The feudal period in France, as in England, contained a number of exactions for the government. These were generally upon land, and were more of the nature of rents than of taxes. As feudalism disintegrated and government activities increased, larger revenues became imperative. Taxes upon articles of consumption were extensively used. Because of the general acceptance of the mercantilist doctrine, charges were also levied upon imported goods. These taxes formed the most important part of the early French revenue system. The consumption taxes were upon such articles as drinks, jewelry, paper, oil, and the like. Besides taxes upon goods coming into the country they were often levied upon goods which were brought into the cities. They were levied at the city gates and were called gate taxes.
Early Direct Taxes. - A number of more or less direct taxes also found a place in the early fiscal system. Their form resembled, somewhat, the exactions which had been made under feudalism. One of the earliest taxes used was very similar to the modern general property tax, since land, rentals, and various sorts of property were taken as the measure of the tax which was to be paid. A source of revenue which was occasionally used was a sort of income tax. It was one or more twentieths of the income from land or other property. Somewhat similar was the tax exacted for the benefit of the church. This was a certain fraction, not always the same, of the products of the land, and was to be paid in kind.
An interesting demand upon the people was that of services for the maintenance of highways and other forms of public utilities. The levies were made, both upon property and upon persons. No classes were exempt, yet some could commute into a money payment or hire some one else to perform the service. The tax upon salt really amounted to a direct tax, since it was stipulated how much salt should be purchased for each member in a family. Poll taxes were used in varying degree. The amount to be assessed was based upon a number of items, such as rank, property, and amount of other taxes paid. There were a number of classes, usually determined on the basis of ability to pay. Occasionally certain classes, such as the clergy, were exempt.
Modern Indirect Taxes. - The modern fiscal system closely resembles the early one. Indirect taxes form a relatively important place and yield much more revenue than do the direct taxes. The extensive use of this form of taxes is easily accounted for. The need for increased revenues has grown rapidly, while the lack of political solidarity in the country has been marked. When such a condition exists it is imperative for the party in power to conceal the taxes as much as possible in order to keep the burdens from being felt, and thus prevent dissatisfaction and perhaps rebellion on the part of the constituency.
Taxes upon the consumption of goods still hold an important place in the revenue system. Some of the more characteristic objects taxed are wines, liquors, salt, sugar, and tobacco. The old gate taxes are still maintained by a number of cities, both for raising their own revenue and for that apportioned upon them by higher governmental units. The collection of a tax through a government monopoly is well illustrated by the French tobacco monopoly. The government does not own the entire process of production, but closely regulates and supervises every step, fixes the rate of pay for the workers and the selling price of the product.
Modern Direct Taxes. - It must not be inferred, however, that direct taxes do not occupy an important place in the French fiscal policy. A number of these taxes exist, and are modified to meet varying needs. The more important are the taxes levied upon real estate, upon doors and windows, the business tax, and a combination poll and building rental tax. Besides these, numerous fee payments are required, such as for inspection, certification, licensing vehicles, and similar services.
The importance of the French business taxes will be taken up in a subsequent chapter. The other direct taxes are, to a great extent, apportioned taxes. The tax on land formerly included any assessment of buildings which was attempted. Later, a separate tax was adopted for these two forms of property, and a different method of levy was provided. The door and window tax is used to supplement the land and building tax, and is an attempt to raise additional revenue from those who are able to pay. A large number of windows and doors is considered as indicative of wealth, and consequently of taxpaying ability. The combination poll and rental tax is designed to fall upon what is generally termed personal property, as well as upon the individual. The poll tax is a definite amount, and levied upon each individual, with some exemptions. The rental tax represents the elastic feature, and is large or small, according to the needed revenue, after the poll tax has been collected.