody (1715-1718).
Occasionally, the de facto Minister of Finance served instead as "President of the Royal Council of Finance", who was superior to a mere Controller-General, or, in the case of Jacques Necker, who, as a Protestant, could not serve as Controller-General, as "Director-General of Finances" ("directeur général du Trésor royal", and "directeur général des finances", 1776 - 1781, 1788 - 1790), a less prominent position.
The responsibilities of the Controller-General were the most extensive of all the administrative positions of the Ancien Régime. According to the official description of 1665, the Controller-General had the power "to report in our Counsel of all affairs which are of concern to our service and of any others" ("faire rapport en notre Conseil de toutes les affaires qui concerneront notre service et de toutes autres indifféremment.")
The Controller-General oversaw finances, agriculture, industry, commerce, bridges and roads ("ponts et chaussées") and a part of lesser administration.
Colbert, first of the Controllers-General, was also head of a number of other administrative positions: Secretary of State of the Navy (1669-1683), Secretary of State of the Maison du Roi and Superintendent of the Bâtiments du Roi (1664-1683).
The position was very well paid: in addition to 200 000 livre tournois by year, the Controller-General could also gain 20 000 livres as Minister of State, and could also receive bribes during renewal of contracts to the Ferme Générale.
The Controller-General participated in a number of the King's Councils. He was always member of the king's Privy or Council of State (although he rarely attended), the "Conseil des dépêches", the Royal Finance Counsel ("Conseil royal des finances") and the Royal Commerce Counsel ("Conseil royal de commerce"). He was almost always a Minister of State (one of two), which allowed him to attend the "High Counsel" ("Conseil d'en haut"). Other than the administration of state finances—oversight of the "Contrôle Général" and of the Treasory, collection of taxes like the taille, printing money—he directed the state economy and a large portion of the provincial administration. It was largely on his recommendations that most intendants in the provinces were named.
The Controller-General was generally chosen from among the intendants of finances or from the maîtres des requêtes. Of all ministerial positions, the Controller-General was the least stable, especially during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, to such a point that the Controller-General's official residence was called the "Hotel of Moving-out" ("hôtel des déménagements").
Unlike other ministries of the period, the Contrôle Général of Finances was organized in a collegiate manner. It was divided into several departments of which the Controller-General ran the most important (like the Royal Treasury), while the others were each directed by an Intendant of Finance, supervised from afar by the Controller-General. There were six Intendants of Finance at the end of the ancien régime; they were often referred to as "Messieurs des finances" or the "gens des finances".
In the same way, The Controller-General was assisted by four and, later five, Intendants of Commerce.
While in other ministries, only one individual—the "Secretary of State"—would attend the king's Counsel, the Contrôle Général appeared before the king as a group comprising the Controller-General and his Intendants of Finance and of Commerce. Because of this, the Contrôle Général considered itself essentially a separate division of the king's Counsel, and those outside of the Contrôle Général lost much of their say in financial matters.
In addition, given that decisions taken by the Contrôle Général—even the smallest ones—were supposed to derive from the king, the members of the Contrôle Général were required to sign their decisions as "arrêts du Conseil" ("decisions of the Counsel"), even when these administrative decisions had been decided merely by themselves outside of the king's Counsel. This was the case in 90% of the financial decisions made by the Contrôle Général, with only 10% having actually been decided in the Counsel.
The Contrôle Général had a very large personnel compared to other ministers. Most of the offices were in Paris, close to the bankers and financiers that the bureau dealt with. The Controller-Général had offices in Paris—at the Palais Mazarin (rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs) which is today the Bibliothèque nationale de France) -- and at Versailles; he was assisted by a secretary and an aide. The Intendants of Finances were lodged in Paris, and were assisted by a secretary and by several aides.
- This article is based in large part on a translation of the article Contrôleur général des finances from the French Wikipedia on 12 August 2006.
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