Rationing and the Black Market in Paris During the War

Chris Lloyd

The crime writer examines how ordinary Parisians struggled to obtain the necessities of life under Nazi rule.
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Black Market in Paris

Many of us grew up with the image of Private Walker in Dad’s Army. The spiv, a lovable comedy character selling stockings and chocolates illegally, getting into scrapes with authority and helping others while helping himself. He was the black market of nostalgia, the rebel getting around the restrictions of wartime rationing and shortages, a Robin Hood figure stealing from a faceless system to feed the good people of Walmington-on-Sea.

Of course, we all know rationing and the black market, especially in London, had nothing of the cosy or comedic. The war years were a boom time for criminals: crime figures leapt by nearly 60 per cent; the blackout provided a cover for lawlessness; and criminal gangs prospered, their activities reprehensible, their actions brutal. This was all at a time when police forces were increasingly stretched by the extra problems they faced, and through loss of personnel to the armed services. Stringent rationing inevitably brought the villains and opportunists out of the woodwork. A black market emerged, not the black market of Walker and Dad’s Army, but one of gangs and robberies, thefts and exploitation. Forgery and fraud flourished, murder and extortion were not infrequent.

Pierre Bonny

So that was London. But what was it like in Paris? How did the people there fare? The whole area of rationing and the black market under the Occupation is not a subject that has been extensively covered outside France, and it is one that we generally know little about. What added difficulties did a city under occupation have to face? The answer, quite bluntly, is a lot. Take the situation in London and add to it layer upon layer of hardship, repression, opportunism and cynicism, some of it home-grown, much of it sponsored by the Nazi occupier, and you will start to get an idea of the conditions Parisians faced on a daily basis from Occupation to Liberation and beyond.

‘Ils nous prennent tout’ (‘They’re taking everything we have’) was a heartfelt complaint voiced by Parisians during the Occupation. France suffered one of the most severe rationing systems that any country had to face during the war, and the insult that added to the injury was that, unlike Britain, it was not the result of its own government’s policies. Instead, it was a regime imposed by an occupying power, one that was using the French economy to pay for its own war effort.

Rationing was established by the Occupiers almost immediately after the Fall of France. During the Phoney War, the French government had banned meat, sugar and alcohol on certain days – not that many paid much attention to it – but the situation deteriorated sharply under the new system. Steadily put in place over the initial months of the Occupation, the rations for an adult were: 350 grams of bread a day; 50 grams of cheese and 300 grams of meat a week; and 50 grams of rice, 250 grams of pasta, 200 grams of margarine and 500 grams of sugar a month. In all, this provided some 1,300 calories a day, which Jean Guéhenno in Diary of the Dark Years, claimed was ‘barely sufficient to keep people alive provided they remain lying down and don’t work.’

Everyone had a ration book issued by their local mairie (townhall), which took an age to distribute due to a lack of personnel. Parisians then had to return to the mairie on specific days each month to collect coloured ration tickets for the various foodstuffs. The tickets changed colour every month to try to prevent forgeries. Queuing for tickets could take up to five hours, which was then followed by yet more interminable waits outside the bakers and butchers allocated to you, often to be turned away empty-handed. It was not a situation that improved. By 1941, everyone had ration tickets, but the shops had next to nothing to sell.

This whole situation became even worse as the Occupation wore on and Germany’s fortunes elsewhere on the continent waned. Between August 1939 and July 1942, it was estimated that the cost of living in Paris rose by 65.5 per cent. Inflation had leapt by nearly 50 per cent since the start of the Occupation. Grain prices doubled or trebled. In the summer of 1942, rations for French people were reduced by 12 per cent and higher food quotas for Germany were introduced: over 2 million tons of grain, 350,000 tons of meat, 300,000 tons of potatoes, 150,000 tons of vegetables, 300,000 tons of fruit and 6 hundred million litres of wine were produced in France to be shipped to Germany. Even the German authorities in Paris feared this was too stringent and would lead to a total collapse of the economy.

The added insult – and ruination of the French economy – was that so much of what was being produced in France was being sent to Germany to feed people there, all of it at a vast profit. The Nazis had decided that the French should pay for the costs accrued by Germany in occupying France, to the tune of 20 million Reichsmarks a day. They had also set a punitive exchange rate of one Reichsmark to 20 Francs, which meant that the Nazi authorities, soldiers and traders could buy everything up cheaply and ship it back to Germany.

The worst example of this were the bureaux d’achats, central buying offices set up as a racket by various branches of the German civil and military authorities. Using reparations paid by the Vichy government, they bought up French goods cheaply and then sold them on at a huge profit to the military in France or back home in Germany. The Vichy government was then charged a second time when the military presented it with the bills for everything they had bought from the buying offices. As Parisians continued to struggle to put food on the table, the people running the bureaux d’achats were raking in the money.

Which leads us to the black market. The official and semi-official ransacking of French goods by the occupiers created the ideal conditions for the rapid development of a black market, while the nature of Occupation imbued it with quite unique idiosyncrasies.

Henri Lafont

Universally loathed and almost equally universally resorted to, the marché noir had its own layers of involvement and complexity, ranging from non-smokers who registered for the tobacco ration to sell to smokers; the unemployed who would illegally sell their tickets to keep a roof over their heads; those who bred rabbits and guinea pigs in their bathtubs to sell as meat to neighbours; Parisians who would take a train to the country, where food was in a little more abundance, and buy easily concealed amounts of goods from farmers to sell back in the city at a small profit. Their buyers found their own compromise with their conscience. To some, spending a small amount extra to feed your family or bartering for food was acceptable, a marché grise or grey market, whereas trading in large amounts of food was the black market and, as such, reprehensible. It was a wafer-thin distinction.

The next step up were the small neighbourhood black market traders: shopkeepers who sold goods above the official prices; an individual who brought goods into Paris by lorry and sold them in a local cafe; a gang of eight who sold rationed goods at inflated prices. Despite the authorities’ best efforts at printing ration tickets in different colours each month, a thriving trade also sprang up in forged tickets, with stolen or forged coupons sold in and around the city’s markets.

Yet it was at the level of organised crime that the nature of the Occupation took on a more cynical and sinister aspect. As in London, criminal gangs saw the rich pickings to be had in the black market. Unlike in London, the gangs in Paris operated not only with the collusion of the authorities but were often, in fact, created by one or other of the various German military institutions. To some extent, they began as the enforcement arm of the buying offices, and as such, they were not only untouchable, they came to take on much more key roles within the Occupation, reaching levels of power commensurate with the unopposed violence of their tactics.

Perhaps the most notorious of these was the Bonny-Lafont gang, which went under various names, also being called the Carlingue, the French Gestapo and the Rue Lauriston Gang. With the connivance of members of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), Henri Lafont (aka Henri Chamberlin) took a stroll through Fresnes Prison in Paris in August 1940 and secured the release of some 30 inmates, all career criminals, instantly creating his gang. They began by acting as enforcers with the very lucrative buying office run by Abwehr officer Hermann Brandl, known as ‘Otto’, but Lafont’s extensive connections in the Paris underworld made him invaluable to the operation and he soon rose to attain a phenomenal level of power.

In 1942, he shifted his allegiance from the Abwehr to the Gestapo and became even more powerful and dangerous. He was joined at this time by Pierre Bonny, a disgraced former police detective, whose organisational skills led to the gang becoming ruthlessly efficient and effective. The business grew from trading in black market goods and protection to working even more closely with the Gestapo, tracking down Jews and Resistance members. They were now also allowed to be armed and carry police ID, exponentially raising their dominance. While the upper floors of the gang’s headquarters at 93 Rue Lauriston were the setting for wild parties for the glamorous and powerful, the basement was where Lafont and his gang tortured their victims before handing them over to the Gestapo. While ordinary Parisians starved, Lafont prospered, with sumptuous dinners and orgies, affairs with high-society women and the finest food, clothes and jewellery.

Lafont was executed in 1944, after Paris was liberated, but his four-year reign possibly symbolises much of the unique nature of rationing and the black market in Paris under the Occupation. The prosperity of the few compared with the hardships of the many, the cynicism of some Parisians towards others, the uneven treatment of rationing and the exploitation of the black market, the difference between resistance and collaboration. More fundamentally, though, he epitomises the added layers of privation and fear inherent in an Occupation, with the connivance of the authorities in the abuse of power.

Chris Lloyd is a novelist and translator and writer of several acclaimed crime novels. The Unwanted Dead is his first set in World War Two Paris.

Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.

Black Market in Paris
Black Market in Paris
Black Market in Paris
Black Market in Paris