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Probably the only thing the Vichy government got right

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.

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15 comments to Probably the only thing the Vichy government got right

  • steve

    Taxes for crossing city lines? Yikes!

    No matter how bad things are they can always get worse I guess.

  • Kim du Toit

    By the way, Antoine: you should be losing pounds, not kilos. It’s a little too soon for you to be Going Native.

  • Richard Thomas

    I dunno, Steve. I had to work up in New Jersey last week and I was flabbergasted at the number of places you had to pay a toll. The bridges over the Delaware are payed off many times over so it really is no less than a tax these days.

  • Steve

    Here in Indiana we have 1 toll road. The government sold it a few years back. Interestingly enough it will take you straight to New Jersey.

  • Some Greens advocate the return of such internal tariffs in order to support – i.e. enforce – consumption of local produce.

  • Antoine Clarke

    Toll roads, that is charging for the use and upkeep of a road is of course a completely legitimate business. Not sure what government has to do with it, though.

    The octroi was a levy on the goods people were carrying. Luggage would be searched and fees charged for any taxable goods. A bit like if Ohio state stopped everyone coming over from Kentucky and levied sales tax on everything people carried (including the car if it was too new). This is one mistake the US Constitution does not make, probably thanks to the bad example of France.

  • Toll roads, that is charging for the use and upkeep of a road is of course a completely legitimate business. Not sure what government has to do with it, though.

    Of course it is. What the government usually does to legitimate businesses though is to appropriate them, in order to use them as one more tool to levy taxes – which is what government-owned toll roads in fact are.

  • Graham Asher

    There was a lot of it about. It is plausibly claimed that the Act of Union of England and Scotland in 1707 created the largest free trade area in Europe, or possibly the world.

  • john

    Mr. Clarke,

    You might be amused to know, if you don’t already, that this actually goes on in almost exactly the situation you describe. Perhaps you already knew of this situation, hence your remark.

    I haven’t heard much about it lately, but for many years motorists were routinely, if inconsistently, stopped by police on the Ohio side in Cincinnati. Kentucky has/had a much lower tax on liquor, tobacco, and some other products. Ohio based law enforcement went so far as to station undercover police with radios in the parking lots of liquor stores in Kentucky in order to identify customers from Ohio who could then be arrested as they crossed the bridge.

    I’m not sure what your reference to the Constitution refers to, but as a practical matter it is done all the time. In the late 80s California actually had inspection posts at the borders, I don’t know if they still do or not. The commerce clause would give congress the power to regulate such taxes but doesn’t require them to do so and in reality they use the commerce clause for everything but its intended purpose.

  • llamas

    What John said regarding attempts to enforce state purchase taxes on out-of-state purchases.

    However, this is not a tax upon passage, as the octroi was. It’s an attempt to collect state excise taxes on out-of-state purchases. An absolutely-stupid attempt, since the cost of collection must vastly-outweigh any taxes collected, but – there you go.

    The ports-of-entry which are often seen on major roads in the US, especially in the Western states, are similarly nothing to do with taxing – they are there to ensure compliance with state laws by commercial motor carriers, issue permits and variances (eg for over-width or over-weight loads) and perform ag and fish-and-game inspections. If you pull into a port of entry, you may have to pay a fee for a state permit of one sort or another, you may get a ticket for not having chains in a state which requires them, and you may get an agricultural inspection, but you will not get taxed ad-valorem on the goods in your truck.

    llater,

    llamas

  • It may be observed that one of the only boons of the EU is the free trade area, also conveniently forgotten if you attempt to bring “sin” goods like alcohol or tobacco into the UK…

  • Paul Marks

    Ah the Revolution over high taxes (and so on) that led to vastly higher taxes (and so on).

    Still I doubt that the person who burned himself to death in Tunisia (over not getting a graduate job, which as a university graduate he had been taught was his “right”, and then not being given a license to sell fruit and veg) led to either …..

    An end to shoving vast numbers of people into government subsidized universities – where they get a totally false view of what their lives are likely to be like.

    Or.

    Getting rid of the requirement to have a license to sell fruit and veg.

    The Revolution may lead to many things (Islamic Fundentalism, war, mass starvation…..), but I very much doubt it will lead to the complaints that set it off being acted upon.

  • thefrollickingmole

    The question every time the govenment charges a tax or lisences something should be “Why?”

    Here in Oz we are taxed on alcohol and ciggies (automaticaly hiked up every half year) based on the furphy that “it costs society/health system too much”.

    Which goes back to “well why does the government provide most health care free?”

    By allowing the govenment to allow us something for “free” people sign up for allowing the govenment to regulate activities that might cost it money.

    Nothing is free. But if people paid their own way, and paid for thier own bad decisions the vast majority of people would be better off. But there is a pathalogical aversion for “just desserts” in society now, I dont know why.

  • thefrollickingmole

    The question every time the govenment charges a tax or lisences something should be “Why?”

    Here in Oz we are taxed on alcohol and ciggies (automaticaly hiked up every half year) based on the furphy that “it costs society/health system too much”.

    Which goes back to “well why does the government provide most health care free?”

    By allowing the govenment to allow us something for “free” people sign up for allowing the govenment to regulate activities that might cost it money.

    Nothing is free. But if people paid their own way, and paid for thier own bad decisions the vast majority of people would be better off. But there is a pathalogical aversion for “just desserts” in society now, I dont know why.

  • Paul Marks

    At least in Australia you had formal Constitutional Amendments giving the Federal govenment the power to finance health care (and …) powers it did not have when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901 (with the union of the various colonies).

    I, like you, would have opposed those Consituttional Amendment – and would support their repeal. But at least the position is clear and in the open.

    The United States is quite different – there (as Tea Party people are always saying) the Constitution has not been runied by Amendments (although the Amendments to have direct election for the Senate and to allow an income tax, were hardly helpful).

    No – but what has happened is even worse.

    The government has taken powers (not recently – many decades ago) to which it has no Consitutional right – and the courts have gone along with it, corruptly twisting and/or ignoring the Constitution.

    How does one restore (reform) a nation that has become so corrupt?

    Where does one even start?

    And, without America, how does the West stand?