By continuing his series of biographies of the kings of France with a Louis XV, Jean-Christian Petitfils seems well placed to succeed Georges Bordonove. The spirit of compilation indeed seems to take precedence over historiographical novelty.
An attractive popularization
Petitfils, as we know, is a popularizer who easily seduces. He likes to put the events he recounts in context in a way that allows the reader to follow him with pleasure. He does not hesitate to iron out obstacles for him and transform historical characters into novel protagonists. The approach is however quite dated here, the wars of the reign of Louis XV are described in the menu and make the work look like a synthesis of history-battle and if the reader is indeed guided, it is also above all the better to put blinders on him.
The exaltation of the monarchy
In the monarchy of Jean-Christian Petitfils, everything is always more beautiful, everything is always bigger and those who have made more nuanced remarks are only evil slayers of the beautiful France of yesteryear. At Petitfils, the France of Louis XV is a land of plenty, well civilized, even the very liberated sexuality of the high society of the eighteenth century becomes simple gallantry of good quality. To tell the truth, the hypocrisy of modesty is pushed so far that even the extramarital affairs of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV, are denied. The previous historians would have "made a mistake" tells us the author. No offense to Petitfils, they are however very well documented. While this is certainly a point of detail, it nevertheless says a lot about the way in which this biographer of Louis XV treats (or must we say mistreats?) History.
As it is all the same difficult for him to go so far as to make the Beloved a price of virtue, it is absolutely necessary to compensate by finding him multiple other qualities. The praises of contemporaries are repeated without any critical spirit and the author goes into ecstasies: “What a majestic harbor indeed! What a worthy successor to Louis XIV is this handsome athlete with an arched waist, a pace full of presence and grandeur. [...] How not to praise his patience, his natural kindness? "
Louis XV is also a good king, let's face it. From an early age, Petitfils presents him to us as a political strategist. He should no longer appear as a "weak and indolent prince, taking little power" but as a monarch who experiments "with jubilation the great art of politics: secrecy, concealment, deceit, patience, in the best tradition. of the Bourbons ”. An entire program. Paradoxically, he is also a king who would not reign until Fleury's death in 1743 because Louis XV's great fault would be to be too modest and not to trust himself enough.
It was better before
Petitfils' great hobby is also the comparison between the Ancien Régime and the contemporary world, in order to better promote the former, of course. We cannot escape his usual rhetoric about the 50,000 officers who kept the kingdom running, while we now need 5.5 million civil servants, as if the France of Louis XV was strictly equivalent to that of 2015. In the same way, he likes to give history lessons carved out with great blows of the billhook: "Let's get rid of the worn-out clichés lying around in school textbooks" he asserts us before explaining to us that the tax deductions of the 18th century France were very weak and the peasant complained for nothing. In this the former banker shows himself to be not very perceptive or in bad faith. Indeed, Joël Félix (Finances and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment, Paris, 1999) has clearly shown that the reality is more complex and that it requires at least to take into account the extraordinary income levied in wartime as well as the whole taxes and duties levied in the kingdom, which does not do the sources which serve here as a reference.
The biography of Petitfils is easy to read, but it is both a biased picture of the reign of Louis XV and a long refutation, which turns to obsession, of his reputation as a bad king. It is only very partially inspired by recent works (those of Bernard Hours in particular) and only retains what accredits the author's thesis. We are therefore left unsatisfied, we are often annoyed and above all, we struggle to understand how such a thesis work can follow the hagiography previously published on Louis XVI since, precisely, the guillotined king had based his reign on a systematic opposition to the measures taken by its predecessor.
Jean-Christian Petitfils, Louis XV, Perrin, 2014.