This small brick structure, built into the walls of the Levallois cemetery, is one of the remaining traces of a particularly hated source of taxation - l'octroi.
The octroi was a local tax collected on articles being brought into a city for consumption. Going back to Roman times, such taxes have always existed, but in Paris the system was a very controversial one, playing a small role in the country’s revolution in 1789.
Louis XVI erected a wall known as the mur des fermiers généreux, around the city, and installed the tax collectors in 57 mostly elegant buildings (several of which still survive today such as at Stalingrad, Monceau, the Place de la Nation and at Place Denfert Rochereau). When revolution struck, the octroi became a target and several of the barrières were attacked and burned to the ground, and the tax was swiftly abolished. Ten years later though, the city authorities realised how out of pocket they were and reintroduced the tax, but this time they said to raise capital for ‘good deeds’ only. Soon, the city was generating 85% of its revenue from the tax and the good deeds only aspect was dropped.
As this was generally a tax on basic goods such as oil, sugar and coffee, a market for such produce naturally sprung up just outside the city walls. Nowhere was this more evident than in the market for alcohol! Tax free wine could be enjoyed for a fraction of the price outside the city, and city-dwellers could often be found in the slightly dubious taverns of places such as the Bas Courtille in the then suburb of Belleville.
The very basic structure shown in the picture at the top and in these other examples below are an interesting footnote to this history. As the Paris city walls came down and the city itself begun swallowing up its neighbours, so the octroi tax started moving outwards into the growing towns of the suburbs. These structures were built at the very beginning of the 20th century at the entrance points into the towns concerned (Levallois and Neuilly), as these territories took the opportunity themselves to raise taxes on incoming goods.
What were their targets though? Although most revenue came from the staple products, over time a wide range of goods have been targetted. In the middle of the 19th century, luxury carriages, dogs and man-servants were taxable, whilst more recently horses and billiard tables were also affected by the tax.
The octroi tax was finally abolished over 60 years ago in 1948, so it is somewhat surprising to find these small brick units still standing in these suburban towns. What are they used for today? It is easy to imagine how they were used at the time; small two or three man affairs, little more than the small cabins that security staff on private sites may use today, but then surely more comfortable and solid, with a working fire on cold days.
On one unit today there is a sign suggesting that this is now used by a union - the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French confederation of Christian workers), but there can't be many of those if they can all fit into such a small space.
Today then they have become little more than a curious part of the street furniture - but one with an interesting story to tell.