Composed at first of bourgeois judges who obtained vacant seats by election or cooptation, the law courts increasingly became strongholds of a hereditary caste of magistrates. As early as the 14th cent. seats were bought, although the premier président, or parlement head, could only be a royal nominee. Despite several attempts to suppress venality, French monarchs, notably Louis XIV, actually encouraged the trend toward salable judgeships and even attached titles of nobility to them in order to raise funds.
At first the duties of the parlement were strictly judicial, but it gradually gained considerable political power through its function of registering all royal edicts and letters patent before they became law. The "right of remonstrance" empowered the parlement to point out any breach of monarchic tradition and thus provided a substantive check on capricious royal authority. The king, however, could force registration if he ordered a special lettre de jussion [peremptory order] or if he held a lit de justice, a solemn meeting of the parlement with the king in personal attendance. Moreover, the parlement lacked any right of political initiative. Its own moves were often dictated by the entrenched selfish interests of its almost exclusively noble members.
Originally there was only the Parlement of Paris, which grew out of the feudal Curia Regis [king's court] and may be said to have had a separate existence from the reign of Louis IX (1226-70). Provincial parlements, similar in organization but less extensive in jurisdictional authority, were established from the 15th cent. onward. In 1789 there were, besides the Parlement of Paris, provincial parlements at Aix-en-Provence, Arras, Besançon, Bordeaux, Colmar, Dijon, Douai, Grenoble, Metz, Nancy, Pau, Rennes, Rouen, and Toulouse.Opposition to Royal Reforms
From the late 16th cent. onward the parlements systematically opposed royal reform measures. They joined the Fronde (1648-53), the abortive aristocratic revolution against Cardinal Mazarin. A century later in the parlements protests against a tax on all income from property, including offices such as judgeships, aroused such an uproar that the project eventually collapsed. In the decade after the conclusion (1763) of the Seven Years War, the continuance of wartime taxes was vigorously opposed by the parlements.
Through his chancellor, René de Maupeou, Louis XV attempted to centralize political control by abolishing the parlements (1771) and substituting law courts that had no influence over policy. The new judicial system eliminated the sale of magistracies, judges becoming appointive salaried officials. After Louis XV's death (1774), however, Louis XVI pacified the privileged classes by restoring the old parlements.
Thereafter clashes over taxation between the crown and the parlements gained momentum. In 1787 and 1788 the Parlement of Paris and the provincial parlements successfully opposed the fiscal reforms proposed by Archbishop Loménie de Brienne to save France from bankruptcy; they claimed that only the three estates of the kingdom gathered in the States-General possessed the authority to pass on new taxes. In May, 1789, Louis XVI finally summoned the States-General, a move that started the French Revolution. As bastions of reaction and privilege, the parlements were among the first institutions to be abolished in the early days of the Revolution.
See J. H. Shennan, The Parlement of Paris (1968).
Originally, there was only the Parlement of Paris, born out of the king's council in 1307, and sitting inside the medieval royal palace on the Île de la Cité, still the site of the Paris Hall of Justice. The jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris covered the entire kingdom as it was in the fourteenth century, but did not automatically advance in step with the enlarging personal dominions of the kings. In 1443, following the turmoil of the Hundred Years' War, King Charles VII of France granted Languedoc its own parlement by establishing the Parlement of Toulouse, the first parlement outside of Paris; its jurisdiction extended over the most part of southern France. From 1443 until the French Revolution several other parlements were created in some provinces of France, until at the end of the ancien régime provincial parlements were sitting (clockwise from the north) in Arras, Metz, Nancy, Colmar, Dijon, Besançon, Grenoble, Aix, Perpignan, Toulouse, Pau, Bordeaux, Rennes and Rouen. All of them were administrative capitals of regions with strong historical traditions of independence before they were incorporated into France. Assembled in the parlements, the largely hereditary members, the provincial noblesse de robe, were the strongest decentralising force in a France that was more multifarious in its legal systems, taxation, and custom than it might have seemed under the apparent unifying rule of its kings. Nevertheless, the Parlement of Paris had the largest jurisdiction of all the parlements, covering the major part of northern and central France, and was simply known as "the Parlement".
In some regions provincial Estates also continued to meet and legislate with a measure of self-governance and control over taxation within their jurisdiction.
All the parlements could issue regulatory decrees for the application of royal edicts or of customary practices; they could also refuse to register laws that they judged contrary to fundamental law, the local coûtumes, of which there were some three hundred jurisdictions in France or simply as being untimely. Membership in those courts was generally bought from the royal authority; and such positions could be made hereditary by payment of the tax to the King (la Paulette).
|Provincial "parlements" or "conseils souverains" (shown in historic provinces of France) during the ancien régime. Dates indicate creation of the parlement.|
In theory, parlements were not legislative bodies, but courts of appeal. They had the duty, however, to record all royal edicts and laws. Some, especially the Parlement de Paris, gradually acquired the habit of refusing to register legislation with which they disagreed until the king held a lit de justice or sent a lettre de cachet to force them to act. Furthermore, the parlements could pass arrêts de réglement, which were laws that applied within their jurisdiction.
In the years immediately before the French Revolution, their extreme concern to preserve ancien régime institutions of bourgeois and noble privilege prevented France from carrying out miscellaneous reforms, especially in the area of taxation, even when those reforms had the support of theoretically absolute monarchs.
The beginning of the proposed changes in France began with the Protests of the Parlement of Paris addressed to Louis XVI in March 1776, in which the Second Estate, the nobility of France, resisted the beginning of certain reforms that would remove privileges from the Second Estate, notably their exemption from taxes. The objections made to the Parlement of Paris were in reaction to the essay, Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses ("Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth") by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. The Second Estate reacted to the essay with anger and with desperation to convince the king that the nobility still served a very important role in France and still deserved the same privileges of tax exemption as well as for the preservation of the guilds and corporations put in place to restrict trade, both of which were eliminated in the reforms proposed by Turgot.
The core concerns of this parliamentary meeting were to address some of the suggested reforms proposed by Turgot, which included taxing the Second Estate depending on the amount of land that they owned; all taxes had been a duty of the Third Estate, or the common people of France.
The personal service of the clergy is to fulfill all the functions relating to education and religious observances and to contribute to the relief of the unfortunate through its alms. The noble dedicates his blood to the defense of the state and assists to sovereign with his counsel. The last class of the nation, which cannot render such distinguished service to the state, fulfills its obligation through taxes, industry, and physical labor..
The Second Estate of France consisted of about 1% of the population, but was exempt from all taxes, including the Corvée Royale, which was a recent mandatory service in which the roads would be repaired and built by those subject to the corvée. The Second Estate was also exempt from the Gabelle, which was the unpopular tax on salt, and also the Taille, the oldest form of taxation in France, which was based upon how much land a person owned. The Second Estate was going to have to pay the Taille, and all those who had to pay the Taille, by law, had to perform the Corvée. The nobles saw this task as especially humiliating and below them to perform, as the nobles took great pride in their titles and their linage, many of whom had died in defense of France. They saw this elimination of tax privilege as the gateway for more attacks on their rights, and urged the Louis XVI throughout the Protests of the Parliament of Paris not to give into the proposed reforms.
These exemptions, as well as the right to wear a sword and their coat of arms, encouraged the idea of a natural superiority over the commoners that was common through the Second Estate, and as long as the nobles had commoners under their jurisdiction, they could demand a tax on the Third Estate called Feudal Dues, which would allegedly be for the Third Estate’s protection. Overall, the Second Estate had vast privileges over the Third Estate and took advantage of the Third Estate using the nobles’ position of power in the current class system. The reforms proposed by Turgot and argued against in the Protests of the Parliament of Paris conflicted with the Second Estates’ interests to keep their privileged positions, starting the ideas of change and revolution to seep into the political arena.
This behavior of the Second Estate is one of the reasons why, since the French Revolution, French courts have been forbidden by Article 5 of the French civil code to create law and act as legislative bodies, their only mandate being to interpret the law. France, through the Napoleonic Code, was at the origin of the modern system of civil law in which precedents are not as powerful as in countries of common law. Since then, Courts have gradually regained some power, but it is still controversial whether unelected magistrates should gain too much power.
Regarding criminal justice, the proceedings were markedly archaic. Judges could order suspects to be tortured in order to extract confessions, or induce them to reveal the names of their accomplices: there existed the question ordinaire ("ordinary questioning"), the ordinary form of torture, and the question extraordinaire ("extraordinary questioning"), with increased brutality. There was little presumption of innocence, if the suspect was a mere poor commoner. The death sentence could be pronounced for a variety of crimes, including mere theft; depending on the crime and the social class of the victim, death could be by decapitation with a sword (for nobles), hanging (for most crimes by commoners), the breaking wheel (for some heinous crimes by commoners), and even burning at the stake (for heresy, or advocacy of atheism). Some crimes, such as regicide, exacted even more horrific punishment.
Judicial torture and cruel methods of executions were abolished in 1788 by King Louis XVI.
After the Parlement of Paris, the Parlement of Toulouse had the largest jurisdiction in France. Its purview extended from the Rhône to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Pyrénées to the Massif Central, but the creation of the Parlement of Bordeaux in 1462 removed from its jurisdiction Guyenne, Gascony, Landes, Agenais, Béarn and Périgord.
Le Parlement et la democratie au XXIe siecle : le Parlement, l'aboutissement de la responsabilite redditionnelle.(Collaboration spéciale)
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