Read CHAPTER XXIII of A Journey Through France in War Time , free online book, by Joseph G. Butler‚ Jr., on


To the members of our Commission one of the most interesting things found in France was the organization of chambers of commerce, or bodies whose purpose is to promote the industrial and financial welfare of the communities where they exist. Unlike the situation in America, where chambers of commerce are purely local organizations, without power or even much prestige in the regulation of municipal affairs, the French have a system of such bodies that is probably the most important single force to be reckoned with in the republic.

We were entertained at almost every city where we made a stop by the chamber of commerce, and were given every opportunity to ascertain how these organizations work. We found their system admirable, and many features of it should be copied in this country. Before this can be done, however, we must have more liberal and sensible legislation on the question of co-operation among productive organizations.

The French chambers of commerce are officially recognized by the government and given certain powers which, to a large extent, place every community under their care, at least in so far as its business interests and development of its resources go. No chamber can be organized except by governmental decree, and this provision naturally prevents them from interfering with the legitimate prerogatives of the government, while giving them powers that enable them to be of real service to the community.

Everywhere we went we found that the chamber of commerce was regarded as the guardian of the public interest, and we were told how these bodies took action frequently with much success in matters that in this country would be regarded as far beyond the scope of a chamber of commerce. They have power to represent the towns where they exist in all matters regarding industrial, agricultural and transportation problems. They are under the direct control of the department of industry, and the charter of each is signed by the minister of commerce then in office. Their members are elected much as we elect regular city officials, and the number cannot be less than nine or more than twenty-one, except in Paris, where there are forty at this time. The number is fixed for each chamber by government decree and depends on the population of the district. The members must be thirty years of age and citizens in good standing. Bankrupts are not allowed to serve. In every way these bodies are made thoroughly representative of the best citizenship, and it is regarded as quite an honor to be permitted to serve on them without pay.

These chambers usually meet twice each month and they keep in close touch with each other, working out plans that will be for the good of the whole country as well as for their special localities. Many of the largest undertakings in France have been begun and carried out largely by chambers of commerce. The new port at Marseilles, which will cost about two hundred million francs, is an example. For this work the chamber of commerce raised six million francs, the government provided a like amount, and with this the chamber was able to finance the improvement, depending on tolls and other revenues to pay the balance in due time.

The feature which appealed most strongly to me in these chambers of commerce was the manner in which they are dovetailed with the government in the performance of duties of a nature such as, in spite of their tremendous importance, we Americans generally regard as nobody’s business in particular, and which are therefore usually left undone.

A national organization of chambers of commerce is maintained in Paris. Part of the expense of each chamber, as well as of this body, is paid by the government. The secretaries of the local chambers have also an organization, and all these seem to work in perfect harmony for the general good. The secretaries are usually professionals, and special courses of training may be had in France for this work.

We found that nearly every chamber had its own building and that all were handsomely housed, well financed and extremely effective. They have become a most important part of the government, handling with success many problems that are difficult for a government and which, at the same time, require a certain amount of governmental authority if they are to be disposed of in an efficient manner.

In my opinion this country could copy the French system of chambers of commerce with much profit. We are in advance of them in many things, especially in the matter of industrial operations, but they are a century in advance of us in the co-operation needed between the citizens and the government for the highest development of community life and progress.