After the fall of the Roman Empire, the transformation of border taxes into tolls was generalised and anarchical in Europe. Before Charlemagne's Empire was split up, these dues were not paid into the royal treasury, but into the hands of powerful feudal lords. They increased in number and amount for purely fiscal purposes. They were collected either by local officials or by tax farmers (private tax gatherers).
In the 15th and 16th centuries, so great was the Treasury's need for funds that the number of import and export duties proliferated. There were not enough royal officials to collect all of them and the tax-farming system was used extensively. The economic benefit of customs duties as a means of encouraging trade and protecting national production started to be better understood.
Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), Controller-General of Finance under Louis XIV, is considered to be the father of modern customs. The development of the merchant navy was encouraged and national productions protected. The economic role of customs duties was confirmed with the 1664 customs tariff which instituted a moderate form of protectionism. This was the first time that France had a national tariff at its borders, and by the end of the following century it was to apply to more than two-fifths of goods. Lastly, two great Ordinances in 1681 and 1687 laid down the basis for modern customs legislation.
In principle, Colbert's economic doctrine continued to prevail until the end of the Old Regime. However, the rigidity of the protectionist policy had to be softened because of foreign reprisals. The abolition of internal barriers, the transfer of the customs offices known as "bureaux des traites" to the frontiers of the kingdom and the drafting of the single customs tariff were all aims that Trudaine, Necker and Calonne tried to achieve. However, so strong was the resistence from the people with vested interests in the system, their efforts did not succeed.
At the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, nearly all the trade and transport duties ("droits de traite ") and other excise duties were farmed out under the terms of a six year lease to a guild of financiers known as the "Ferme Générale" (Farmer Generalship). This comprised up to 42 directorates in the provinces and almost 25,000 officers. The employees of the Farmer Generalship were not royal officials, but they were empowered to act "in the name of the King", and on this basis they benefited from various privileges and from the protection of the law. These private tax-gatherers, who were in a strong position because of the monarchy's debt, and who amassed immense fortunes, sometimes despite their obscure origins, played an important political and social role. At the end of the 18th century, the Farmer Generalship was looked upon as a scapegoat. The men in charge, as much as the institution itself, were criticised in the name of morality, because the farmers-general, who were upstarts who had suddenly amassed vast fortunes, seemed to have sprung from the corruption of the social order.
With the Revolution the modern Customs Authority was born. The internal barriers were abolished, the Farmer Generalship was nationalised. The new service, staffed exclusively by officials responsible for policing foreign trade, constituted an Administration. Its organisation was entrusted to one or two former farmers-general, who were quickly eliminated, and to officials from the Farmer Generalship. Neither the men nor the methods were really new, but a state administration had been born.
The Napoleonic Wars radically changed the direction of customs policy. In order to safeguard the country's supplies and in the face of the enemy, the governments instituted prohibition. The continental blockade was to mark the peak of this development. At the same time, French expansionism led to the creation of a vast empire of 130 departments whose borders were guarded by 35,000 customs officers. The French customs authority, which was all powerful and even had its own special courts, was organised along military lines; it was even present in the satellite states set up in Trieste, Rome, Piedmont, Geneva, etc...
From 1815 onwards, with the permanent establishment of protectionism, the Customs authority had a leading position in the state apparatus. During the Directorates of Saint-Cricq and Gréterin, prohibitions and prohibitive duties provided agriculture and industry with the protection that was needed. Customs surveillance was strengthened during this period both in the customs surveillance zone and inside the country itself.
Just as it had been under the regime of the Farmer Generalship, the 19th century customs authority was separated into two distinct services : the offices (administrative service) and the brigades (active service). The administrative officers - fewer in number and relatively favoured - fell under the aegis of the general directorate for recruitment and advancement. The brigade officers - by far the more numerous - were organised along military lines. Although the status of the customs officers was sketched in general terms, there was lack of transparency in their management which led to a tendency towards favouritism and nepotism. Accusations were levelled against these defects in various forms throughout the 19th century.
Napoleon III was to wait until 1860 before imposing his views. He then carried out a "customs coup d'état", by negotiating a secret trade treaty with England based on liberal concepts. At the same time, the customs regulations became more flexible. This "new economic policy" stimulated international trade, which was already accelerating with the introduction of steam-powered railways and ships.
While the treaties of 1815 had returned the French frontiers approximately to their pre-Revolution position, the customs lines moved again twice : in 1860 at the time of the annexation of Nice and Savoy and in 1871 with the loss of Alsace and part of Lorraine.
With colonial expansion throughout the 19th century and up to the beginning of the 20th century, the customs administration was established in Algeria, and then it sent officials to Tunisia, Morocco, the French African colonies, Madagascar, Indochina and the Indian Ocean, to supervise the local customs services. They did not fall under the administrative auspices of the French customs authority, but their organisation and methods were closely based on it.
To start with, the Third Republic pursued the customs policy that had been initiated in 1860, but in 1892 the opponents of free trade won the day. Once again protectionism held sway and was to continue for more than half a century. The League of Nations was to try to encourage free trade, but the economic crisis of 1929 led to the collapse of this effort. The return of protectionism in force gave the customs authority back the importance that it had partly lost. And with the same number of officials, or even fewer, it had to apply a complex system of tariffs, increase its controls, adapt to technological progress and cope with new types of evasion.
The Second World War resulted in France reintroducing the system of prohibitions abandoned in 1860. In the immediate post-war period, state intervention in the field of foreign trade and, consequently the involvement of the customs authority became stronger than ever. From the 1950s onwards trade restrictions were progressively reduced. As a founder member of the Council for Customs Cooperation which today groups more than 100 states, the French Customs Authority has committed itself to a deliberate policy of international cooperation. Thus, little by little, customs borders are progressively being eliminated. The application of the GATT agreements and the creation of the customs unions, in particular the European Community, have culminated in an appreciable reduction, or even the elimination of the collection of duties and taxes when borders are crossed. The culmination of this development was the disappearance of the customs borders in 1993. In this new environment the Customs Authority continues to carry out its duties, using modern methods of intervention and a structure that is appropriate to the current situation.