The Sale of Offices in French History

Offices for sale have always been a key feature through French history but here William Doyle offers some new and surprising thoughts on their appeal and longevity.

Amid 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.

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