Abstract: "A profession for those who have none": Business Agents and Professional Communities in Turn-of-the-Century Paris

Alexia Yates


In 1886, a proposal was tabled in the French legislature to regulate the profession of "business agents," a heterogeneous group of commercial operators multiplying in the marketplace of late-nineteenth-century France. Focusing on the community-formation efforts of Parisian business agents, this paper inquires into why such a diverse group sought to achieve professional status in this period, the routes available to them, and the obstacles they encountered. In particular, the paper examines the formation and regulatory activities of the Compagnie des Hommes d'Affaires du département de la Seine and the Syndicat Professionnel des Hommes d'Affaires de France et des Colonies in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Through professional journals, disciplinary codes, and efforts to promote state intervention, these organizations mobilized to rescue the occupation of homme d'affaires from a position of perceived social denigration. Criticized as "a profession for those who have none," business agents struggled to define a field of expertise and professional monopoly, navigating the prevalent discourse of liberal individualism. Throughout, focus is kept on the ways in which community-building may be constitutive of particular commercial selves, providing a novel image of the French business actor and his milieu.