The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP) and Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (BNCI), which came together in 1966 to form BNP in France, first began providing banking services in Tunisia in 1894. Their branch networks in Tunisia merged in 1969, thus fully completing the 1966 merger.
CNEP’s first steps in Tunisia
The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP), founded in 1848, became involved in Tunisia when France became involved in the country’s debt conversion from 1863 onwards. CNEP participated in a number of loans to Tunisia between 1865 and 1867. When the French Protectorate authorities started to convert Tunisia’s pre-1881 debt, an agreement was signed with a banking syndicate to grant a loan of 142,500,000 francs. CNEP and the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas both participated in the syndicate.
New support base for French trade
However, these syndicate operations were not the main reason CNEP decided to set up in Tunisia. The decision to do so was linked to CNEP’s overall business policy of providing banking services to French traders based in import-export centres and at the ports. At that time the Protectorate exported cereals, wine and oil to France.
In June 1894, CNEP opened a branch in Tunis, a second in Soussa in 1895, another at Sfax in 1896 and a fourth at Gabès in 1897. In 1898, the Tunisian management suggested opening temporary offices at Monastir and Kairouan, but the CNEP Paris headquarters regarded this move as premature. From the very beginning the business generated by the branch network in Tunisia was judged to be satisfactory; and this continued to be the case until the crisis which struck the country in 1932. The Gabès branch was closed in 1907 but a branch was opened in Bizerta instead.
Years of prosperity
The first decade of the 20th century was a period of prosperity for Tunisia, in which the CNEP branches played a large part. In 1918, the headquarters were moved to new premises at 3 avenue Jules Ferry in Tunis, just opposite the French Embassy.
CNEP’s business in Tunisia was closely linked to the agriculture and phosphate mining sectors, which were major local sources of wealth. From 1923 on, successive years of prosperity led to some very profitable business for CNEP and the bank opened new branches in Monastir (1924), Mateur (1925) and Beja (1930).
Services to local business clients
Hubert Bonin¹ gives us a clear description of CNEP business in Tunisia: “Tunisian operations, unconnected from the major trading sectors of cotton and wool, were rather modest, even obscure, but they nevertheless provided substantial business. In addition to traditional trade financing, CNEP also engaged in what was a rather novel activity on behalf of the cereal and oil trading businesses. In fact – perhaps rather like the bank’s banking and trading predecessors in the Roman era – some of its premises also had oil and grain warehouses, which served as depositories for the merchandise that was used as collateral for the loans granted to Tunisian traders and buyer firms until such time as the goods were embarked. In 1924 the Monastir branch had 30 oil cisterns, the Sousa branch 43 oil cisterns plus a cereals warehouse, and the Beja branch a cereals warehouse. CNEP seems to have been the bank which was closest to the foodstuff suppliers, set up in the centre of the small market towns so as to be involved as early on as possible in the financing chain. In addition to this trans-Mediterranean business, there was also local banking business, since the Tunisian clientele included many millers, grain merchants and wine traders.”
The 1930s were difficult years and the Tunisian economy was seriously affected by the fall in prices of the main agricultural crops, including durum wheat, barley, olive oil and wool. From 1927 to 1936, prices fell by close to 50%. The situation remained difficult until 1939 and the bank had to close three branches: Monastir and Beja in 1934, and Mateur in 1935.
The founding of BEIT
In 1963, CNEP established the Banque d’Escompte et de Crédit à l’Industrie en Tunisie (BEIT) with two partners: Banque Industrielle de l’Afrique du Nord (BIAN) and Morgan Guaranty Trust. The BIAN and CNEP branch networks were absorbed into the new bank.
BNCI also sets up in Tunisia via BNCIA
In 1927, some leading figures in Algeria founded the Banque de l’Union Nord-Africaine (BUNA), which then established a network of branches across Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. In September 1940, Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (BNCI) took a majority stake in BUNA, which then became BNCI-Afrique (BNCIA). When France was occupied by Germany, the Maghreb – the French-speaking region of North Africa – seemed to offer the potential for international expansion.
BNCIA opened a branch in Tunis in May 1941 and a sub-branch opened in Bizerta in June 1942. In 1948, the network in Tunisia had premises in twelve cities and was organised into three divisions. The branches and offices in Bizerta, Beja, Souk-el-Arba, Chardimou and Le Kef were directly under the management of the Tunis head office. The Soussa branch, together with the offices in Monastir and Mahdia, made up the Soussa division, while the Sfax division comprised the Sfax branch plus the Sarzis and Tozeur offices.
UBCI takes over BNCI’s Tunisian network
In 1955, BNCI set up a subsidiary under Tunisian law called Union Financière et Technique de Tunisie (UFITEC). In 1961, at a time when the Tunisian banking sector was undergoing a period of consolidation, UFITEC and BNCI’s Tunisian network were merged to form the Union Bancaire pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (UBCI). The new bank’s network comprised seven branches: Tunis-Mokhtar-Attia, Tunis-Es-Sadikia, Bizerta, Grombalia, Mateur, Sfax and Soussa.
BEIT-UBCI link-up completes the CNEP-BNCI merger
In 1966, the French government decided to merge CNEP and BNCI to form Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP). Three years later, in 1969, the BEIT network – which had taken over CNEP’s Tunisian branches in 1963 – was absorbed into UBCI, thus finalising the merger of the CNEP and BNCI branch networks in Tunis under the aegis of UBCI.
¹ Bonin, Hubert. Une grande entreprise bancaire: le Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris dans l’entre-deux-guerres (A major banking enterprise: the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris in the inter-war years), Études et documents (Studies and Documents) Vol IV.