The Sale of Offices in French History

By Doyle, William | History Today, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Sale of Offices in French History


Doyle, William, History Today


Offices for sale have always been a key feature in every student's jogtrot through French history, but here William Doyle offers some new and surprising thoughts on their appeal and longevity.

A mid the growing crisis last November as the French prime minister, Alain Juppe, confronted mass protests against his programme to prepare the Republic for embracing the single European currency, another Europe-inspired measure passed almost unnoticed. At the cabinet meeting of November 22nd, it was decided to abolish the auctioneers' monopoly.

The major British auction houses had complained to Brussels that they were excluded from operating in France by the privileges of the 400 commissaires-priseurs, public officials with the exclusive right to conduct all auction sales. Accordingly, 1998 will see the end of a restrictive practice that can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Along with the 9,000 notaries (whose monopoly of legal business seems unlikely, at the moment, to be challenged by Brussels) they represent the last vestiges of a principle which governed almost all public appointments in France for almost three centuries and lingered for two more: that of venality, or the sale of offices.

Venality was the product of a time when it was easier for kings to sell rich men powers and privileges than to tax them. Before the advent of bureaucrats and bank accounts, it was almost impossible for states to tap the wealth of anyone with liquid or invisible assets; especially where, as in medieval France, the authority of the monarch was weak. Moneyed men were reluctant to lend to a ruler lacking a reliable regular revenue. But, from at least as early as the thirteenth century, French kings found that the rich would pay readily to be nominated as royal officers; and that the more power, profit and prestige an office conferred, the more they would pay. Tenure was particularly prized; so that by 1467 royal office had come to be recognised as an appointment for life. Furthermore, by resigning conditionally in favour only of a specific successor, holders had found a means of bequeathing their offices to their sons or other chosen heirs. The same principle allowed them to sell them on to third parties. Offices once sold had in effect become almost private property; and these are much the terms on which auctioneers and notaries still exercise their functions in France today.

The Italian wars of the generation after 1494 were the most expensive France had ever fought. Soon kings desperate for money were not only selling offices; they were actually creating new ones expressly to sell. In 1522 Francis I made the policy quite explicit when he created the `Parts Casual' (bureau des parties casuelles), bluntly described almost a century later by Charles Loyseau, author of a definitive treatise on the system, as a `stall for selling this new type of merchandise'. Occasions for creating offices were endless. Existing offices could be made venal; and their number multiplied. Accordingly it was not long before the entire judiciary had been venalised, in spite of a rule which required all judges to swear on appointment that they had not paid for their office. This oath was finally abandoned in 1598.

If office holders became too numerous for the business available, they could be made to time-share, serving in alternate semesters, or every other or even third year. Whole new levels of jurisdiction could be created, as with the so-called `presidial' courts established in 1551. Or new categories of public officials could be invented, with lucrative monopolies worth paying for. This was how the auctioneering monopoly first began, in 1556. So eager did men prove to buy whatever offices the king created, that their numbers hardly ever ceased to grow. From perhaps 5,000 in 1515, the ranks of office-holders had expanded to 25,000 by 1610, 46,000 by 1665, and were perhaps 70,000 by the eve of the Revolution.

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