The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris: the bank of booksellers?

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Main pavilion of the CNEP's head office at the14 rue Bergère in Paris, circa 1882 - BNP Paribas Historical Collections - Picture of the "Studio Chevojon"

Main pavilion of the CNEP's head office at the14 rue Bergère in Paris, circa 1882 - BNP Paribas Historical Collections - Picture of the "Studio Chevojon"

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In 1848 the July Monarchy was more than running out of steam, it was worn down by strong political, social and economic tensions. Numerous bank failures created a sense of mistrust and access to credit was blocked. In order to restart business activity, the idea, already put forward during the 1830 revolution, was to create discount houses whose sole mission would be to discount commercial drafts. In the aftermath of the Revolution of February 1848, book stores, all republicans, participated actively in creating the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris.

At the turn of the Revolution

At the beginning of 1848, the country was hurting. The poor wheat harvest of the summer of 1846 created a severe shortage and price increases, which ravaged the already impoverished working class. To overcome this shortage, wheat was imported from Russia, but these expenditures weighed heavily on the reserves of the Banque de France. Furthermore, since 1844 many private individuals and companies had invested in issues of foreign railway company securities, reducing proportionally the available savings that the French economy needed. Between 1846 and 1848, 829 banking institutions, often small-scale, failed.
The republican opponents of Louis-Philippe, “King of the French” since 1830, used this difficult context to establish their movement. Riots broke out in the provinces and then in the capital, where the people of Paris rose up in the aftermath of shootings. On 24 February 1848, Alphonse de Lamartine proclaimed the Second Republic and the same evening a provisional government was formed. On 4 March, Louis-Antoine Garnier-Pagès was appointed Minister of Finance. One of his measures to turn around the disastrous economic situation of the indebted and constrained country was to create specialised discount institutions. The government had to act quickly and initially bypass the bankers, who were bogged down in their difficulties. In Paris, booksellers, publishers and politicians provided the necessary boost for this project.

Men of the situation

The Minister of Finance called on his inner circle to build the foundations of the discount houses, including the Paris discount house. This circle included his Junior Minister, Eugène Duclerc, and especially Antoine-Laurent Pagnerre, a bookseller-publisher in Paris since 1824 and Secretary General of the provisional government. The three of them forged their friendship in the republican combat. Moreover, in 1842 Pagnerre published “Histoire politique et financière depuis Henri IV jusqu’à nos jours” (Political and Financial History from Henri IV to Today), written by Garnier-Pagès and Duclerc.
From 7 March 1848, Garnier-Pages created 69 discount houses in the largest French cities. These discount houses were completed by sub-houses specialised by industrial branches and by general stores holding the pledged goods. On 8 March 1848, the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP) was created. Garnier-Pagès, Duclerc and Pagnerre were joined by the journalist and politician, Armand Marrast, as well as by a cohort of booksellers-publishers: Louis Hachette, Langlois, Charles Gosselin, Ambroise Firmin-Didot and the founder of the Hippolyte Biesta characters. Because the publisher-bookseller profession suffered directly the shortcomings of the French credit system, the profession had to immobilise capital to produce books before it could sell them. The creation of a discount house was discussed at the Cercle de la Librairie (Bookseller Circle) as early as 29 February 1848 and the members declared they were in favour of this project, supported by Pagnerre.

Antoine-Louis Pagnerre, March 1848 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Antoine-Louis Pagnerre, March 1848 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Pagnerre, at the junction of powers

Booksellers and publishers were not the only ones concerned closely by credit. Other Parisian trades needed to discount commercial drafts. But the Revolution of 1848 was a pivotal time. For these major booksellers, who had a clear vision of the situation and were close to the authorities, this period crystallised their determination to move forward effectively in the economic area.Laurent-Antoine Pagnerre, appointed deputy mayor of Paris in February 1848 and present in the provisional government, was a man of influence in publishing as in politics.

He had founded the Comptoir Central de la Librairie in 1840 and the Cercle de la Librairie in 1847. Evidently his innovative ideas were of prime importance in the creation of the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris, which he briefly headed at its beginnings – before stepping aside for Hippolyte Biesta, assisted by the banker Alphonse Pinard. Over the years, the CNEP demonstrated its utility. The new institution, born from a revolution, took an increasingly important place in the French banking sector, becoming an international trade finance bank in 1860. Accordingly, the publishers Lamartine, Comtesse de Ségur, Girault de Saint-Fargeau and Louis Blanc worked together to serve their interests, consistent with the country’s interests.
True to its history, today BNP Paribas is still the main bank of publishers.

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