On March 15, 1848, the governor of the Bank of France, Antoine d’Argout, faced the potential collapse of his institution. A cascade of agricultural and industrial shocks, rising food prices, spikes in unemployment, and currency outflows struck at the heart of the French economy. At the same time, France, and Europe more broadly, had dissolved into armed revolution. The French king’s abdication in February, alongside the already teetering financial system, resulted in massive bank runs that toppled a substantial part of the Paris banking system. Dramatic monetary contraction and the collapse of credit markets choked off sources of economic growth. Across Europe, proposals for action polarized three broad coalitions—liberals, radicals, and conservatives—each of which differed about the pace and extent of democratization. With the provisional French government lacking legitimacy and even facing bankruptcy, a state bailout seemed unlikely.
Faced with the threat of financial collapse and anarchy in the streets, d’Argout contemplated the situation. What had caused the crisis at the Bank of France and in the French economy? What was the connection between financial and societal distress, and could they be treated separately? How would conservative, liberal, and radical advisers interpret the crisis and suggest remedies? Given this analysis, how should d’Argout try to save his bank? Would tactical reforms save the Bank, or should d’Argout make wholesale changes?
The tasks for students are to plot the causes and course of the crisis and to consider the difficult policy tradeoffs.