Origins and rise to prominence
Born in Douai of an upper-class family, he entered the legal profession and became a lawyer to the general council of Artois, procureur to the parlement of Douai, Master of Requests (France), intendant of Metz (1768) and of Lille (1774). He seems to have been a man with notable business abilities and an entrepreneurial spirit, while generally unscrupulous in his political actions. In the terrible crisis preceding the French Revolution, when successive ministers tried in vain to replenish the exhausted royal treasury, Calonne was summoned as Controller-General of Finances, an office he assumed on 3 November 1783.
He owed the position to the Comte de Vergennes, who for over three years continued to support him. According to the Habsburg ambassador, his public image was extremely poor. Calonne immediately set about remedying the fiscal crisis, and he found in Louis XVI enough support to create a vast and ambitious plan of revenue-raising and administrative centralization. Calonne focused on maintaining public confidence through building projects and spending, which was mainly designed to maintain the Crown's capacity to borrow funds. He presented the king with his plan on 20 August 1786. At its heart was a new land value tax, which would replace the old vingtieme taxes and finally sweep away the fiscal exemptions of the privileged orders. The new tax would be administered by a system of provincial assemblies elected by the local property owners at parish, district and provincial level. This central proposal was accompanied by a further package of rationalizing reform, including free trade in grain and abolition of France's myriad internal customs barriers. It was in effect one, if not the most, comprehensive attempt at enlightened reform during the reign of Louis XVI.