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In France, Gabelle was originally applied to taxes on all commodities, but was gradually limited to the tax on salt. In time it became one of the most hated and most grossly unequal taxes in the country. It was abolished in 1790, then reinstated by Napoleon in 1806; abolished briefly by the French Second Republic, and then finally abolished permanently in 1945.
First imposed as a temporary expedient in 1286 in the reign of Philip IV, it was made a permanent tax by Charles V (it was temporarily suspended after his death but reimposed by his successor after putting down a tax revolt). Repressive as a state monopoly, it was made doubly so from the fact that the government obliged every individual above the age of eight years to purchase weekly a minimum amount of salt at a fixed price.
When first instituted, it was levied uniformly on all the provinces in France, but for the greater part of its history the price varied in different provinces. There were six distinct groups of provinces, who were called pays (lit. "countries"; to be understood as an obsolete word for "region"), and classified as follows:
- the Pays de grandes gabelles, in which the salt came from the Atlantic and the tax was heaviest: between about 54 and 61 livres for a minot, that is to say about 50 Kilograms of salt, in 1789;
- the Pays de petites gabelles, in which the salt came from the Mediterranean and the tax was about half the rate of the former: between 22 and 30 livres for a minot;
- the Pays de quart-bouillon, such as the coast of Normandy, Provence or Roussillon, in which salt came from boiling sea-salt impregnated sand, with a quarter of production going to the king, and prices ranging from 13 to 27 livres for a minot;
- the Pays de salines (Franche-Comté, Alsace and Lorraine), in which the tax was levied on the salt extracted from the salt marshes, and prices for a minot varying from 15 livres (Franche-Comté) to between 12 and 36 livres in the numerous fiscal divisions of the Alsace-Lorraine;
- the Pays redimés, which had purchased redemption in 1549: the minot of salt could be found there for about between 8 and 11 livres;
- the Pays exempts, which had stipulated for exemption on entering into union with the kingdom of France; there, minot of salt would cost only between 1 and 8 livres.
Greniers à sel (salt granaries dating from 1342) were established in each province, and to these all salt had to be taken by the producer on penalty of confiscation. The grenier fixed the price which it paid for the salt and then sold it to retail dealers at a higher rate.
The important differences in cost between various pays clearly show the reason behind the active contraband of salt that took place in France until the gabelle was abolished. The obvious idea was to buy salt in a region where it was cheap and to sell it under the coat in regions where it was expensive, at a higher price, but still less than the legal price. Such smugglers were called faux-sauniers, from faux ("false") and the root sau-, referring to salt. In turn, the customs guards tasked with arresting the faux-sauniers were nicknamed gabelous, a term obviously derived from the gabelle they sought to uphold. Faux-sauniers were sentenced to the galleys if they were caught without weapons, and to death if caught with weapons.
Rebellion in Brittany
In 1675, the red bonnets in Brittany rebelled against the gabelle. They expressed a list of demands in a document known as the peasant code. In this document, the gabelle was personified, as was common in this age, especially with death and plague.
- Chazelas, Jean (1968). "La suppression de la gabelle du sel en 1945". Le rôle du sel dans l'histoire: travaux préparés sous la direction de Michel Mollat (Presses universitaires de France): 263–65.
- A.P. Thornton, "Imperialism in the Twentieth Century" Page 136.