Le Grande Gabelle

I can’t let a mention of salt taxes pass by without taking a detour into the subject of the gabelle, the infamous French salt tax. The gabelle started in the year 1286 as a “temporary” commodity tax instigated by Phillip IV to finance his war against Naples. But then as anyone who’s ever driven the Illinois tollway knows, “temporary” taxes have a funny way of becoming permanent. Such was the case with the gabelle, which turned out to be such a plump cash cow it was made permanent less than a century later under Charles V. The thing that made the gabelle so appealing to the French crown was that it was a uniform consumption tax. Since everybody consumed more or less the same amount of salt per year, a simple tax on that consumption would be both equitable and easy to administrate. Or so the logic went.

At first the tax was moderate to say the least: a little over one and a half percent of the market price of salt. Yet with time, as the cash needs of the various provinces of France became more acute, the tax was raised, often into the double digits. But even then a steady flow of revenue to the government couldn’t be guaranteed. Prices in a free market fluctuate. What was a 20% tax one day could feel more like a 2% the next if, say, the Brittany salt ponds had a particularly productive year and prices were driven down. The answer to that of course: regulate the amount of salt the miners and paludiers produced so the supply stayed steady. But then what about foreign salt makers? What good does it do to regulate the production of salt in France when German or Basque salt makers could just dump their own cheap salt on the market whenever they felt like it? And even here in France how can we be sure salt makers are producing only what we tell them to?

Clearly, the French crown had created a complex problem. The end result was an even more complex solution, whereby all salt manufactured in France was ordered brought to government warehouses where it was then sold to the public at a government-dictated price (up to 20 times the cost of production). There now, that should fix the problem. Except that the price of salt went so high that consumption started to plummet. People only bought the minimum they needed to get by, which in some areas was as little as two grams per person per day. Sigh. Alright, I didn’t want to have to do this, but now I’m making it law that every man, woman and child over the age of eight years old has to buy a set amount of salt per year at the government price or be sent to prison. And I better not see anybody consuming any salt that hasn’t been purchased from official government sources, because if I even catch your dog drinking from a puddle of seawater you’re going to spend the rest of your short goddam life in the galleys!!!

And so it was, really. In some areas the citizenry were forced to buy over 15 pounds of salt per year for personal consumption — each. Shepherds were prosecuted for letting their sheep sip from salt marshes. Not only that, but with time the much touted “equal” consumption tax became anything but. A few privileges handed out here, a couple of bows to economic reality there, and pretty soon different regions of France were paying wildly different prices for salt. By the late 1600’s prices could vary more than 600% from one side of France to the other. Which of course made France a smugglers’ paradise, with unscrupulous souls (really folk heroes among the peasantry) sneaking cheap salt here and there and selling it at a premium. Of course smugglers who were caught could be sentenced to death, though that didn’t keep many an enterprising man from stashing a bag under his hat or a woman in a false corset or brassiere. Thousands of royal troops were required simply to enforce the law.

By about 1789 or so the people of France, especially in the region around Paris known as the Pays de Grande Gabelle “lands of the big taxes” had had enough. The angriest population by far in all France, they paid over 2/3 of the national salt tax though they consumed less than half the salt. No surprise then, that when the revolution came that year, salt tax collectors were among the first to the guillotine.

Was the salt tax elimitaed after that? Indeed it was, at least until Napoleon found himself strapped for cash for his own invasion of Italy and reinstituted the gabelle in 1804. It stood until 1946.

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