Going to see my aunt

4th arrondissement, CMP - 55, rue des Francs-Bourgeois

"On January 30, a family set a new record by reclaiming jewellery left 54 years before by a relative in exchange for a loan from the Crédit Municipal de Paris. The interest on the loan was paid by the family every year from the start." Le Monde, February 1-2, 2003

Prêts sur Gages, "loans in return for pledges" (and we don't mean The Pledge à l'irlandaise), now there's an offer you can't refuse. The Crédit Municipal de Paris (CMP), safely ensconced in the Marais, is the symbol of a certain French sophistication in financial matters, for they have managed to disguise what is basically a pawnbroker as a bank.

The CMP comes under the authority of the City of Paris, which means that until March 2001 it was at the centre of jobs-for-the-boys and misuse of funds scandals during the controversial reign of that quintessential Corsican, Jean Tiberi. But that is all finished now…. or so the holier-than-thou Socialists that run Paris these days would have us believe.

So the CMP now gets on with the serious business of lending money in return for custody of precious objects. There are 18 other crédit municipaux throughout France and they, like their near-equivalent in Vienna, the Dorotheum, do a roaring trade. One apocryphal (?) story would have us believe that the origin of the CMP's nickname, Ma Tante, goes back to the Prince of Joinville, the third son of Louis-Philippe, king of the French from 1830 to 1848. Unwilling to admit that he had pawned a gold watch his mother had given him to pay off his gambling debts, he claimed to have forgotten it at his aunt's place. Interestingly, the euphemism for those who had fallen on hard times in 18th-century Vienna was "going to visit Aunt Dorothy".

In fact, the origins of the Crédit Municipal go back to 15th century Italy when a monk called Bernabé di Terni founded the first monte di pietà to lend money to poor people and thus keep them out of the clutches of loan sharks. But entrepreneurial spirit in France comes out badly from a comparison with Italy, where one of the original monti di pietà, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, has managed to become one of the top 10 banks in the country. Though it is also true that Italy did not have to endure French Revolutionaries, who - among many other misdeeds - managed to close down the Crédit Municipal for a time.


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