A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France

By Roger Price | Go to book overview
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The economy: continuity and change

Introduction

The French economy underwent considerable change during the nineteenth century. At its beginning, a very high proportion of the population worked in agriculture, incomes were low and spent mostly on food and other necessities, demand for manufactured goods was limited, and poor communications further restricted the market. With low levels of demand, techniques in both agriculture and industry remained relatively primitive. From the 1840s the pace of economic change accelerated, with radical alterations to the structure of the economy. This affected the composition of total output and the distribution of employment, and had a profound impact upon society at large. The main problem is how best to describe, and then explain, this change. Economic relationships can only be understood as part of an overall social system. It is thus essential to attempt to understand the interaction of a multiplicity of variables of different types. The historian must, moreover, concern himself not only with change, but also with continuity. The two are interrelated and inseparable.

There is no simple explanation of the economic changes which occurred in France in the nineteenth century. The British example was, of course, an important stimulus due to the threat of competition and the simple desire to emulate, but economic change in France has to be explained primarily in terms of the specific French context - in relation to particular conditions of relief and climate, the structure of market demand, and the supply and cost of the factors of production.

Nineteenth-century economic growth differed from that of previous centuries in that it was sustained and involved major structural changes in both economy and society. The crucial characteristic of this growth was the increase in per capita production revealed in Table 1. The statistics should be treated with caution, due to the problems involved in their collection, but they can be regarded as indicators of general trends.

Demand might be regarded as the initiating force in the development of an economic system. Sustained growth meant breaking out of the vicious circle which in a traditional society resulted in low real income because of low per capita productivity, caused by low levels of investment in capital equipment, which in their turn were the result of low levels of demand due to low real

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