In France the first bank of issue, originally called the Banque Générale, was established in 1716 by John Law, the author of the Mississippi Scheme and the Système. Law's bank, which had been converted into the Banque Royale in 1718, and its notes guaranteed by the king (Louis XV.), came to an end in 1721; an attempt at reconstruction was made in 1767, but the bank thus established was suppressed in 1793. Other banks, some issuing notes, then carried on operations with limited success, but these never attained any real power. There were many negotiations on the subject of the establishment of a bank in 1796. The financial difficulties of the times prevented any immediate result, but the advice of those engaged in this plan was of great assistance to Napoleon I., who, aided by his minister Mollien, founded in 1800 the Bank of France, which has remained from that time to the present by far the most powerful financial institution in the country. The objects for which it was established were to support the trade and industry of France and to supply the use of loanable capital at a moderate charge. These functions it has exercised ever since with great vigour and great judgment, extending itself through its branches and towns attached to branches over the whole country.
At its establishment and for some time subsequently the operations of the bank did not extend over the whole of France. Departmental banks with the privilege of issue had been formed under a law adopted in 1803. At the close of 1847 there were nine of these banks existing in as many of the larger towns. In 1848, however, they were absorbed into the Bank of France, which has since possessed an exclusive privilege of issue, and in 1863 took over the Bank of Savoy after that province was united to France.
The Bank of France has successfully surmounted many political as well as financial troubles both during and since the times of Napoleon I. The overthrow of the government of Louis Philippe in 1848, the war with Germany in 1870, the many difficulties that followed when the Commune reigned in Paris in 1871, the payment of the war indemnity - not completed till 1873 - were all happily overcome. Great pains, too, have been taken, especially of recent years, to render services to large and small businesses and to agricultural industry. In 1877 the offices of the Bank of France were 78 in number; in 1906 they were 447, including the towns "connected with the branches" - an arrangement which, without putting the bank to the expense of opening a branch, gives the place connected many of the advantages which a branch confers. The quantity of commercial paper discounted is very large. More than 20,000,000 bills were discounted in 1906, the total amount being £559,234,996. The advances on securities were in the same year £106,280,124. The rate of discount in Paris is as a rule lower and the number of alterations fewer than in London. From May 1900 to January 1906 there was no change, the rate remaining uniformly at 3%. Bills as low as 4s. 2d. are admitted to discount, including those below 8s.; about 232,000 of this class were discounted in 1906. Since the 27th of March 1890 loans of as small an amount as £10 are granted.
In most cases three "names" must be furnished for each bill, or suitable guarantees or security given, but these necessary safeguards have not to be furnished in such a manner as to hamper applicants for loans unduly. In this manner the Bank of France is of great service to the industry of the country. It has never succeeded, however, in attracting deposits on anything like the scale of the Bank of England or the banks of the English-speaking peoples, but it held, as stated in the balance-sheet for the 23rd of December 1906, about £35,000,000 in deposits, of which £14,000,000 was on account of the treasury and £21,000,000 for individuals, and the amount held in this manner gradually increases. The report for 1904 says "each year the movement in these increases, and this economical and safe mode of effecting receipts and payments is more and more appreciated by the public." In one respect the Bank of France stands at a great advantage in connexion with this branch of its business. The average amount held in this manner for individuals during 1906 was about £23,000,000. As the accounts numbered 77,159 the average for each account was comparatively small. Accounts so subdivided give a great probability of permanence.
The figures of the accounts for 1904 were as follows: -
current accounts, with power of discount.
simple current accounts.
current accounts, with advances.
accounts, against 59,182 at the end of 1903.
At the present time the Bank of France operates chiefly through its enormous note circulation (averaging in 1906 £186,300,000), by means of which most business transactions in France are carried on.
The limits of the circulation of the Bank of France and the dates when it has been extended are as follows: -
15th March 1848
27th April, 2nd May 1848
2nd December 1849
12th August 1870
14th August 1870
29th December 1871
15th July 1872
30th January 1884
25th January 1893
17th December 1897
Most business transactions in France are liquidated, not in cheques as in England, but in notes of the Bank of France. These, owing to their convenience, are preferred to specie. This is accumulated in the vaults of the Bank of France, which in 1906 held on average £115,000,000 gold and £42,000,000 silver. The gold held by the Bank of France is generally considerably larger in amount than that held by the Bank of England, which in the autumn of 1890 had to borrow £3,000,000 in gold from the Bank of France at the time of the Baring crisis. The large specie reserve of the bank has given stability to the trade of France, and has enabled the bank to manage its business without the numerous fluctuations in the rate of discount which are constantly occurring in England. It is true that the holding this very large amount of specie imposes a very heavy burden on the shoulders of the shareholders of the bank, but they do not complain. The advantage to business from the low rate of interest which has to be paid for the use of borrowed capital in France is a great advantage to the trade and industry of that country.
The mass of the reserve in France is so great that the movements of the precious metals, when they are the result only of natural causes, are allowed to go on without corresponding movements in the discount rate. But it must be remembered that this large reserve is held in part against a gigantic note issue, and also that the trade activity and enterprise of the French people are less intense than in either the United Kingdom or Germany; thus it is much easier for the Bank of France to maintain a steady rate of discount.
Besides the Bank of France, several great credit institutions carry on business in the country; as the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas (capital and reserve, £3,729,000; other liabilities, deposits, etc., £14,842,000), the Banque Française pour le Commerce et l'Industrie (£2,450,000; and £3,505,000), the Crédit Lyonnais (£14,000,000; and £82,570,000), the Comptoir National d'Escompte de Paris (£6,772,000; and £47,593,000), the Société Générale pour favoriser le développement du Commerce et de l'Industrie en France (£7,469,000; and £45,800,000), and the Société Générale de Crédit Industriel et Commercial (£1,600,000; and £10,060,000).
There is also the Crédit Foncier de France with a very considerable capital, but the business done is so largely that of mortgages that it can hardly be included among banks, though it carries on in some measure the business of banking.
Besides the six important joint-stock banks mentioned above, there exists in France a large number of banks, principally in the provinces, carrying on a very considerable business. Little is known as to their deposits, but their business appears to be conducted with great prudence and discretion. One hundred and eighty-two of these firms were members of the French Country Bankers' Association in 1898. They carry on business in 66 out of the 86 departments into which France is divided. More than one of these banks has several offices - one possessing 18, including the head office. These branches are situated in the small towns in the vicinity. In this the business follows more the English method of small branches. The French Country Bankers' Association holds its meetings in Paris, where matters of interest to bankers are discussed. (See Bankers' Magazine, July 1898.)