The family into which Achille Marcus Fould was born (1800-1867) had been part of the Jewish community in Metz since the second half of the Seventeenth Century. Achille's father, Berr Lion Fould, was born in Boulay in 1767. He was to join the entourage of the greatest Jewish merchant and businessman in the East of France, Cerf Berr, in Nancy. Berr Lion then became his representative, and subsequently his manager in Paris in 1787. His position at the bank was consolidated as a result of revolutionary events, which allowed him then to lay the foundations of the Fould family fortune. Despite some difficulties, this fortune was definitively established during the Restoration, and l'Hotel Fould, Rue Bergère, became one of the centres of Parisian life under the July Monarchy.
The eldest son of Berr Lion, Bénédict Fould-Oppenheim (1792-1858) was destined to succeed his father in managing the bank, whilst the youngest, Achille Marcus, was actively turning to a more society life and to politics as well. A close friend of the princes of the Orleans family, a great lover of horses and one of the founders of the Jockey Club, Achille entered public life as Conseiller Général of Tarbes in 1839. He was then elected Député of Hautes-Pyrenees in 1842 and he gradually became a specialist on questions relating to public finances and taxes. Some people believed that he was already aiming for the Ministry of Finance.
The events of February 1848 took Fould by surprise. Since he was very close to the royal family, he quickly adopted a low profile, particularly because he wished to avoid the repercussions of the contemporary economic crisis falling heavily on the family bank's business. During the Spring of 1848 however, Achille Fould re-emerged to publish two brochures on financial questions, and, after failure to be elected to the Corps Législatif on 4 June, he entered the Chamber as Députe of the Seine on 13 September, 1848 – in second position behind Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. Achille Fould, not only a close acquaintance of Thiers, but also having kept links with a number of former Orleanist friends, seemed however, during the year 1849, to move slowly closer to the Prince-President. As a result of his financial credentials, he became part of the "ministry of 31 October", and is generally regarded as one of the principle figures in the "Elysée party".
Achille Fould attempted above all to increase confidence, in re-establishing a stable budgetary administration and by trying to reduce floating debt. His policies were notably endorsed by the Fould and Fould Oppenheim Bank, which was still directed by his brother Bénédict (Benoît). Having become close to Louis Napoleon, Fould was very directly involved in the preparation of the Coup d'état with the Comte Daru, but he kept his distance during its execution. From 3 December, 1851, he was given the finance portfolio, before being made commander of the Légion d'honneur (11 December) and was ranked amongst the foremost Senators (26 January, 1852). And it was the Conseil Général of the Hautes-Pyrénées, of which he was president, which was the first to express the desire “that the Senat propose to the French people the re-establishment of the hereditary of imperial dignity in the direct descendents, legitimate and adoptive, of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, president of the Republic”.
Finally, as Ministre d'Etat, Fould was practically given the role of midwife to the new regime. His portfolio of Ministre d'Etat, then as Ministre d'Etat et Ministre d'Etat de la Maison de l'Empereur, meant that Achille Fould was the second most important figure in France, after the Emperor. Since he was in charge of the general administration of the revenues of the crown, cultural institutions (such as theatres, museums, libraries, archives, refurbishing the Louvre...), and also institutions like the Legion d'Honneur and the Institut, he became de facto the single point of interaction between ministers/the assemblies and the sovereign. His influence on Napoleon III and his rank of Ministre d'Etat, allowed him to intervene in all political domains of the Second Empire, and, in particular, in that of the economy and finances. The period from 1852 to 1857 was a time of euphoria and imperial celebration. It was an era of great civil engineering works and urbanism and the most audacious financial combinations. According to the theories of Saint-Simon, the "productive spending" would lead to the creation of wealth, which in turn would finance growth. With the new Crédit Mobilier, presided over by Benoît Fould-Oppenheim, the "House of Fould" became, for a time, one of the lynchpins of this policy.
Triumph seemed to have been attained by 1859: Napoleon III was at the head of the army in Italy, Achille Fould, as secretary of the Privy Council, itself presided over by the Empress, was in charge of directing the government. And, after the conclusion of the preliminaries of Villafranca with Austria, the Imperial couple spent some weeks in the Hautes-Pyrénées, visiting on several occasions the "Villa Fould" in Tarbes.
However, the economic situation was already changing, and the very orthodox financial policy of Achille Fould was encountering ever greater opposition, even including those closest to the Emperor. The economic revival of the 1850s was tailing off and the stock exchange was becoming more hesitant; there were some serious bankruptcies, and the financial equilibrium was affected by the growing cost of the army budget. The regime was looking for a second wind and the political pressure was maintained by worries resulting from the elections of 1857 and the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Orsini in 1858. On 5 January, 1860, Napoleon III launched the "programme of peace" through a letter to the Ministre d'Etat, published in the Moniteur on 15 January, which was inspired by Saint-Simonianism. Fould was opposed to the impending budgetary slippage and, despite his free trade inclinations, resigned from the ministry and was replaced by Walewski in November 1860. He then made a great show of retiring to Tarbes.
It was in Tarbes that the former Ministre d'Etat orchestrated an active campaign opposed to Napoleon III's economic policy, whose risks worried the financial sector and the Corps legislatif. In the eyes of a growing majority, Fould was starting to look like a "New Necker", the only person capable of rebuilding market confidence by re-establishing the principle of budget balance. His memoir to the Emperor On the state of finances (29 September, 1861) was the sign of his direct return to the fray. Napoleon III published his own response in the Moniteur, in which he approved Fould's programme (13 November, 1861) and, to some extent, the end of the authoritarian empire. Back in his post as Finance Minister, Achille Fould pursued a strict budgetary policy for six years, which assured the regime the support of the financial community. This support was set in stone by the minister when he arranged a reception for Napoleon III at Ferrières, at the home of Baron de Rothschild on 18 December, 1862. Fould's great success was recognised by politicians and the financial community alike. The budgets were very regularly introduced as balanced (at least in theory), and the regime benefitted from the full confidence of the general public.
But the political situation was becoming more serious, and the balance of power in Europe was brought into question by Bismarck and Prussia's successes. Even in France the opposition did not rally to the government and Napoleon III seemed to hesitate over which options to take in order to restore confidence. In autumn 1866 he clashed with Fould, who was always opposed to any increase of public expenditure, while Napoleon wished to increase the army budget. And when, on 17 January, 1867, Napoleon III conveyed his programme of ministerial reforms, which included Fould's resignation, Achille, without doubt already tired, did not seem to mind abandoning his work. After having spent part of 1867 travelling between Paris, Deauville and the Côte d'Azur, he retired to his villa in Tarbes, where he died suddenly on 5 October, 1867. His funeral in Paris on 14 October was a grand ceremonial occasion. The funeral service took place in the Temple de l'Oratoire, since Fould had converted to Protestantism around 10 years before.
Achille Fould was the subject of numerous attacks and criticism. As a prominent member of the Jewish community, many attacks provoked by latent anti-Semitism were focused on him. To anti-Semites, Achille seemed to fulfil the stereotypical role of the Jewish businessman or politician, preferring to work behind the scenes in the shadows and play in spheres of influence to increase his own political fortune, which in turn was linked to the financial fortune of his family. He was even more so the target for these attacks since, as was the tradition of the financial community, he practised discretion and secrecy and was furthermore directly linked to an unpopular, personal regime. The well-known negative judgement held by historians of the Third Republic concerning the Second Empire accentuated the phenomena of rejection – for the most part largely misplaced. Achille Fould was "conservative by instinct, liberal by reflection" and undoubtedly concerned with public interest, and consecrated most of his political career to the adaptation of French politics and the country's budget to new conditions. Armand Béhic was to declare, upon Fould's death, "I was strongly affected by the unforeseen death of Fould. His ideas were almost always opposed to mine, but he was a devoted servant of the Emperor".
Dictionnaire du Second Empire, Paris: Fayard, 1995, p. 535-6, s.v., « Fould »
See also: Pierre Larousse, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siècle, Paris: Adminstration du Grand Dictionnaire Universel, 1873 [Reprint Slatkine: Geneva-Paris, 1982], vol. 8 (pt. 1), p. 658-9, s.v., « Fould »