The division of the gabelle into different regions, with extreme and arbitrary price differentials, inevitably made the smuggling of salt an intractable problem. Smugglers were most active where the pays francs or pays rédimés shared a frontier with the grandes gabelles, above all along boundary with Brittany. Salt which sold for two or three livres-per-minot in Brittany retailed for fifty-six or more livres-per-minot over the border in Maine or Anjou.
According to Daniel Roche, everywhere in France the majority of those convicted of salt tax violations were men; two-thirds were adults under the age of forty. Smuggling was normally a supplement to other work: even the few full-time smugglers would be supported by their communities and often did ordinary chores around the villages. They were not the true marginals of society, but poor country folk - day labourers, smallholders, village artisans, petty traders. Ultimately they inhabited the same world in which the taxed salt and tobacco were consumed.
As long as individuals operated alone and on foot, the money to be made was modest - around 50% profit might be expected, but the quantities of salt involved were small - an "artisanal" level of fraud. In the towns and larger settlement, particularly along the Loire, the involvement of artisans, innkeepers and petty tradesmen encouraged some larger scale enterprise. In the 18th century professionals or semi-professional smugglers worked mainly as individuals or small groups - but occasionally there were armed troops of several dozen men, quasi -military in operation. The most dangerous operated by night, under cover of darkness. On the Breton border the landscape - with the woods and hedges of the bocages - acted in their favour, making it easy to evade pursuers and to hide the contraband. The territory round the Loire offered sizable urban outlets; Angers was only 20 km from the frontier of the gabelle.
See: Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Harvard U.P.1998) , p.348-53.
Figures published by Necker (1784)
According to Necker, during the first three years of the Lease Salzard (1780) an annual average of 2,342 men, 896 women and 201 children were convicted of salt smuggling in the vicinity of Laval and Angers on the Brittany border. Many more women and children were arrested (or rearrested) but not prosecuted. Over a thousand horses, and fifty waggons were also seized, and 4,000 domestic raids carried out. The value of illegal salt seized and horses and wagons confiscated amounted to 280,000 livres [Quoted G.T. Matthews, The Royal General Farms (New York, 1958) p.109].
The grenier à sel at Laval
In 1974 Yves Durand and his students carried out a statistical analysis of 4,788 smugglers tried between 1759 and 1788 by the grenier à sel in Laval, a centre of the clandestine trade. These were overwhelmingly petty smugglers.