* French economy

French Economy

Figure 1.--The image come from a postcard sent in 1905. The photo was taken in Avion, in Pas-de-Calais department of France, at the time a coal mining industrial town. We can see five miners, some of them teenagers and barefoot. We also see French and other workers in wooden clogs. This shows the substantial difference between American and European workers. American history textbooks give the impression that American workers lived in poverty an wreched conditions. Actually, American workers were the best paid in the world and led prosperous lives compared to both contemprary Europe and Ametica in the early-19th century. At the time this photograph was taken, you would not see adult American miners and workers without shoes or in clogs.

Until the Industrial Revolution, French economic history was dominated by one simple fact--the tremendous fertility of French agriculure. Ceasar's conquest of Gaul greatly increased the wealth and power of the Roman Empire. Until the conquest of Gaul, Rome was a Mediterranean rather than a European power. With the fall of Rome, the wealth generated by French farmers ensured that France would be an economic and thus political power in medieval Europe. This was especially true as Germany, which should have been the dominant European power, was rent by the conflict between the papacy and Emperor and would not be united until the 19th century. France was also a divided country, but gradually unified around Paris and the French monarchy, France thus became the most powerful continental power for centuries, sustined by its growing popultion and amazingly productive soil. As Europe emerged from the medieval era, France did not pursue the Inquisition like Spain and the Papacy in Italy, thus the country did not become an intelectual backwater like those countries. At the same time it did not become a major intelectual center like England. Nor did become a center of capitalis, like England and the Netherlands. Rather France was constrained by the Feudal system and royal absolutism which inhibited the ability of individuals to develop their talents and abilities. France remained a major power, but in many ways was more backward than England, a much smaller power. England and France had fought the 100 Years wars in the medieval era. At the dawn of the modern era, Louis XIV launched a major effort to expand France's borders. This initiated two cdnturies of intermittent warfare with England and other nrigbors. Given the greater size and potential richness of France, one might have expected France to emerge the victor. This did not occur. French defeats in a series of war stemmed lrgely because its economy was still largely feudal while Britain embraced capitalism fueled by a maritime economy which would give birth to the Industrial Revolution. France would not begin its own Indistrial Revolution until after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution spread to France. Brutain France, and Germany (even before unofication) began the European industrial leaders. They also becamne the leaders in science and education. The Catholic slowed the movement toward public education, although the secientific elite was competitive with Bitain and Germany. As with the rest of Europe, France was overtaken by the United States in the late-19th centyry. Interestingly, France was a rare country in Europe that did not have a substantisl emigration to America. France was different than Britain in that therewas still avey large and politically important small-holding pesant popultion in France.


Until the Industrial Revolution, French economic history was dominated by one simple fact--the tremendous fertility of French agriculure. Ceasar's conquest of Gaul greatly increased the wealth and power of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Germans and thevBritish, the popukation was Romanized, Until the conquest of Gaul, Rome was a Mediterranean rather than a European power. Gaul changed that had rich soil if France at a time that agricukture was the primary source of wealth made Gaul a hugely valuable acquisition. The German barbarians swept aross the Rhine and the Germans chiefs becme the ruling class throughour Western Europe, including Gaul. The disruption of Barbarian invasion brought an end to long distance commerce and civilisation retreated to purely agricultural settlements, and isolated military, church, and aristicratic centers. Even with the fall of Rome, the wealth generated by French farmers ensured that France would be an economic and thus political power in medieval Europe. The collapse of Rome unhinged in Gaul from the Mediterranen world. Urban life in Ronamized Gaul and trade declined, Life in ahat the Merovingian age became centered on the self-sufficient manor. This was the esence of the Feudal System. It was in France that the Feudal system achiieved its greatest flowering. As France emerged from the medieval era, it had the largest population and greatest wwealth of the European powers, in part because Germany wasnot unified and decestated by religious wars. Louis XIV attempted to make France the dominantbpower in Europe, but failed in large measure for economic reasons. His wars and court were very expensive and he and his decendents failed to establisg a solid fiscal ststem. They maintained a largely mercantilist and feudal economic system at a time that Britainb and the Netherlands were mocing toward free market capitalism. The result was France lost the 18th century shiw-down with Britain. The country's economic history the Revolution was buffeted by first the Revolution (1789) and than the the Napoleonic Era, the relatively late and incomplete 'industrialization', (19th century) and the terrible world wars of the 20th century. European integration brought prosperity in the mid-20th century. France like the rest of Europe have adopted socialist policies that haave affected its ability to compete technologically with the United States. Major companies like Rebault require Government subsidies. And a popular welfare system that is unsustaionable, currently depends on deficit spendingand borrowing. The French people have enjoyed a prosperous era, but the future with rising debt loads is unclear.


Agriculture since ancient times was the primsary source of wealth for millennia. The first major civilizations were river valleys because that was where it was easiest to harvest crops. Gradually technology developed tht could yield large scale hrvests away from river vslleys. And no country was blessed with fertile soil and climate so codusive to agriculture as France. With the fall of Rome, France became a major power center for more than a millenium until the Industrial Revolution. With a large population and fertile land, France became a great European power, especially as Germany was divided into competing principalities. The Revolution fundamentally changed French agriculture. Ownership of the land was permanenbtly transferred from the nobility and the church. The Burbon Restoration was unabkle to reverse thus development. Rural France became a land of small independent farms. One imprtant Frehch historian reports that the the revolution "bequeathed to the nation a ruling class of landowners." [Cobban, p 89.] At the same time, Europe had begun to industrialize. And as this process infolded the French power declined. As long as agriculture defineda ciuntry's wealth, France stood out in Europe. As industry became increasingly important, France's great advantage withered away. The industrial revolution began in Britain which became the preminent industrial nation. France after the Napoleonic era also began to industrialize, but vremained peremently behind Britain, Even nore notable, German industry, especially Prussian industrtry began to exceed French infustry. In addition, the French birth rate fell, while population of Britain and Germany increased. There are two developments that adversely affected France. First, Napoleon's Continental System which cut Britain off from the Continrnt. The result was to require Britaion to produce goods that were formerly imported. At the sane tune, without competution from Britain there was not the oressure to innivate. The business crisis of 1810-12 casused futher probems. [Crouzet, 'War'.] This was all compounded by the Bourbon Restoration (1814). The aristocracy thst had survived had not changed. There was the traditional aristicratic disdain for entrepreneurship. The aristiocracy believed in blood lines and land. As a result, British manufsctured products flooded the French market. The Bourbon answer was protectionism abd higher tariffs. The Bourbons sought to protect established businesses. This allowed France to preserve handcrafts and small-scale manufacturing, primarily textiles rather than promoting heavy industry. The French tariff on iron products were as high as 120 percent. [Caron, pp. 95-96.] Paris and many other urban centers had little industry. Economists report relativedly low incomes in France. High ransaction costs and inefficient property rights are seen as part of the problem. A transportation system geared more to military needs than to economic needed are also seen as a problem. [Baten, pp. 21–22.] The most sucessful French economic sector was finance (19th cenbtury). French financial weakness had been a major factor adversely affecting France in its centuries of conflict with Britain. Paris emerged as an international center of finance in the mid-19th century, only surpassed by London. [Plessis]. France thus finally had a powerful national bank and numerous strong private banks that financed projectson Europe and the Empire. One major project was the Suez Canal, funded jointly with Britain. Napoleon III aspired to surpass London and make Paris the premier financial center of the world. This was never achieved, in part because of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). [Cassis and Bussière, chapter 3.] The Rothschild family was an important part of the French banking system, France never surpasssed Britain, but the strength of Britiush and French banks was a major assett in World War I. France led Europe in canal construction (18th century). The country, however, but lagged behind other industrial countries in building railways (early-19th century), such as Britain and Belgium even though it was clear that rail was the future (1830s). This was in part because France lagged with industrial development, especially the iron and coal industry. The Government finally intervened (1840s). Other countries, especially Germany, began to surpass France (19th century). France with its agriculture and indutry, however, has remained a very important country. And French agricuture played an important role in World War I and World War II. During World War II, however, with the fall of France it was harnessed by NAZI Gemany (1940).



Baten, Jörg (2016). A History of the Global Economy. From 1500 to the Present (Cambridge University Press: 2016).

Caron, François. An Economic History of Modern France (1979).

Cassis, Youssef and Éric Bussière. Eeds. London and Paris as International Financial Centres in the Twentieth Century (2005). See chapter 3.

Cobban, Alfred. Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press: 1964), 178p.

Crouzet, François. "French economic growth in the nineteenth century reconsidered," History Vol. 59, No. 196 (1974), pp. 167-79.

Crouzet, François. "Wars, blockade, and economic change in Europe, 1792–1815." Journal of Economic History Vol. 24, No. 4 (1964), pp. 567-88.

Dormois, Jean-Pierre. The French Economy in the Twentieth Century (2004).

Hauser, H. "The characterucric features of French economic history from the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the 18th century," The Econiomic History Review (October 1933).

Munro, John. "The spread of modern indistrializatiomin the 19th century: The 'Slow industrialization' of France, 1789-1914".

Pirenne. Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1927).

Plessis, Alain. "The history of banks in France." in Manfred Pohl and Sabine Freitag, eds. Handbook on the History of European Banks (Edward Elgar Publishing: 1994) pp. 185-296.]



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Last updated: 1:47 PM 11/19/2020