Comptoir national d'escompte de Paris

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Comptoir national d'escompte de Paris
Limited liability
Founded7 March 1848

The Comptoir national d'escompte de Paris (CNEP), formerly the Comptoir d'escompte de Paris (CEP) was one of four banks that combined to form BNP Paribas.

The CNEP was created by decree on 10 March 1848 by the Provisional Government of the French Second Republic.[1] It was founded in response to the financial shock caused by the revolution of February 1848. The upheaval destroyed the old credit system, which was already struggling to provide sufficient capital to meet the demands of the railway boom and the resulting growth of industry.[2] The CEP grew steadily in France and overseas, although in 1889 there was a crisis in which it was temporarily placed in receivership. In 1945 the CNEP was nationalized, and in 1966 merged with BNCI to form the Banque National de Paris (BNP), which in turn was merged with Paribas in 2000 to form BNP Paribas.

Background: crisis of 1848[edit]

The French Revolution of February 1848 caused a general failure of confidence in paper assets such as shares, bonds and bank deposits, and a rush to convert these assets to gold and silver. The government was forced into emergency measures such as suspending payment on maturing treasury bonds, closing the stock market, forcing acceptance of banknotes and restricting the amount of withdrawals of saving deposits from the Bank of France. However, the government would not take action to help protect private enterprises and investors. Most of the private banks created during the July Monarchy were forced to close, and as a result there was no longer an efficient way to convert letters of credit into cash.[3] There were even rumors that the Rothschilds were in serious difficulty and were preparing to liquidate.[4] It was in this context that the CNEP was created.[5]


Former headquarters of the CNEP, Rue Bergere viewed from the Boulevard Poissonniere
Facade of the bank

Louis-Antoine Garnier-Pagès was appointed Minister of Finance on 7 March 1848 and that evening published a decree that created the first "comptoirs d'escompte", or discount counters for credit notes, in Paris and other commercial centers.[1] The organization of the Comptoir national d'escompte de la ville de Paris was defined in a decree of 8 March 1848.[6] The book publisher A. L. Pagnerre, one of the organizers of the Campagne des banquets that had led to the revolution of February 1848, was appointed the bank's first Director and chairman of the board.[7] Pagnerre was appointed on 9 March and the statutes of the comptoir was established by decree on 10 March.[8] Although he resigned in June of that year, Pagnerre established the main innovative principles that were to guide the bank's future operations.[9]

The Comptoir national de Paris was unusual in being set up as a limited liability bank, a structure that the state had long opposed.[10] The Comptoir had authorized capital of 20 million francs, of which one third was to be provided as cash by subscribers, one third by the city of Paris in the form of bonds and one third by the state in the form of Treasury bonds.[6] The city and state participation did not involve provision of cash, but was a guarantee in case of a deficit.[11] Despite this participation by the state, there was no guarantee against the bank being liquidated at a loss if necessary.[10] The Comptoir opened for business on 19 March 1848 in temporary offices in the Palais Royal.[10] Initial capital was just over 1.5 million francs.[12]

A decree of 26 March established warehouses on the English model where manufacturers and traders could deposit their goods in exchange for a warrant that could be discounted at the CNEP "in anticipation of sale". Paperwork was simplified with a reduction in the number of signatures needed on these warrants.[13] It was hoped that this would help kick-start the economy by injecting liquidity. For the first time small enterprises had access to a modern form of credit, which in the past had only been available to the largest companies.[12] Operations started quietly, with just 244,297 transactions in the first fifteen months worth 192 million francs. However, the CNEP was able to pay a dividend of 6% to private shareholders at the end of the first year of operations.[14]

Early growth and collapse (1848–1890)[edit]

The French coup of 1851 reestablished the French Empire. The publicly available shares of 6,666,500 francs were not fully subscribed until July 1852, when the bank reached a capital value of 20 million francs including the state and city shares.[12] Under an act of 10 June 1853 the bank's articles were amended to become closer to standard corporate law, with the Ministry of Finance no longer overseeing the appointment of officers. The state and city withdrew their capital, with the full 20 million francs now supplied entirely by private investors.[15] With this privatization, the bank took the name "Comptoir d'escompte de Paris" (CEP), which it was to retain until 1889.[16]

In 1854 the CEP was reconstituted by Imperial decree for thirty years, starting from 18 March 1857, and authorized to increase its capital to 40 million francs.[17] As of 18 March 1857 four subsidiaries were formed for entrepreneurs, metals, colonial foods and railways.[18] In the 1856/1857 fiscal year the Comptoir processed almost 615 million francs of warrants in 722,265 transactions. This was slightly down from 650 million francs and 736,380 transactions the previous year.[19]

The CEP is dedicated to the business of discounting and defines at its creation a strategy of growth and support for trading in all its operations, by expanding its activities and areas of intervention. The decree of 25 May 1860 allowed the Comptoir to set up branches in the French colonies and abroad.[20] In addition, the signing of the free trade agreement with Great Britain in 1860 encouraged the spread of great trade. Thus, the CEP will experience rapid international development which makes it the first French bank to create, ex nihilo, a network of branches abroad.

From 1860 onwards, the Comptoir established banking support points along the most intense or promising trade routes around the Indian Ocean and in the Far East. Thus, branches were opened in Shanghai[21] and Calcutta[22] (1860), at Réunion, Bombay,[22] Hong Kong[23] and Saigon (1862), then London, Yokohama[24] (1867), San Francisco[25] (1877) and Alexandria (this office will be at the head of the agencies of Cairo founded in 1906 and Port-Saïd, opened in 1909), Melbourne, Sydney[26] (1881), Madagascar (1885). We are talking about "French Bank" in the Orient. In 1864 the Governor General of India approved an act enabling the Comptoir d'Escompte of Paris "to sue and be sued" in the name of the chief manager of its agencies in India, and this was extended in February 1867. Such an act recognized the bank as a legal entity and helped it to operate in India.[27] It was a clear desire to compete on their own territory with British banks and trade, of which French exporters and importers wanted to break free: the first branches were opened in areas of English influence. But it is also a way of finding new supply zones for Europe, which in the 1860s suffered a real shortage of cotton as a result of the American Civil War.

It was only since 1867 that the first French domestic agency opened in Nantes, which maintained close relations with the West Indies. Then came Lyon (1868), capital of silk and Marseille (1869), colonial city. These openings in commercial metropolises serve as a relay between French production and the rest of the world.

In an 1884 revue of the French economy, the CEP was described as the third pillar of the financial establishment after the Bank of France and Credit Foncier.[28] Effective 18 March 1887 the CEP license was extended by the French state for a further twenty years.[29] In 1889, the Comptoir d'Escompte de Paris went into receivership when the suicide on 5 March 1889 of one of its patrons, Eugène Denfert-Rochereau, caused its corner on the copper market [fr] to collapse. At the request of the Bank of France and the Ministry of Finance, the heads of the other leading banks met at Paribas in March 1889 to discuss a plan to avoid a general crash by rescuing the CEP.[30][31] In 1891 it was reported that the bank's liquidation had reached the stage where its last guarantors could be paid, ending a crisis that could have been fatal.[32]


Mobilization in August 1914, place de l'Opera in Paris, bank in background
A 1918 patriotic poster by Auguste Leroux urging citizens to subscribe to the war loan. The two women wear the traditional dresses of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been taken by Germany in 1871, with the caption "To hasten victory, and so we can meet again soon".[33]

In the early years of the bank the executives often had little formal education, but by the time of the Belle Époque (the period of peace and growing prosperity in Europe between 1890 and 1914) secondary education had become more common. Applicants to become the bank inspectors, who formed an elite corps from which future banking leaders were drawn, were expected to be qualified in law, economics or business. From 1901 they were subject to an entrance examination. Increasingly the senior executives had university degrees, often in law, with talented men from poor families able to rise to the highest levels.[34] In addition to academic qualifications, future leaders were valued for their "character", intelligence, organization, adaptability and judgement of risks.[35]

Alexis Rostand, head of the important branch at Marseille from 1876, became a director of the firm during the reconstruction of 1889, director-general from 1902 to 1908 and president from 1908 to 1919. His assistant and successor Paul Boyer also worked his way up from the bottom, running an agency for a while, then becoming a director, director-general from 1915 to 1926 and president from 1919 to 1939.[36] He was succeeded as director-general in 1926 by Alexandre Celier, formerly a director of the Treasury. This tendency to recruit from government inspectors of finance continued with Henry Bizot in 1930, later to be president, and Charles Farnier, a Treasury director and then assistant governor of the Bank of France who became administrator / director general in 1935.[37]

Later independent operations (1890–1945)[edit]

In the 1890s the CNEP introduced a Pension Fund and Provident Fund for employees, which became a model for other banks.[38] The twenty years from 1894 to 1914 saw rapid industrial growth as cities expanded their networks of trams, electricity and water. The Exposition Universelle (1900) was a symbol of the new age. All this needed funding arranged by the joint stock banks. By 1900 the Comptoir National d'Escompte de Paris was again listed among the leading financial institutions in France, after the Crédit Lyonnais and the Société Générale. There had been some mergers with local or regional banks, and the CNEP would at times work with major private banks such as Rothschild to guarantee securities offerings, but in general the banking industry was still relatively unconsolidated.[39] CNEP's strategy at the start of the 20th century was to focus on the main commercial centers, leaving its national rivals to compete with regional and local banks in the smaller centers.[40] Following the upheaval of World War I (1914–1918), in the period from 1919 to 1926 the leading banks in France by volume were Société Générale (32% – 36%), Crédit Lyonnais (30% – 32%), CNEP (20% – 23%) and Credit Industriel et Commercial (9% – 14%).[41]

Woman with an Underwood typewriter c. 1918

In May 1919 about half the employees went on strike. The executive agreed to negotiations, but only with representatives of all employees, including those who had continued to work.[42] With the growing power of the unions in the 1920s, the company made a series of concessions to employees, such as the introduction of a minimum wage and improved treatment of women.[43] In 1919 CNEP had 800 employees in the accounting department alone, and in the second half of the 1920s had about 10,000 employees in total.[44] Wages were supplemented by bonuses that were roughly linked to the bank's financial results. The benefits packages took into account seniority, and were designed to encourage loyalty to the firm.[45] However, promotions were made strictly on the basis of merit, with no allowance for seniority.[46]

Starting in the 1920s there was a move to improve efficiency through a more scientific organization of the work, standardization of procedures and mechanization. The first "Ellis" calculating machines were imported from the United States in 1926 with the explicit purpose of staff reduction. From then until 1937 more machinery was imported for card sorting and collation, typewriting, calculation and printing from manufacturers such as Ellis, Powers, Underwood and Burroughs, with the addition of French devices made by Bull in the 1930s.[47]

Nationalization and merger (1945–2000)[edit]

After World War II (1939–1945) a law passed on 2 December 1945 redefined the regulatory framework governing the banking industry and decreed the nationalization of the Banque de France and the four leading French retail banks: Banque nationale pour le commerce et l'industrie (BNCI), CNEP, Crédit Lyonnais and Société Générale.[48] In the 1950s CNEP, which traditionally had served medium-large companies in each large market, started trying to move up the value chain with its key customers. The bank's executives established closer relationships with the major enterprises through a policy of frequent contacts with their counterparts in these firms during which they discussed their banking and financing needs.[49]

CNEP maintained the main lines of its strategy defined in the inter-war period: selective establishment of its headquarters, centralization of administrative and accounting operations. On the eve of its merger with the Banque nationale pour le commerce et l'industrie (BNCI) in 1966, the Comptoir had 733 branches in the provinces and more than 100 in Paris and Ile de France, almost twice as many as in 1941. Outside France, it remains established in England, the United States, Belgium, India and Australia.

In 1966, by decision of Finance Minister Michel Debré, the Comptoir national d'escompte de Paris merged with the Banque nationale pour le commerce et l'industrie (BNCI) to create the Banque nationale de Paris (BNP). Henry Bizot, president of the CNEP, has been appointed president of the new establishment, and Pierre Ledoux, CEO of BNCI, becomes CEO of BNP.[50]

Headquarters building[edit]

Facade of the bank

In 1852 the Comptoir moved from its temporary office to new headquarters in the hôtel Rougemont at 14, rue Bergère, at first rented.[15] Ten years later the CEP purchased the building, and gradually acquired the surrounding land and buildings.[51]

The building, 3,000 square metres (32,000 sq ft), is an outstanding example of bank architecture. It was built for the Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris (CNEP), and remained the CNEP headquarters from 1852 to 1966, when CNEP and Banque nationale pour le commerce et l’industrie (BNCI) merged to form Banque nationale de Paris (BNP).[52]

The bank chose the architect Edouard-Jules Corroyer to design the building. Corroyer had worked under Viollet-Le-Duc and had earlier led the restoration of the spectacular abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. The main section of the new building was built between 1878 and 1883, and the Annual General Meeting of 30 January 1882 was held in the totally refurbished building, even though it was still not finished. Between 1900 and 1905 a second part of the headquarters was constructed under the direction of the architect François Constant-Bernard. By an official ordinance dated 19 February 1991, a part of the main building was listed in the national register of historic monuments.

The architect Corroyer took on the services of some of the best-known craftsmen of the time to help him with the construction of the main building. Among them were the painter Charles Lameire, the mosaicist Giandomenico Facchina and the sculptor Aimé Millet. The last two artists had already worked on the sumptuous ornamentation of the Opéra Garnier – the Paris Opera House.

Aimé Millet's three statues, symbolising Finance, Prudence and Trade, adorn the main pavilion of the building. Medallions representing the five continents remind the visitor that the CNEP was active worldwide, with, for example, operations in Shanghai and Calcutta from 1860 onwards. The Comptoir was thus the first French bank to create an international network. BNP Paribas continues this tradition today, with operations in over 80 countries.

Crossing the lobby decorated in neo-Byzantine style with columns and mosaics, customers reach the atrium which serves as the bank main branch, with counters for their banking transactions. The atrium is surmounted by a glass roof decorated with geometric and floral motifs, which lets in the daylight. The floor is constructed of tiles made by noted French glassmaker Saint-Gobain, which allow this natural overhead lighting to penetrate down to the vaults in the lower ground floor, where the safes and securities depository are to be found. Édouard Didron created the windows, and the silverware manufacturer Christofle made the outdoor lanterns. The Comptoir d'Escompte was at first illuminated by electric lights powered by batteries, since the authorities considered that engines were noisy and unsafe.[53]

From the hall, a monumental staircase in Byzantine style, decorated with mosaics depicting flowers and birds, leads to the management offices and the Boardroom. It was in these rooms that contracts were signed for the financing of major projects and loans in the late 19th and early 20th century. From the very outset, the building was equipped with the cutting-edge technological innovations of its era: electricity, elevator, central heating, a pneumatic tube system for sending internal mail and clocks displaying the time in major cities around the world.[51]

Corroyer's goal was to communicate the wealth and power of the organization, and in this he succeeded by the standards of the time.[54]

In 1899 the CNEP bought the building of the Saint-Gobain Compagnie des Glaces et Produits Chimiques at the corner of rue Bergère and rue du Conservatoire, and completed the Bergère building on this site in 1913, a major extension along the rue du Conservatoire. Part of the original building was listed as a Historical Monument in 1991. A major overhaul was undertaken by the architect Anthony Emmanuel Béchu, opening on 10 June 2009 as the new headquarters of BNP Paribas Investment Partners.[51]



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  4. ^ Stoskopf 2002, p. 400.
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  33. ^ L’emprunt de la libération.
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  37. ^ Bonin 2000, p. 132.
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  40. ^ Bonin 2000, p. 96.
  41. ^ Bonin 2000, p. 95.
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  50. ^ Kte'Pi 2009, p. 161.
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  53. ^ Institution of Civil Engineers 1883, p. 507.
  54. ^ Darcel 1882, p. 486.


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