Most 'Marseille' soap not made in France and likely to remain that way

A protective label, the Indication géographique protégée (IGP), was sought by the four remaining traditional soap makers in the city, but it was rejected by France's highest court

95% of 'Marseille' soap is not actually made in Marseille
Published Last updated

A bid to obtain protected status for Marseille soap has been thrown out by France’s highest court.

The Indication géographique protégée (IGP) label was sought by the four remaining traditional soap makers in the city, in an effort to distinguish their product from the estimated 95% of soaps sold as savon de Marseille around the globe.

The real product is reputed for its softness and because it is suitable for people with allergies.

The four soap makers argued that only soap made within a specific area and in the traditional way – with vegetable oils and caustic soda, cooked for 10 days in an open cauldron and then washed in salt water – should qualify for the IGP label.

Recipe vs city status

However, when they tried to register for the IGP, a large soap maker in Nantes, which includes a savon de Marseille in its production, argued the term simply referred to a recipe for soap-making and not to the city. They were backed by supermarkets and other distributors.

Government agency l’Institut national de la propriété industrielle (INPI) sided with the Nantes soap maker, and when the Marseille manufacturers appealed against the decision the case went to the Cour de cassation, which agreed with INPI.

The four soap makers said they have not given up their battle.

“For us it is not possible that real savon de Marseille can be produced outside our region,” said Guillaume Fiévet, of Savonnerie du Midi.

“It may take time but we will not give up the fight.”

Read more: Artisan soap maker: 'After six years, it still gives me a thrill’

Sales of savon de Marseille have been growing, and the four traditional soap makers, who have formed a loose cooperative for marketing, say they have doubled their sales in 10 years. Marseille soap makers were in the forefront of the birth of the modern French advertising industry, with brightly coloured posters and fanciful brand names for their products from the 19th century on.

The soap was sold in French colonies throughout the world, and even today there is a divide between former French colonies, favouring savon de Marseille, and former British colonies, which prefer Sunlight or Lifebuoy soaps.

Sunlight was the first mass-market soap in the UK made using vegetable oil in a process similar to that used for savon de Marseille.