Pass the Buck Chuck: Charles-Alexandre de Calonne
Born into the nobility of the robe or judicial nobility in 1734, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne was the son of the First President of the Parlement of Flanders, in eastern France. At a time when the parlements often resisted royal authority in order to assert the traditional privileges of the aristocracy against the centralizing attempts of the crown, Calonne chose to make his career in the royal administration.
In 1765, he was asked by Louis XV to resolve a challenge to royal authority known as the Brittany Affair. He served his King well, but he also drew the wrath of the French nobility, whose resentment continued to plague him throughout his career.
He served for 17 years as a royal intendant, one of the corps of top administrators responsible for representing the crown in each of its provinces, and in 1783 was selected to replace Jacques Necker as Controller General of Finances and First Minister after publicly disputing the figures in Necker's public accounting of the royal budget.
Calonne was a protégé of Artois, the King's brother, and Marie Antoinette, and was in general allied with their faction at court. Nevertheless, during the Diamond Necklace Affair he defended the Cardinal de Rohan for political reasons. In 1786, he became convinced that the only way for France to avoid bankruptcy was to initiate the kind of political reform that would give the aristocracy a greater political voice in exchange for giving up economic privileges that placed the burden of taxation on the non-noble Third Estate. However, the Assembly of Notables, convened by the King to put throught these reforms, failed totally.
When Calonne attempted pressure assembled notables by appealing to the public, he was rewarded with the nickname "Monsieur Défecit," partner to "Madame Déficit"— Marie Antoinette. Linked together by journalists in the pay of their rivals at court and in the Parlements who were determined to bring them down, Monsieur and Madame Déficit, rather than the impotent King, were blamed for France's financial crisis.
Calonne was dismissed from office in 1787 and replaced by one of his own critics, Loménie de Brienne, who lasted in power for only a year. Calonne left France when he left office, and was in England when the French Revolution broke out.
In England, he joined the émigré artistocrats who had fled the Revolution in 1789, many of whom had no doubt opposed him when he represented the King in his standoffs with them, and served in the shadow government until 1795. In 1790, however, watching the crisis unfolding across the Channel, Calonne and his old enemies found themselves on the same side, defending the monarchy against new challenges from below that they had not foreseen.
Known for his expensive tastes before the Revolution and associated in the public mind with the ruinous luxury of Marie Antoinette, in 1802 he returned to Paris a poor man and died shortly thereafter.
However, the French nobility refused this plan. Louis XVI dismissed him on April 8, 1787, and exiled him to Lorraine. He eventually moved to Great Britain, and died in 1802.