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Christophe Defeuilley, L’Entrepreneur et le Prince. La création du service public de l’eau

Cécile Coulmain
Traduction de Charles Gassot et Clare Jamieson
Cet article est une traduction de :
Christophe Defeuilley, L’entrepreneur et le Prince. La création du service public de l’eau
L'Entrepreneur et le Prince
Christophe Defeuilley, L'Entrepreneur et le Prince. La création du service public de l'eau, Paris, Les Presses de Sciences Po, coll. « Gouvernances », 2017, 328 p., ISBN : 978-2-7246-2005-4.

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Notes de la rédaction

Review translated by Charles Gassot (ENS de Lyon) and Clare Jamieson (Columbia University, Columbia College), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1Behind Christophe Defeuilley’s poetic title lies a comparative historical analysis of the establishment of public drinking water services in London, New York, and Paris, the three most populous cities at the dawn of the 20th century. The author combines the lens of economics and a long-term perspective (from the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century) focused largely on private and public actors, to trace how water distribution systems evolved and crystalized into the form they still have today. Specifically, Christophe Defeuilley highlights the role of private companies in the creation of these systems, examining their financial and strategic trajectories as well as their relations with the public authorities–forces that ended up durably determining the methods of water administration.

  • 1 See the following titles : Lorrain, Dominique, “La Naissance de l’affermage : coopérer pour exister (...)
  • 2 This model eventually was disseminated throughout the world as companies such as the Compagnie géné (...)

2The book sets itself in the field of the economic and political analyses of urban systems management, especially those concerning water (notably in line with the research done by Dominique Lorrain and Bernard Barraqué1). Its originality and contribution lie in Defeuilley’s ability to piece together how water management developed and was transformed into a public service. Through the different contexts studied, readers come to understand the factors that ultimately led the Anglo-Saxon world to prefer a model of public management and France to prefer a contractual model of public service (often called the “French model”)2. Christophe Defeuilley divides his book into four chapters that tell four intertwined stories about water: first, one about the era before distribution networks; then, he describes those of London, New York, and Paris, highlighting the local particularities but also the similarities between them, or even the attempts to share models (notably by London and Paris). To demonstrate his point, the author relies both on a substantial mass of scientific literature and on an analysis of primary sources, particularly companies’ archives of their finances and contracts.

3From the 19th century onwards, establishing the supply of drinking water became a matter for public and political concern, especially since this period experienced both the arrival of the idea of hygiene and the emergence of principles of “municipal socialism”. The 19th century marked a turning point in the consideration of the question because, until then, water had remained an essentially private issue, its household use requiring water carriers as intermediaries. Christophe Defeuilley highlights three factors that encouraged the expansion of water services: exponential urbanization, technical progress, and insistence on hygiene and public health, notably in the face of recurring urban epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever.

4Since the 16th century, London, a pioneering city in regards to water distribution (as the author indicates), had been a place where private entrepreneurs experimented with supply networks consisting mostly of water pipes made of… wood. But it was not until the 19th century, with the rise of industry, that cast-iron networks were progressively constructed over the whole city, thanks to the investment of various private companies. Drawing us into the historical intrigues surrounding the rising power of private actors and the more or less fruitful intervention of central and local authorities (through the implementation of regulations and inspections, debate over a water monopoly, the link between water and health...), the author writes a detailed narrative of the development of water systems for private homes by companies at the forefront of water distribution, companies such as the New River Company, the London Bridge Company, the Chelsea Waterworks Company, and many others.

5While private initiative and, above all, the rise of competition allowed for the expansion of water distribution to private homes in London, the author also points to the companies’ excessive pursuit of profit as a reason for their eventual failure. In fact, over-concerned with safeguarding the dividends of their shareholders, these companies let necessary investment in new infrastructure fall by the wayside, which led the local public authorities to resume control of the sector’s management. Little by little, in a country dominated by the tradition of liberal economics, water distribution in London became a full-fledged municipal service, something that was in fact already in place in many other British cities. In Christophe Defeuilley’s view, one should see this less as a sign of the ideology of municipal socialism (which had yet to arise) and more as an opportunity for towns to invest in other urban services.

6The emergence of a commercial water distribution service in New York was more chaotic, and the private ambition that drove it was far from praiseworthy. Readers thus follow with interest the story of the trajectory of an unusual person, Alan Burr, who, driven by his insatiable desire for the conquest of power, created in 1799 the Manhattan Company, the first private water supply company. Conceived as a springboard to compete for political control of New York City, the water services company was at its inception nothing but a backdoor for Burr to obtain the funds needed to expand his activities in the banking sector. For almost forty years, the company was subject to the political and financial maneuvering of its successive directors, and provided nothing more than a very limited and low-quality distribution service, which did little to limit the spread of the cholera epidemic in the city in 1832 or to contain the Great Fire of 1835. After several years of battle (repudiating the charter linking the city to the company), the New York City government completely took over water distribution and even undertook an ambitious water supply program, finally allowing residents to enjoy water in quantity as well as quality.

7Using this singular story, Christophe Defeuilley highlights the different factors which led most large American cities to prefer public water administration to private management. He identifies two main elements. On one hand, the large-scale collusion between economic and political powers in the 18th and 19th centuries made the population suspect the existence of corruption. To counter this, the public authorities tried to regain legitimacy by opting for public management. On the other hand, financial instruments favorable to municipalities, such as the ability to accumulate debt (with no set upper limit), drove local governments to invest heavily in water distribution infrastructure.

8Finally, a large section of the book is dedicated to the history of water in Paris, the last of the great European cities to develop a modern supply network. After unsuccessful attempts in the 18th century (and notably the failure of the Perrier brothers’ Compagnie des eaux de Paris), it was really at the midpoint of the 19th century that water supply became both a public program and an industrial aim. Two parallel events mark this turning point: the designation of Baron Haussmann as prefect of the Seine in 1853, and the creation, that same year, of the Compagnie générale des eaux (CGE). While water distribution in central Paris was organized along a public investment plan, connected with the city’s beautification plan proposed by Haussmann, initially the CGE built its network in the outskirts of the city and in several other large cities, most notably Lyon. The author then goes on to discuss at length the strategies used by the private company. These strategies were more or less facilitated (or even anticipated) by the political circumstances. In this regard, the expansion of Paris through the absorption of surrounding towns which had until then been served by the CGE was a godsend for the company. After negotiating with the city authorities, the company and the government shared water distribution to homes on the principle of benefit to the interested party (the CGE managing from then on the commercial part of the service: connection and subscription). By analyzing the company’s finances and outcomes throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Christophe Defeuilley makes clear the reasons for the company’s longevity and expansion: regular and burgeoning investments, a diversification of its water-related activities (potability, sanitation, etc.), its development in France and abroad through loans, while profiting from favorable stock market transactions. But, beyond the story itself, the historical analysis of the contract negotiations that the CGE undertook with the townships describes the origin of the (now widespread) model of the “delegation of public services”–division between private management and public guarantee–which was the dominant method of drinking water distribution in France throughout the 20th century.

9Christophe Defeuilley thus immerses us in a whole swath of modern and contemporary urban history through a precise and robust analysis of a service which, though it may nowadays seem indispensable but devoid of political stakes, is the fruit of multiple ambitions, interests, and circumstances with a rich and sinuous history. Although the absence of perspective on the contemporary contexts of the organization of the drinking water sector (the inverse movements of privatization and making public again) is regrettable, The Entrepreneur and the Prince, by focusing on the economic players, offers a study at the crossroads of economic, political, and social factors that helps us understand the advent of water as public policy.

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1 See the following titles : Lorrain, Dominique, “La Naissance de l’affermage : coopérer pour exister”, in Entreprises et Histoire, n° 50, 2008, p. 67-85 and Barraqué, Bernard Les Politiques de l’eau en Europe, Paris, La Découverte, 1995.

2 This model eventually was disseminated throughout the world as companies such as the Compagnie générale des eaux and the Lyonnaise des eaux expanded abroad.

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Cécile Coulmain, « Christophe Defeuilley, L’Entrepreneur et le Prince. La création du service public de l’eau », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 13 février 2021, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cécile Coulmain

PhD candidate in Political Science at Université Lyon 2, Laboratoire Triangle (UMR 5206).

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