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[Project for the Regulation of the Price of Bread in France][92]

Karl Marx

The Emperor of the French has just undertaken the execution of a favorite project of his, namely, the regulation of the price of bread throughout his empire. This idea he definitely announced as long ago as 1854, in his speech to the Legislative Body on occasion of the declaration of war against Russia. His statement of the case at that time is worth quoting, and we give it as follows:

"Above all, I recommend to your attention the system now adopted by the City of Paris; for if it extend, as I trust it will, to the whole of France, it will for the future prevent those extreme variations in the price of corn which, in times of abundance, cause agriculture to languish because of the low price of wheat, and, in years of scarcity, the poorer classes to suffer so greatly because of its dearness. That system consists in the establishment in all great centers of population of a credit institution called Baker's Bank (Caisse de la Boulangerie), which, during years of dearth, can give bread at a price infinitely lower than the official market quotation, on the condition of its price ranging a little higher in years of plenty. The good harvests being in general more numerous than the bad ones, it is easy to understand that the compensation between both may be effected with ease. In addition, the immense advantage would be gained of finding credit-companies which, instead of gaining from a rise in the price of bread, would, like every one else, be interested in its cheapness; for, contrary to what has existed to the present time, such companies would make money in seasons of fertility, and lose money in seasons of dearth."[a]

The principle here set forth is that bread should be sold "infinitely" below its market price in bad, and only "a little" above that same price in good seasons—the compensation to result from the hope that the good years will by far overbalance the scarce ones. An Imperial decree having in December, 1853, established the Baker's Bank at Paris[b], the maximum price for the four-pound loaf was fixed at 40 centimes; the bakers being empowered to claim compensation for their loss from the Bank, which, in its turn, raised its funds by the issue of obligations guaranteed by the Municipality, which, on its part, raised the guaranty funds by contracting new debts, and enhancing the excise duties on articles of. consumption at the gates of Paris. A certain sum was, besides, directly contributed by the Government from the public exchequer. At the end of 1854 the debts thus contracted by the Municipality of Paris, together with the Government money, had already reached the sum of eighty millions of francs. The Government was then forced to rescind its steps, and to successively raise the maximum price of the loaf to 45 and 50 centimes. -Thus, the Paris people had partly to pay in the form of increased excises what they saved in the price of bread, and the rest of France had to pay a general pauper tax for the metropolis, in the form of the direct Government subvention accorded to the Municipality of Paris. However, the experiment proved a complete failure; the Paris price of bread rising above the official maximum during the bad seasons, from 1855 to 1857, and sinking below it during the rich harvests of 1857 and 1858.

Nothing daunted by the failure of this experiment on a relatively small scale, Louis Napoleon has now taken to organizing, by his own ukase, the bakers' trade and the commerce in grain throughout the Empire. Some weeks ago, one of his newspapers in Paris attempted to convince the public that "a reserve of grain"[c] was a necessity in all considerable towns. The argument was, that in the worst years of scarcity the maximum deficit of grain had been equal to 28 days' consumption of the whole population, and that the average number of consecutive bad years was three. From these premises it was calculated that "an effective reserve for three months will be all that can be enacted from human foresight." If extended only to towns with a minimum population of 10,000 inhabitants, the aggregate population of such towns in France (Paris excluded) amounting to 3,776,000 souls, each average soul consuming 45 kilogrammes of wheat for three months, and the present price of wheat being about 14f. the hectoliter—such a reserve, according to this view of the case, would cost between 31,000,000 and 32,000,000f.! Now, on the 18th of Nov. the Moniteur published a decree in the following terms:

"Art. 1. The reserve of the bakers in all the towns in which the baking trade is regulated by decrees and ordinances is fixed at the quantity of grain or flour necessary for supplying the daily make of each baking establishment during three months.

"Art. 2. Within a month from this date, the Prefects of Departments, after having consulted the municipalities, shall decide whether the reserves shall be established in grain or flour, and shall fix the period within which they shall be provided; also, the portion of them which may be deposited in public store-houses."[d]

Annexed to this decree is a list of the towns "in which the baking trade is regulated," and which, consequently, have to lay in reserves. The list comprises all the towns and cities of France of a certain degree of importance, except Paris and Lyons, in which reserves already exist, and which consequently do not fall within the operation of the decree. In all, there are not fewer than 161 towns or cities, and among them are Marseilles, St. Quentin, Moulins, Caen, Angoulême, Dijon, Bourges, Besançon, Evreux, Chartres, Brest, Nîmes; Toulouse, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Rennes, Tours, Grenoble, St. Étienne, Nantes, Orléans, Angers, Rheims, Chalôns, Metz, Lille, Douai, Valenciennes, Beauvais, Arras, St. Omer, Calais, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Rouen, Havre, Mâcon, Le Mans, Amiens, Abbeville, and Toulon. According to the last census, the populations of the 161 towns and cities may now be set down at about 8,000,000! This gives us then 5,500,000 hectolitres, at a cost of between 70,000,000 and 80,000,000 francs for the reserves. In transmitting by circular the decree to the Prefects of Departments, the Minister of Agriculture and Commerce tells them that, though they "must not constrain the bakers to fulfill precipitately the obligations imposed on them by the decree," they must "fix within reasonable limits the period allowed for so doing." He leaves the Prefects to decide, from local considerations, whether the reserves shall be laid in in grain or flour. He then tells them that the present measure, vast as it is, may be considered capable of extension.[e]

"The Government does not exaggerate, Monsieur le Prefect, the importance of the measure I have described. It is aware that the decree only concerns a small part of the population, and accordingly it has occupied itself with the possibility of extending its means of action. The inhabitants of hamlets and of villages bake their own bread, and take from their crops the quantity of wheat necessary for their families during the year. The intervention of the Government with regard to them would be useless and impossible. But in a certain number of chief towns of departments, and in a greater number of the chief places of arrondissements and of cantons, and even in populous villages, bakers make an important part of the bread consumed, and yet they are not the object of any regulations, and are not obliged to make any reserves. Is it not possible to place the bakers of such places as these under the same régime, and to impose on them the same salutary law of prudence? The Government is disposed to think that its prescriptions in this respect would not meet with any serious objections."

Before, however, subjecting to the above decree all the rest of France, except the small villages, the Minister directs the Prefects to consult the Municipalities of the places which do not now fall within its operation. He then tells the Prefects how the reserves are to be stored up:

"Bakers must, as far as possible, utilise the dependencies of their shops, as the surveillance of them will be easy. But you must invite the Municipalities to organize, and to place at the disposal of bakers, public store-houses calculated to receive, on payment of a rent to be fixed by tariff, the reserve they cannot receive themselves. I do not doubt that the enlightened cooperation of the municipal authorities will render these operations easy."

The Minister next arrives at the vital point—where to get the money for carrying out the decree:

"As to the realization of the capital necessary, I am convinced that bakers will employ the most serious efforts to procure the sums they will need. Such an employment of capital presents commercial advantages so great, and promises to realize such legitimate profits that they can hardly fail to obtain credit, especially at a moment at which the interest on money is so low. Is it presuming too much on the good will of the capitalists in each commune to hope for their cooperation in favor of the bakers? Would they not find in the reserves constituted a safe pledge of their advances—and a pledge which is rather destined to increase in value than to decline? I shall be happy if the efforts you may make in this matter may be crowned with success. I ask myself, if the Municipalities could not, if necessary, in imitation of the Caisse de Paris, create resources and employ them in advances to bakers. In order to encourage and facilitate such advances, and to multiply them by circulation, the granaries destined to receive the reserves might have the character of bonded warehouses (magasins généraux), conferred on them, and might deliver warrants which would safely be accepted with favor by our financial establishment, and especially by the Bank of France."

The Minister concludes his circular by directing that within twenty days the Prefects shall inform him what they propose in regard to the execution of the second article of the decree, and within a month shall report on what the Municipalities of the towns and villages not included in the decree recommend.

Now, we do not purpose to enter at this moment into the question of public granaries, but the immense importance of this economical coup d'état needs no long commentary. It is well known that the present price of grain is ruinously low in France, and that, consequently, signs of dissatisfaction are perceptible among the peasantry. By the artificial demand to be created through the means of three months' reserve, Napoleon tries to enhance prices artificially, and thus stop the mouth to agricultural France. On the other hand, he proclaims himself a sort of socialist providence to the proletarians of the towns, although in a rather awkward way, since the first palpable effect of his decree must be to make them pay more for their loaf than before. The "savior of property"[f] shows the middle class that not even the formal intervention of his own mock Legislatures, but a simple personal ukase on his part, is all that is wanted to make free with their purses, dispose of municipal property, trouble the course of trade, and subject their monetary dealings to his private crochets. Lastly, the question is still to be considered from the pure Bonapartist point of view. Immense buildings for public granaries will become necessary over the whole of France; and what a fresh field they will open for jobs and plunder. An unexpected turn is also given to the trade in breadstuffs. What profits to be pocketed by the Crédit Mobilier[93] and the other gambling companions of his Imperial Majesty! At all events, we may be sure that the Imperial Socialist will prove more successful in raising the price of bread than he has been in attempts to reduce it.

Written about November 19, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5507, December 15, 1858 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1418, December 28, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Napoleon III's speech to the Corps législatif on March 2, 1854, Le Moniteur universel, No. 62, March 3, 1854.—Ed.

[b] Décret impérial qui institue une caisse de service pour la boulangerie de Paris, le 27 décembre, 1853.—Ed.

[c] L. Burat's article on the consumption of grain in France, Le Constitutionnel, No. 315, November 11, 1858.—Ed.

[d] Napoleon III's decree on grain reserves of November 16, 1858 and "Tableau des villes dans lesquelles la boulangerie est réglementée par des décrets ou ordonnances, et dans lesquelles l'approvisionnement de réserve des boulangers sera porté à trois mois de leur vente journalière", Le Moniteur universel, No. 322, November 18, 1858.—Ed.

[e] Here and in what follows the quotations are from a circular by Eugène Rouher, Minister of Agriculture and Commerce, "Extension des reserves de la boulangerie", published in Le Moniteur universel, No. 322, November 18, 1858.—Ed.

[f] From the Address of the Commercy Municipal Council to Napoleon III published in Le Moniteur universel, No. 196, July 15, 1849.—Ed.

[92] In the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune this article was published under the heading "Napoleon's Last Scheme".

[93] The Crédit Mobilier is short for the Société générale du Crédit Mobilier—a French joint-stock bank founded in 1852 by the Péreire brothers. The bank was closely connected with the Government of Napoleon III and, protected by it, engaged in speculation. It went bankrupt in 1867 and was liquidated in 1871.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.110-114), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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