Pioneering times – 1822-1913

BNP Paribas’ forerunners were created and developed during the tremendous industrial boom sweeping Europe in the 19th century. They were players in the second banking revolution, which saw the savings needed to finance economic development drained from accounts.

BNP Paribas Forerunners’ and the banking revolution of the 1850s

The pioneer was Société Générale de Belgique, the ancestor of BNP Paribas Fortis, which was founded in Brussels in 1822. It invented the hybrid bank, combining deposit management and corporate sponsorship, with Crédit Mobilier (founded by the Pereire brothers) soon following suit.

In 1848, in the midst of a political revolution and economic crisis, France saw the creation that same year of discounting firms by the public authorities, in conjunction with private-sector parties, designed to facilitate lending circuits. Thus the two ancestors of the BNP came to be: Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP), supported by Parisian booksellers and publishers, and Comptoir National d’Escompte de Mulhouse, backed by Alsatian industrialists.

These institutions triggered the banking revolution that took place around the 1850s and 1860s: it was at this time that private individuals gained access to general banking and borrowing services through the creation of major deposit banks. These new institutions attracted dormant savings and recycled the funds back into the economy, notably through bill discounting and short-term loans to businesses. A range of new services also became available to middle-class individuals: cashier services, safe deposit box rentals, cheques, securities deposits, letters of credit, etc. The novelty was that banks were now working face-to-face with their customers through networks of branches.

CNEP’s headquarters, built in 1878, is a highly visible symbol of the bank’s presence in Paris.

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Roi Guillaume 1er d'Orange des Pays-Bas, fondateur en 1822 dela Société Générale des Pays-Bas pour favoriser l'Industrie Nationale (en néerlandais Algemeene Nederlandsche Maatschappij ter Begunstiging van de Volksvlijt) - Archives historiques BNP Paribas Fortis

King William I of Orange of the Netherlands, founder in 1822 of the Société Générale des Pays-Bas pour favoriser l’Industrie Nationale (in Dutch Algemeene Nederlandsche Maatschappij ter Begunstiging van de Volksvlijt) – BNP Paribas Fortis Historical Archives

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Siège de la Société génarale de Belgique vers 1900 - Archives historiques BNP Paribas Fortis

Head office of the Société Générale de Belgique around 1900 – BNP Paribas Fortis Historical Archives

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Le CNEP inaugure son nouveau siège en 1882, Gravure de l'Atrium d'après un cliché du photographe Louis-Emile Durandelle - Archives historiques BNP Paribas

The CNEP inaugurates its new headquarters in 1882, engraving of the Atrium from a photograph by Louis-Emile Durandelle – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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Siège du CNEP, vue du haut de la façade monumentale en 1882, allégories de la finance et du commerce et frise de médaillons représentant les 5 continents. - Archives historiques BNP Paribas

CNEP headquarters, view from the top of the monumental façade in 1882, allegories of finance and commerce and a frieze of medallions representing the five continents. – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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Siège du Comptoir national d'escompte de Mulhouse, sd - Archives historiques BNP Paribas

Comptoir National d’Escompte de Mulhouse head office, sd -BNP paribas Historical Archives

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Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris: balancing internationalisation and crisis management

Following the Franco-British Free Trade Treaty of 1860, CNEP was the first French bank to build an international network for the purpose of financing international trade. It set up shop in Shanghai in 1860, and in India the same year, to finance cotton imports into France. Branches were also opened in Australia in 1881 to meet the demand of the wool industry in northern France and in Mazamet in southern France.

Statement by the director of the Indian branches about the capital of the CNEP, 1890 – BNP Paribas historical archives

In the 1880s, the banking sector was still fragile and was often beset by crisis. CNEP experienced a serious crisis itself in 1889. It was immediately refounded and resumed its activities under the conservative management of Alexis Rostand. The strong risk culture he instilled at the time has survived over the decades.

Alexis Rostand sur un panneau de l'exposition "Les Rostand entre banque, musique et théâtre" co-produite en 2018 par BNP Paribas à l’occasion du 150e anniversaire de la naissance d’Edmond Rostand et du 100e anniversaire de sa mort - Archives historiques BNP Paribas
Alexis Rostand on a panel of the exhibition “Les Rostand entre banque, musique et théâtre” co-produced in 2018 by BNP Paribas to mark the 150th anniversary of Edmond Rostand’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death – BNP Paribas Historical Archives


The period from 1870-1914 was marked by a strong surplus of savings in France, and Paris was competing with London as a financial centre. CNEP built up a reputation in the financial markets for managing and placing sovereign and corporate bond issues, as well as for issuing cooperative shares.
In the banking syndicates set up to raise the capital needed to finance major projects, CNEP often found itself in the company of a major French merchant bank, Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, generally known as Paribas. In a curious twist of fate, the two financial institutions found themselves, along with Belgian bank Société Générale de Belgique – which later joined BNP Paribas Group under the name Fortis – involved in 1899 in a project to finance the construction of the Peking-Hankow railway, covering a distance of more than 1,200 kilometres between present-day Beijing and Hankou.

Obligation émise par le Gouvernement impérial de Chine dans le cadre d'un emprunt de 5% or pour le financement de la ligne ferroviaire reliant Pekin à Hankeou, 1898 - Archives historiques BNP Paribas
Bond issued by the Imperial Government of China as part of a 5% gold loan to finance the railway line linking Beijing to Hankeou, 1898 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

Paribas: birth of a bank with strong European roots

Paribas was created in 1872 from the merger of a Parisian bank (Banque de Paris) and an international financial company which, from the outset, had operations in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and France. Among the directors were several renowned French bankers, such as Adrien Delahante and Alphonse Pinard, as well as members of the Bischoffsheim family from Germany and the Hentsch family from Switzerland. It was a typically European bank, having inherited the traditions of high finance practiced by old banking families, and involved in large-scale operations requiring technical expertise.

This institution was created to issue Liberation Bonds and, over the longer term, to acquire stakes in companies and to enter the capital markets.

Obligation 4% de 1000 francs au porteur émise en 1950 par la  Compagnie des chemins de fer du Maroc, dont Paribas était l'un des membres fondateurs
4% bearer bond of 1,000 francs issued in 1950 by the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Maroc, of which Paribas was a founding member – BNP Paribas historical archives


Unlike CNEP, Paribas had no network of branches, instead operating from four offices – in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland – and basing its business on alliances and the banks and associates it had helped to create. By steadily expanding its assets, Paribas became France’s leading investment bank at the turn of the20th century.

BNL: a major player in Italy’s development

In 1913, at the government’s initiative, Istituto Nazionale di Credito per la Cooperazione was created in Rome with the aim of supporting the cooperative movement in Italy by providing aid specifically targeting the agriculture, cinema and fishing industries. Still very rural at the time, the Italian economy had to industrialise. It played a major role in the post-WWII reconstruction and set up a unique system for financing Italian cinema, resulting in the production of the greatest masterpieces.

Imprimé de la BNL faisant la promotion du Plan vert , un programme de modernisationn à destination du monde agricole, Archives histoqiques BNL
BNL prospectus promoting the Green Plan, a modernisation programme for the agricultural sector, BNP Paribas Historical Archives BNL

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