GABELLE, widely despised salt tax of the Old Regime. The gabelle originally was a tax levied occasionally by French kings in the fourteenth century on a variety of commodities, but it was established permanently on salt during the later stages of the Hundred Years War. Of the many royal taxes of the Old Regime, it was probably the most generally hated and condemned, but the government felt unable to abolish or replace it because it was its second largest source of revenue (only slightly less than the taille). The revenue came from leasing to entrepreneurs for a specified period the exclusive right to sell salt in the kingdom at varying stipulated amounts above its actual cost. In order to assure the profitability of the agreement, the government required subjects to purchase certain minimum amounts of salt. The varying prices and minimums had been last established for the six districts into which the country was divided by an ordinance of 1680. Besides having responsibility for the purchase, distribution, and sale of salt, the tax farmers were empowered to search premises for illegal salt and to arrest and try alleged violators of the tax regulations. Complaints were frequent about the lack of availability of salt when needed, poor quality, and short measure, as well as abuses of the tax farmers' police powers.
The most obvious shortcoming of the gabelle, however, was its arbitrary and therefore seemingly unjust incidence. In the six districts, salt ranged in cost from 40 sous per livre in the largest (pays de grande gabelle) to less than a sou in the pays exempts. Exemptions and lower rates of tax were usually the result of special agreements made with the crown by certain areas added to the domain after the initial levy. Variations of this magnitude, however, especially in contiguous areas, led not only to resentment but also to large-scale smuggling, in spite of heavy penalties (salt smugglers were the largest single source of manpower for the galleys).
Besides the arbitrary and unfair geographical variations, there were also the customary Old Regime class, individual, and institutional exemptions from which clergy, nobility, certain categories of royal officials, and some towns and cities