Insurance in France in the 19th century: the advent of the market

During the First Empire (1804 to 1814), Napoleon I was not enthusiastic about the development of insurance in France. It was not until the end of the First Empire and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1814 that the public authorities witnessed the revival of insurance.

Birth of the French insurance market

parisA royal decree of 1816, governing property & casualty insurance in France, authorized fire insurance once again, with a large number of companies being therefore set up, paving the way for the insurance of other goods and risks to emerge.

In 1818, the Council of State legalized the practice of life insurance. However, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century and particularly under the July Monarchy (1830-1848), that life insurance experienced a real renaissance.

Unlike Napoleon I, his nephew Napoleon III was favorable to this activity. Obstacles to the development of the life insurance had gradually disappeared as time went by, resulting in a real public frenzy about it.

The first developments in insurance in France

The insurance market really took off in the 1820s at times when the growth of activities was not only focused on mutual firms but also on capital companies (fixed premium insurers).

While mutual companies opted to diversify their activities by introducing new schemes and opening offices in several regions, capital companies relied on the support of the financial market to expand.

Fixed premium insurers

Known as fixed premium insurers, the first capital companies appeared as early as 1819. It was with the support of wealthy businessmen and the banking sector that these insurers set foot on the French market.

The Breton banker Marie-Auguste de Gourcuff, close to King Louis XVIII, founded in 1819 the Société des Assurances Générales contre l'Incendie as a public limited liability company.

Other companies would follow:

  • the Compagnie française du Phénix (which would give rise to Assurances Générales de France, the AGF) was set up in 1819 by Jacob Dupan and Charles Xavier Thomas,
  • the Compagnie Royale, which became Nationale and then GAN, was founded in 1820 on the initiative of 16 bankers,
  • the Union-Incendie, which came into being in 1828, had 20 bankers as its shareholders. It gave birth to the Union des Assurances de Paris (UAP) which would later become AXA,
  • the Soleil-Incendie began operations in 1829,
  • the Union-Vie, established in 1829, was the first life insurer to see the light of day after the Restoration. Royale-Vie, a life insurance company followed, entering the market in 1830.

After the Restoration of 1814, nearly 100 insurance companies were, therefore, established. In spite of this boom, several young companies went bankrupt, with only 30 fixed-premium companies staying the course. The market was then driven by five main companies: Société d'Assurances Générales contre l'Incendie, Phénix, Compagnie Royale d'Assurances, Union-Incendie and Soleil-Incendie, all of which experienced robust growth based on a risk selection strategy.

It is noteworthy that the newly established companies were rapidly turning to international development. The Union-Incendie was the first French insurer to establish itself outside France, notably in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and England. The company managed to settle even in South America and the Far East.

At the end of the 19th century, French insurers were present in 16 foreign countries, mainly in Europe and North Africa.

Mutual insurance companies

The first mutual property & casualty insurance company was limited to the coverage of fire insurance. The "Compagnie d'Assurances Mutuelles contre l'Incendie de Paris" was set up in 1816.

Between 1816 and 1883, nearly 200 mutual companies had been established in France. As with fixed premium companies, a large number of these young companies quickly disappeared. In 1892, there were only 51 mutuals left on the market. Among the most active of these companies was the Mutuelle de Poitiers, founded in 1838 and still in operation.

The Mutuelle Immobilière Incendie was created in 1828 by a lawyer from Sarthe, Louis Basse, who in 1839 also introduced the Mutuelle Mobilière Incendie to the market.

Still at the initiative of L. Basse, a third company appeared in 1842 under the name of Mutuelle Mobilière du Mans.

In 1883, another Sarthe man, Jean-Marie Lelièvre, created the Mutuelle Générale Française Accident (MGFA), which joined the Mutuelles du Mans group in 1969. In 1999, the group was renamed MMA, the core of the Covéa group, the leading French property & casualty insurer in 2020.

Insurance in France in the 19th century
  • 1812
    Establishment of a public insurance company for mining employees
  • 1816
    Publication of a royal decree authorizing fire insurance. Establishment of the first mutual fire insurance company: "the Compagnie d'Assurances Mutuelles contre l'Incendie de Paris"
  • 1818
    The Council of State authorizes life insurance. Creation of the Compagnie d'Assurances Maritimes
  • 1819
    Establishment of the insurance company the Phénix and of the Société des Assurances Générales contre l'Incendie
  • 1820
    Establishment of the Compagnie Royale Incendie. Signature of the first fire tariff agreement between the Compagnie Royale, the Soleil and the Phénix
  • 1921
    Signature of the first reinsurance contract between Royale Incendie and Propriétaires Réunis de Bruxelles
  • 1828
    Création de la compagnie d’assurance : l’Union-Incendie et de la Mutuelle Immobilière Incendie
  • 1829
    - Creation of Union-Vie, the first life insurer since the revolution
    - Appearance of the first glass breakage insurance for store windows
  • 1830
    Establishment of the Royale-Vie
  • 1838
    - Development of insurance cover for transport accidents
    - Birth of the Seine, insurance company against accidents caused by horses and carriages
    - Birth of the Urbaine Incendie and the Mutuelle de Poitiers
  • 1844
    Establishment of the Urbaine Vie
  • 1862
    Creation of the Syndicat général des compagnies d'assurances à primes fixes contre l'incendie which groups together 16 companies
  • 1864
    Birth of the first accident insurance company: the Préservatrice
  • 1868
    Decree of 22 January allowing the creation of insurance companies without authorization, except for tontines and life insurance companies
  • 1871
    Establishment of the Caisse Internationale de Réassurance
  • 1874
    Union takes over the International Reinsurance Fund
  • 1884
    Establishment of the Société Anonyme de Réassurance
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