The Mayor as Provider of Food: Renewal and Decline of a Tutelary Figure in 19th-Century France

By Nicolas Bourguinat

This article seeks to define the authority of the mayor vis à vis the highly symbolic question of food provisioning. During the food crises of the first half of the nineteenth century, the mayor had the authority to enforce the rights of urban or village communities against greedy merchants or agitators, and sometimes even representatives of the State who wanted to impose unrestricted commercial freedom. The mayor had the prerogative to police the markets, keep an eye on the bakers, and fix the price of bread. After mid-century, however, food supply no longer played a primary role in the construction and expression of mayoral authority. There are several reasons for this development. Political change made the mayor an elected official of universal suffrage. This fact had the effect of cutting his ties with a central sovereign power and bringing into question his authority to manage business. In addition, tensions in subsistence markets relaxed at the same time that questions of food were less and less dealt with at the local level. This trend is seen in the disappearance of the octroi, once an essential source of municipal revenue, as well as in matters of quality control, health and even price levels.

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