The family was a most remarkable one. His grandfather Jean-Baptiste Say was a well-known economist. His brother Louis Auguste Say (1774-1840), director of a sugar refinery at Nantes, wrote several books against his theories. His son Horace Émile Say (1794-1860), the father of Léon Say, was educated at Geneva, and had travelled in America before establishing himself in business in Paris, where he became president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1848. His careful investigations into the condition of industry at Paris gained for him a seat in the Academy of political and moral sciences, 1857.
Léon Say thus inherited zeal for economic studies, of which he gave proof by publishing at the age of twenty-two a brief Histoire de la caisse descompte. He was at first destined for the law, next entered a bank, and finally obtained a post in the administration of the Chemin de fer du Nord. Meanwhile he became a regular contributor to the Journal des débats, where he established his reputation by a series of brilliant attacks on the financial administration of the prefect of the Seine, Haussmann.
He displayed talent for interesting popular audiences in economic questions. His sympathies, like those of his grandfather, were with the British school of economists; he was, indeed, the hereditary defender of free-trade principles in France. He had, moreover, an intimate acquaintance with the English language and institutions, and translated into French Goschen's Theory of Foreign Exchanges.
He was one of the pioneers of the co-operative movement in France. Elected to the Assembly of 1871 by the departments of Seine and Seine-et-Oise, he adopted the former, and took his seat among the Moderate Liberals, to whose principles he adhered throughout his life. He was immediately chosen as reporter of the commission on the state of the national finances, and in this capacity prepared two elaborate statements. Thiers, though opposing their publication on grounds of public expediency, was much struck by the ability displayed in them, and on June 5 appointed Say prefect of the Seine.
The fall of the empire, the siege of Paris, and the Commune had reduced the administration of the capital to chaos, and the task of reconstruction severely tried the new prefect's power of organization. This was, however, a gift with which he was pre-eminently endowed; and he only quit his post to assume, in December 1872, the ministry of finance--a remarkable tribute to his abilities from Thiers, who himself held strongly protectionist views.
In all other respects Say regarded himself as the disciple of Thiers, who, in his last public utterance, designated Say as one of the younger men who would carry on his work. He fell from office with Thiers on May 24, 1873, and was elected president of the Left Centre group, as whose candidate he unsuccessfully contested the presidency of the Chamber with Buffet. In spite of their divergence of views, he consented, at the urgent request of President MacMahon, to take office in March 1875 in the Buffet Cabinet; but the reactionary policy of the premier led to a dispute between him and Say both in the press and in the constituencies, and brought about Buffet's resignation.
Say continued to hold the ministry of finance under Dufaure and Jules Simon, and again in the Dufaure ministry of December 1877, and its successor, the Waddington ministry, till December 1879. During this long period, in which he was practically the autocratic ruler of the French finances, he had first to complete the payment of the war indemnity--an operation which, thanks largely to his consummate knowledge of foreign exchanges, was effected long before the prescribed time. It was at a conference held between Say, Gambetta and M. de Freycinet in 1878 that the great scheme of public works introduced by the latter was adopted.
Say's general financial policy was to ameliorate the incidence of taxation. As a pendant to his free-trade principles, he believed that the surest way of enriching the country, and therefore the Treasury, was to remove all restrictions on internal commerce. He accordingly reduced the rate of postage, repealed the duties on many articles of prime utility, such as paper, and fought strongly, though unsuccessfully, against the system of octrois.
On April 30, 1880 he accepted the post of ambassador in London for the purpose of negotiating a commercial treaty between France and England, but the presidency of the Senate falling vacant, he was elected to it on May 25, having meanwhile secured a preliminary understanding, the most important feature of which was a reduction of the duty on the cheaper class of French wines.
In January 1882 he became minister of finance in the Freycinet Cabinet, which was defeated in the following July on the Egyptian question. Says influence over the rising generation grew less; his academic Liberalism was regarded as old-fashioned; Socialism, which he never ceased to attack, obtained even greater power, and free-trade was discarded in favor of M. Méline's policy of protection, against which Say vainly organized the Ligue contre le renchrissement du pain. He had, however, a large share in the successful opposition to the income tax, which he considered likely to discourage individual effort and thrift.
In 1889 he quit the Senate to enter the Chamber as member for Pau, in the belief that his efforts for Liberalism were more urgently needed in the popular Assembly. Throughout his career he was indefatigable both as a writer and as a lecturer on economics, and in both capacities exerted a far wider influence than in parliament.
Special mention must be made of his work, as editor and contributor, on the Dictionnaire des finances and Nouveau Dictionnaire d'économie politique. His style was easy and lucid, and he was often employed in drawing up important official documents, such as the famous presidential message of December 1877. He was for many years the most prominent member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, and in 1886 succeeded to Edmond About's seat in the Académie française. He died in Paris on the 21st of April 1896. A selection of his most important writings and speeches has since been published in four volumes under the title of Les Finances de la France sous la troisime république (1898 1901).