“Corporate History Profile: Crédit Lyonnais,” by S.M. O’Connor

      Founded in Lyon, France under the Empire français (French Empire) in 1863, Crédit Lyonnais (Bank of Lyon, known in English as Credit Lyonnais) rose to become the biggest bank in the world by the end of the 19th Century.  [English-speakers often add an s to Lyon, rendering it Lyons and Marseilles, rendering it Marseilles.  People and things from Lyon are called Lyonnais.]  Oddly enough, it was founded by pre-Marxist socialists.

Henri Gemain (1824-1905), the son of a silk merchant of Lyon became a lawyer and politician who sat in the National Assembly of the aforementioned Second French Empire (1852-1870) and the Third Republic of France (1870-1940) from 1868 to 1893.  Germain was a devotee of Saint-Simonian socialism.[1]  He founded Crédit Lyonnais in Lyon on July 6, 1863.[2]  His was a different kind of a bank than France knew in that era.  Whereas the Banque de France (Bank of France) gave short-term loans to companies and banks such as de Rothschild Frères (The Rothschild Brothers); Hottinguer et Cie (Hottinguer & Company); Perregaux, Laffittes et Cie (known in English as the House of Perregaux, Laffitte & Company), invested in government bonds and generally served wealthy clients, Crédit Lyonnais accepted smaller deposits from middle-class and lower-middle-class clients, as well as rich and upper-middle-class clients, and used the money to make short-term loans to companies.[3] 

      Silk merchants like Germain’s father and industrialists were intrigued.[4]  Other adherents of Saint-Simonian philosophy invested in the bank, too.  Famous ones included Paulin Talabot[5] (1799-1885), “Father” Barthélemy Prosper Enfaintin[6] (1796-1864), François Barthélemy Arlès-Dufour[7]  (1797-1872), and Michel Chavalier[8] (1806-1879).[9]  The latter was an advisor to Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire.[10] In its first year of existence, the bank had 140 depositors.  The next year, it has 10,000 depositors.  In 1865, the bank opened a branch in Paris.  Germain owned 2,150 shares or 5% of the stock.[11]  Initially, Germain made investment mistakes that nearly ruined the bank when he invested in a Spanish gas company and a dye company in France, but he learnt his lesson from these experiences and thence forward Crédit Lyonnais lent money to companies, but did not directly invest in them.[12] 

      Upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Crédit Lyonnais transferred some assets to a new branch in London, which was the first foreign branch of the bank.[13]  In 1871, Crédit Lyonnais had 439 employees.[14]  At a time when credit rating agencies did not exist, Germain founded a department in 1871 that scrutinized the solvency of countries and companies.[15] Through Crédit Lyonnais, the common man could invest in stocks and bonds.[16]  By 1880, Crédit Lyonnais had 4,000 employees. [17] Crédit Lyonnais was able to meet its obligations during the Panic of 1882.[18]   In the 1880s,Crédit Lyonnais began to facilitate loans to the Russian Empire, which needed to invest in infrastructure.[19]  Crédit Lyonnais also transferred its headquarters from Lyon to what had been the main branch building in Paris.  This is a Second Empire-style building in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris.  Crédit Lyonnais opened branches throughout France, in cities throughout Western Europe, the Russian Empire, the Middle East, and British India.[20]  In 1899,Crédit Lyonnais had 1,700,000,000 francs on its balance sheet and it was the largest bank in the world.[21] 

      Crédit Lyonnais had 257 branches in 1902.[22]  By 1913, it had 16,000 employees.[23]  According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “In the four decades before 1920, Crédit Lyonnais had more assets than any other bank in the world.”[24] 

      In 1945, after the Second Great World War had ended, the Fourth Republic of France nationalized Crédit Lyonnais along with the other three major commercial banks.[25]   In 1956, Crédit Lyonnais introduced automated teller machines (A.T.M.s).[26]   Eleven years later, it introduced the Carte Bleue credit card.[27]    

      By the early 1990s, it was the largest bank in France and the whole of Europe.[28]   The Fifth Republic of France was the largest stockholder.  It had branches on six continents and continued to diversify assets.[29]  This included financing film productions on the part of film studios and production companies.  The bank ended up owning the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (M-G-M).  A world-wide economic contraction led to serious losses, and, in 1995, the Fifth Republic of France announced the largest bank bailout in history.[30]   As a result, the bank had to sell assets, including M.G.M.[31]

      On May 5, 1996, many documents were lost in a fire at the headquarters in Paris,[32]  the aforementioned historic building with a stainless steel skeleton and stone cladding.  A global depression misidentified in the press as a recession and some poor decisions on the part of management led to the commercial bank’s decline.   The government had to bail out the bank, in this case not undertaken by the Fifth Republic France but by the European Union (E.U.), in 1998.[33]   Subsequently, the bank re-privatized in 1999. [34]   A French competitor, Crédit Agricole (Bank of Agriculture),and a German insurance company, Allianz, A.G. each purchased 10% of Crédit Lyonnais.[35]   In 2003, Crédit Agricoleacquired sole ownership. [36]  After 2005, Crédit Agricolere named it Le Crédit Lyonnais (The Bank of Lyon).[37]  It is abbreviated L.C.L.[38]  Today, it is a full-service bank in France but in foreign countries it is an institutional bank.[39]


[1] Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), who belonged to a cadet branch of a ducal family, was the founder of French socialism.  He met with little success in spreading his ideas within his own lifetime, but he had two disciples who achieved positions of influence: Olinde Rodrigues and Barthélemy Prosper Enfaintin (1796-1864).  They published a newspaper, Le Producteur, which ceased publication in 1826, but they nevertheless were able to cultivate a following amongst engineers, economists, and businessmen.

[2] Jacques Marie-Vaslin, “Henri Germain, prudent banquier du Crédit lyonnais,” Le Monde, 16 August, 2013 (https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/08/15/henri-germain-prudent-banquier-du-credit-lyonnais_3461764_3234.html) Accessed 09/23/19

[3] Jacques Marie-Vaslin, “Henri Germain, prudent banquier du Crédit lyonnais,” Le Monde, 16 August, 2013 (https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/08/15/henri-germain-prudent-banquier-du-credit-lyonnais_3461764_3234.html) Accessed 09/23/19

[4] Ibid

[5] Paulin Talabot was a civil engineer who became the director-general of a railroad company.

[6] “Father” Barthélemy Prosper Enfaintin was a banker and revolutionary.  In the 1820s, he was active in the Carbonari, a network of revolutionary secret societies that had branches in France but was particularly active in the Italian states from 1800 to 1831.  Remarkably, he was also false prophet.  By 1829, he was head of the Saint-Simonian socialists.  After 1830, with fellow Saint-Simonian socialist Amand Bazard (1791-1832) he co-founded a cult in which they proclaimed themselves “Supreme Fathers.”  They parted ways because Bazard was more interested in what (he considered) political reform whilst Enfaintin wanted to found a genuine religious movement.  One of his goals was to replace “the tyranny of marriage” with “free love.” He dispatched emissaries in a fruitless quest to find a “female messiah” who would become “mother of a new Savior.”  His cult spread out beyond the Kingdom of France but in 1832 French authorities closed his headquarters and he was brought before a tribunal for disruption of the social order.  He retired with forty male followers to his estate outside Paris.  A year later, he was arrested again.  This time, the guilty verdict resulted in a small fine and a year’s imprisonment.  Upon his release, he fled to Egypt with some followers, a few of whom converted to Islam.  After two years in self-imposed exile, he returned to France, where friends arranged for him to become a postmaster outside Lyon.  In 1841, friends arranged for him to receive an appointment to a scientific commission on Algeria, which led him to conduct research on North Africa and the issue of colonization.  He received an appointment, in 1845, as director of the Paris & Lyon Railway.  He co-founded, in 1848, the daily newspaper Le Crédit, which ceased publication in 1850. Towards the end of his life, Enfaintin was also a proponent of the construction of the Suez Canal.

[7] François Barthélemy Arlès-Dufour was a silk merchant of Lyon who became an investor in banks, railways, and the Suez Canal.  He was a proponent of free trade.

[8] Michel Chavalier was an engineer, diplomat, and promoter of free trade.

[9] Jacques Marie-Vaslin, “Henri Germain, prudent banquier du Crédit lyonnais,” Le Monde, 16 August, 2013 (https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/08/15/henri-germain-prudent-banquier-du-credit-lyonnais_3461764_3234.html) Accessed 09/23/19

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Crédit Lyonnais, Le,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 March, 2010 (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Le-Credit-Lyonnais) Accessed 11/05/19

[14] Jacques Marie-Vaslin, “Henri Germain, prudent banquier du Crédit lyonnais,” Le Monde, 16 August, 2013 (https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/08/15/henri-germain-prudent-banquier-du-credit-lyonnais_3461764_3234.html) Accessed 09/23/19

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Crédit Lyonnais, Le,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 March, 2010 (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Le-Credit-Lyonnais) Accessed 11/05/19

[21] Jacques Marie-Vaslin, “Henri Germain, prudent banquier du Crédit lyonnais,” Le Monde, 16 August, 2013 (https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/08/15/henri-germain-prudent-banquier-du-credit-lyonnais_3461764_3234.html) Accessed 09/23/19

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Crédit Lyonnais, Le,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 March, 2010 (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Le-Credit-Lyonnais) Accessed 11/05/19

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid

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