As a new (slightly overweight) inhabitant of Neuilly-sur-Seine, I have got into the habit of walking the boundaries of this small suburb to the West of Paris [link in French]. The idea is to become familiar with the street names and neighbourhoods, and drop a few kilos in the process. At many of the main road junctions, rather nicely-built small brick houses can be found, looking like 19th century rural railway stationmasters cottages. They are in fact a vestige of one the French Revolution’s greatest failures, and probably the only thing the collaborationist government of Le Maréchal did right.
August 1st, 1943 is the date when Pierre Laval’s proposal to abolish internal customs tariffs in France came into effect. It was even done for a good reason: wartime hardship meant that the population of France was suffering enough trouble obtaining food at all without having to deal with a tax for crossing a city boundary.
One of the complaints that triggered the 1789 revolution was the practice of taxing the transport of goods within France. For nearly a decade, the “octroi” was eliminated, but restored by the Directorate in 1798. Several attempts were made to scrap the tax during the 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, individual towns were allowed to scrap the tax, but many did not do so, due to the lack of an alternative source of revenue.
The Neuilly Octroi buildings have been preserved and in some cases have better (or worse) uses today. One of them is a shop selling newspapers and sandwiches. Another is the local office of a trade union syndicate, which I am guessing, is provided either free of charge or at a subsidized rate.
I like the fact that a reminder exists of a time when families would go out of town to buy such things as butter or jam, and smuggle it in baby prams to avoid the tax, less dramatic versions of Checkpoint Charlie. I have not checked, but Montmartre was outside the Paris octroi in the 19th century and as a result a lot of bars opened up offering the Parisian equivalent of “booze cruises.” This in turn became the spot where artists looking for cheap alcohol – especially absinthe – would hang out. So the octroi may well have had a profound indirect effect on the artistic careers of Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh.
Pierre Laval was shot for his crimes in 1945. Scrapping the octroi was not one of them.