A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

Introduction

Nineteenth-century France, like other European nations, experienced a complex of changes involving industrialization, urbanization, the commercialization of agriculture, the greater cultural integration of provincial societies into the national whole, politicization and the growth of the modern bureaucratic state. Although this is not the place to discuss the economic changes in great detail, they were clearly of fundamental importance. France went through a period of transition from an economy dominated by agricultural and artisanal forms of industrial production, towards an economy in which - in spite of important continuities with the past - industrial production predominated in terms of the value of the physical product. The balance within the economy was significantly altered, although it must be stressed that agriculture retained its pre-eminence as a source of employment and incomes. A series of innovations occurred, at first gradually and then with increased rapidity from the 1830-40s, and most notably in transportation with railway construction, in the organization of commerce, in various branches of textiles and in metallurgy and engineering. The adaptation of steam as a relatively cheap and flexible source of power was a striking feature of these developments. In total they signified the transition from a civilization based upon wood and water as the primary source of fuel and energy, to one built upon iron and coal.

In many respects what Ernest Labrousse described decades ago as the Ancien Régime économique et sociale survived in France until the 1840s. The events of the revolution had done little to change an essentially pre-industrial economy and society based on small-scale workshops and farms, with low levels of productivity - a system which remained susceptible to frequent crises induced by poor harvests, the resultant substantial rise in food prices and decline in the demand for manufactured goods. The years 1846-7 saw the last major upheaval of this kind. The widespread misery and social tension which ensued, prolonged by the 1848 Revolution and the troubled period which followed it, combined to form a long and intense mid century crisis, brought to an end by the establishment of authoritarian government as a result of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'état in December 1851. Together with the re-establishment of business confidence and an international economic upturn, this created conditions favourable to a renewal of the economic growth so evident in the earlier 1840s. It might be suggested, in fact, that the social impact of the revolution of 1789, great as it was, has been exaggerated, and that a far more decisive turning point in French

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