Modern history


The grim canopy which death had cast over the last years of the reign of Louis XIV was thus beginning to lift. The social and demographic scene was now marked by dynamism, not stasis. Mortality crises were becoming less of a threat to life and limb; life expectancy was increasing; and population was growing. As a long demographic cycle drew to a close, moreover, the stirrings of durable economic expansion were detectable, linked not only to demographic buoyancy and rural recovery but also to advances in trade and manufacturing. From the death of Louis XIV down to the Revolution, France’s population would grow by one-third, from 21.6 million in 1715 to 28.6 million in 1789, while its trade with Europe increased fourfold and that with its colonies expanded tenfold – a record that no other European power, even England, its perennial competitor, could match. Although it was very precisely in the period down to the 1750s that some of the most impressive changes were occurring, contemporaries down to mid-century showed only a patchy and flawed perception of these dramatic, almost subterranean transformations and the steady advance of commercial capitalism. Health and wealth were achieved by stealth.

Partly, the improvement in France’s economic performance was recuperatory after the bad last years of Louis XIV’s reign. Even before 1715, however, there had been silver linings in the black clouds, including the emergence of the most dynamic sector of France’s economy over the eighteenth century as a whole: colonial, and particularly Caribbean, trade. The tonnage of France’s commercial shipping was some three and a half times higher in 1715 than it had been in 1667, and ports such as Saint-Malo and Dunkirk had profited from engaging wholeheartedly in privateering, which helped to recircuit English and Dutch trading commodities into France. The sugar trade based in the West Indies was also beginning its brilliant career. As recently as 1685, there had been no sugar plantations at all on Saint-Domingue, forthcoming jewel in France’s colonial crown; by 1717 there were over 100 plantations, and the black slave workers within them, shipped across from Africa, rose from 9,000 in 1700 to 24,000 in 1715. By 1730 they numbered 80,000. The island’s sugar production – 7,000 tonnes in 1714 – had sextupled by 1742 (and would increase tenfold by 1789). France’s other two main West Indian colonies – Guadeloupe and Martinique – also saw their slave populations quadruple between 1686 and 1720. The sugar islands engaged in the production of indigo dye and a little tobacco and cotton as well, though production of the latter substances never reached the levels achieved elsewhere in the Americas. From the late 1720s, Martinique in particular added another commodity, coffee (which had hitherto entered Europe from Arabia). The value of imports of sugar and indigo from Saint-Domingue alone increased seventeenfold between Utrecht and the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756.

The buoyancy in international trade was helped by the fact that the serious currency depreciation and low wages current in the last years of Louis XIV made French manufacturing exports extremely competitive against European rivals. The same was true of those sectors of the agrarian economy geared to cash-crop rather than cereal production, such as viticulture. Once peace had been established, the total of French exports doubled in less than a decade, only to go on to double again by the early 1740s. The rate of export growth down to 1748 – roughly 4 per cent annually – was overall more striking than in the following period (down to 1789 it averaged less than 2 per cent). This pattern was matched in the demographic sphere: the highest annual population growth rates in the century were achieved from the 1710s to around 1740.

This strong performance also highlighted the fact that, despite the grim final years of Louis XIV’s reign, structural damage to the economy was limited and the bases of expansion were still intact. France’s agrarian riches were complemented by an impressive range of industries, which Colbert’s mercantilist policies had done much to develop. Though few regions were totally without some form of industry – the autarchic reflex died hard – the provinces of Normandy, Picardy, Flanders and Champagne in particular had a strong manufacturing orientation. Although there was a good deal of industrial concentration, much of the productive process took place in the countryside, ‘proto-industry’ adding to the resources at the disposal of a peasantry emerging, as we have suggested, from relative torpor in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Woollen textile manufacturing was present in all the main textiles areas, as also in the Lyonnais, Touraine, the Maine, Auvergne and along a crescent running from upper Languedoc and the Vivarais through to the Pyrenees. Linen textile production was well developed in the north-west and in the Dauphiné, and the manufacturing of silk cloths around Lyon and Nîmes. France’s coal deposits – exploited notably around Saint-Étienne, Carmaux, along the Loire, near Valenciennes and, from the 1730s, at Anzin – made less of an impact on the supply of power than in neighbouring England, which also eclipsed France in iron working. France’s metal-production was most concentrated in the east and north-east, but there were outposts in Flanders, Normandy and the Pyrenees. Other specialisms of note included the paper industry, which was dispersed around Troyes, Orléans, the Perche, Auvergne, the Limousin and the AngouCmois, and glassworks at Saint-Gobain. Limoges and Nevers specialized in ceramics and pottery, while the porcelain created at the royal manufactory at Sèvres (which Louis XV placed under the tutelage of Madame de Pompadour) was becoming a world leader by the late 1750s.

Sèvres illustrated a particular feature of French production which won it eminence on world markets, namely, its orientation around fashionability. From the late seventeenth century, Lyon silk merchants had developed a fashion-driven production cycle by which they launched new goods at high prices, and then, as industrial competitors began to copy and emulate their styles, they junked stock at bargain-basement levels, at the same time launching a new style, to which competitors again took time to react. ‘Fashion’s empire’28 fitted neatly with the spirit of novelty, variety and surprise which were intrinsic to the rococo decorative style prevalent over the first half of the eighteenth century. It spread to the full range of the luxury goods for which the French became famous on world markets: silks, fashionable clothing, silverware, mirrors, furniture, fine wines and brandies, chinaware and the like.

France’s distinctive fashion-driven production cycle was envied by foreigners and had been praised by Colbert, who noted that ‘fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to the Spanish’, as well as by John Law.29 In the period between Utrecht and mid-century it constituted an important element in the good times enjoyed by numerous sectors of French industry. The traditional textiles industries boomed: wool production doubled at Amiens and tripled in Beauvais over these years, and Lyonnais silk production doubled too. Cotton – the greatest textiles success story of the century – was by mid-century already beginning to displace woollen and linen cloths both within France and on foreign markets. Restricted before the 1720s and 1730s to the Rouen area, the production of light cotton cloths spread thereafter in Normandy and western France, with production doubling between 1732 and 1766 – and accelerating thereafter. Heavy industry also made substantial progress, while the luxury goods in which France excelled maintained their pre-eminence too: the fancy glassware of Saint-Gobain, for example, doubled output between 1715 and 1739. French goods generally were strong on quality: merchants and manufacturers endlessly bemoaned the restrictions placed upon them by factory inspectors – but a concern for quality control gave French goods cachet on home and international markets.

One of the hallmarks of France’s vibrant economic performance over the century as a whole was its thoroughgoing engagement with the sea, an engagement which contrasted with the country’s habitually terrestrial orientation. The French state’s long-term geo-political strategy and the economy’s sturdy, subsistence-orientated agrarian base gave a landed look to a country which in fact had an exceptionally long sea-coast. Much of France had turned its back on the sea, regarding littoral communities as alien bodies, full of godless heathens (the Counter-Reformation had made notoriously little impact on sea-going superstitions), whose experiences transcended the normal round. As late as 1701, a Bordeaux ship’s captain was able to persuade his employers that he had lost his cargo off Newfoundland to a fire-breathing dragon looming out of the deep.30 The call of the sea was the call of trade – and in the seventeenth century the Bourbon state had done much to heed it, and to push the French towards forsaking their distrust of blue water. Under first Richelieu, then Colbert and Louis XIV, the government established a global trading network. The rationale behind commercial and colonial ventures was that the wider world provided agricultural products and raw materials, in return for the home country’s manufactured goods – a transfer which would boost home industries at the expense of commercial rivals. (European statesmen regarded mercantile wealth as relatively inelastic, so that anything one state gained would necessarily disadvantage her international competitors.) What had been achieved by 1700 was undeniably damaged by the wars of the last years of Louis XIV’s reign. The English and the Dutch – those other classic seventeenth-century interlopers – increasingly gained the upper hand over France, and at the Utrecht peace settlement the French received some telling blows. The Asiento – the valuable monopoly of provisioning Spain’s New World colonies with plantation slaves – had been placed in French hands by Bourbon Spain in 1702, but in 1713 was awarded to the English. France also lost at Utrecht Nova Scotia (‘Acadia’) and the far north, which was held by England’s Hudson Bay Company. But it held on to its main North American colony, Canada, and the Caribbean sugar islands.

Sweated slave labour in the Caribbean producing exotic commodities formed the nub of a complex set of worldwide systems of exchange involving all the major colonial powers. Characterized as ‘triangular trade’, the complexity of the patterns of exchange often belied simple geometry. One notable triangle involved the shipping of cheap and gaudy trinkets, pots, cloths and firearms (plus on occasion New World-produced rum) from the mother country to West Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves. Across the Atlantic, these were sold to planters in return for colonial commodities which were then shipped back to Europe. But the story did not end there, since a good deal of colonial imports – three-quarters of sugar, for example, and four-fifths of coffee – was immediately re-exported. The most notable destination for France’s colonial goods was northern Europe. France had long sustained substantial trading links with this area, exchanging manufactured and luxury goods, plus salt, wine and spirits against Baltic timber, iron, naval goods and Polish and Ukrainian – surprisingly perhaps – grain (for despite agriculture’s massive commitment to cereal farming, France was a net importer of grain). Although England consumed around one-third of all sugar imported into Europe, it was France which took over the north European provisioning, working through Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bremen, Stettin, and Saint Petersburg. By mid-century, France had begun to supply northern Europe’s coffee requirements too.

Other ambiguously triangular sets of trading relationships involved France, Canada and the sugar islands. Canada’s fur trade – crucial to French hat production – was based on the French supplying native Indian tribes with alcohol, firearms, woollen goods and trinkets in exchange for the furs. But the colony also produced grain, leathers, timber and iron which were traded in the Caribbean. The sugar islands also took some of the cod fished by French fleets off Newfoundland. Though slave populations did not offer much in the way of demand, Canadian farmers and trappers, native American populations and planter populations had more disposable income. The French formally required them to spend this on French or Canadian produce: thus Saint-Domingue planters, for example, ate white bread made of European grains and dressed their wives in the latest Parisian fashions. Overall, however, France was far less successful than England in developing its own colonies as outlets for its manufactured goods. Emigration to its colonies was not a mass phenomenon in France: over the century, it involved probably far less than 200,000 French individuals – a figure which bore scant comparison with the quarter of a million Huguenots expelled after 1685, the huge numbers of intra-European migrations, or the 2 million Spanish and the 1.8 million English people who emigrated to colonies. Canada’s population swelled to around 60,000 by 1761, the white population of the French West Indies hovered at around 50,000 – yet the English North American colonies had a population of some 2 million by mid-century, 3 million by its end. This constituted a far broader and more economically stimulating demand base than French colonies could offer.

To France’s considerable irritation, moreover, its West Indian colonies were also illicitly supplied in many of their requirements by England and its North American colonies. This was only one example of a generalized disregard for monopolistic trading arrangements within the Americas. France was as guilty as anyone, supplying England’s North American colonists with cheaper sugar than British islands such as Jamaica could manage, and flouting Spain’s restrictions on trade with its own colonies almost as brazenly as did the English. The English had signed the Methuen Treaty with Portugal in 1703, which allowed them to edge into the trade in gold which had been mined in considerable quantities in Brazil from the 1690s. French interloping was aimed at both this and also – rather more successfully – at trading with Spanish American colonies selling manufactured goods so as to secure Mexican silver, the other main metallic product of the Americas.

The close trading links which France built up with Spain from 1715 down to 1750 helped French penetration of the Spanish American market. Lyon and Marseille were the main generators of activity here. Marseille was also the key port for trade with the Levant, which had been building up even during the last years of Louis XIV’s wars. Alongside sundry luxury goods and silks from Lyon and the Vivarais, woollen goods from the Rouen area, Champagne and Languedoc were much appreciated commodities, exchanged for light Levantine cloths. France proved able to eject British competition from this Mediterranean market as successfully as it was concurrently doing in northern Europe.

The Levant had traditionally acted as a staging post for commodities coming from the Far East, but the latter region was accessed increasingly in the eighteenth century by sea routes. European demand for Asian goods and commodities diversified – Indian cotton cloths and muslins, Persian carpets, precious woods and lacquered goods, porcelain, camphor, tea and rice joined the peppers and spices which had been the region’s main export commodity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. France developed Île Bourbon (Réunion) and Île de France (Mauritius), into which slave populations were also introduced, as serviceable staging posts of the eastern trade. The trading partners did not provide a strong demand for European products in return – China in particular was most sniffy in this respect – so under another ‘triangular’ trading arrangement, the silver and gold which had been gained from Spanish and Spanish American trading and interloping made up the shortfall. France had established trading posts on the Indian coast from the late seventeenth century onwards, utilizing, like its European competitors, chartered trading companies to penetrate the region. The Indies Company (Compagnie des Indes) had had tough times under Louis XIV and then John Law, but was totally reorganized in 1731 and proved a potent force in Indian political and economic life, with the Company’s Governor-General Dupleix building up a powerful political bloc in the region prior to the 1740s, often at the expense of the English.

‘All France’s wealth’, stated the Italian wit and philosophe, abbé Galiani, in 1770, ‘is concentrated on its frontiers, all its big opulent cities are on its edges and the interior is fearfully weak, empty and thin.’31 This was an exaggeration – but an understandable one. While the population of Paris grew relatively slowly over the century from about half a million in 1700 to 650,000 in 1789, the growth of peripheral cities was more impressive: land frontier cities such as Lyon (97,000 to 146,000), Strasbourg (26,500 to 50,000) and Lille (57,500 to 62,500) did well, but were outstripped by port cities linked to booming overseas trade: Nantes grew from 42,500 to 80,000, Marseille from 75,000 to 110,000, and Bordeaux from 45,000 to 110,000, while the combined forces of Rouen and Le Havre rose from 72,000 to 91,000. Bordeaux had impressed Turkish envoy Mehmed efendi in 1720 as incomparable in terms of wealth, trade and buildings among the provincial cities he visited, and on the eve of the Revolution the English agronomist Arthur Young – usually a harsh critic of the French economy – was dazzled by the ‘commerce, wealth and magnificence’ of the city, which owed its grandeur to massive involvement in the slave trade, sugar exports and re-exports, and the export of its own wines and spirits.32 The value of the city’s external trade expanded from 13 million livres in 1717 to over 50 million in the 1740s, by which time it was concentrating around one-quarter of all French foreign trade.

Galiani’s remark highlighting the supposed centrifugality of the economy, with a coastal France looking outwards and plugged into world trading patterns on one hand contrasting, on the other, with a backward and sterile rural France, was another of the myths about French social development which – like the issue of ‘depopulation’ – comprehensively fooled contemporaries (and subsequently many historians). The comment signally underestimated the extent to which France’s external trade-driven economic performance down to mid-century profited the country as a whole, blurring the contrast Galiani noted. The volume of overseas trade was always small when set against the kind of transfers associated with the everyday business of subsistence at home: the grain trade, for example, dwarfed colonial trade in volume and value, while between three-fifths and three-quarters of France’s total trade was with Europe. Nevertheless, the profits to be derived from global commerce were very high and of great potential benefit to the wider economy. Despite the tendency to re-export colonial goods as soon as they reached French shores, colonial commodities were finished and processed in the hinterland – even quite some distance into the interior. Sugar refineries studded the Bordelais, for example, but probably the biggest such works were located at Orléans, accessible from Nantes along the Loire river. Similarly the production of cloths for the Levant was located well into the interior behind Marseille, which monopolized the trade, in regions like the Vivarais and the Cévennes which to the outside eye seemed immired in archaic farming practices. The good river system which irrigated each of the period’s most dynamic ports – Nantes, Bordeaux, Rouen-Le Havre, Marseille, which together dealt with some 90 per cent of the Atlantic trade – was a further guarantee of the productive uses of commercial capital. The very wide geographical spread of proto-industrialization in rural areas throughout France also gave Galiani the lie.

What seems to have been a steady rise in demand for manufactured goods after 1715 testified to the buoyancy of the whole economy, and not simply the performance of regions most directly tied in with booming colonial trade. Rising population produced steady pressure on land – with the result that income from agricultural rents started growing steadily from the late 1720s onwards, allowing the disposable income of the social elite to grow accordingly. What was, however, most impressive about the volume and shape of demand in the decades after the 1720s and early 1730s was the solidity of demand for manufactured products – more varied clothes, shoes, pottery, cutlery, tools, soap and the like – from a middling and even lower middling sort constituency. Wages were generally not keeping up with the rise in prices over the period – but the fact that there was more work about because of commercial and industrial recovery meant that even many poorer households received waged income from more of their members, and thus packaged together a family budget which left some surplus for spending on non-subsistence commodities. This was perhaps truest of the town – but the development was far from unknown in many rural areas. The trend towards a steady rise in the price of agricultural produce from around 1733 onwards meant that many peasant families which had been forced below the breadline in the tough years of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries came up into a situation where they had money to invest or to spend. The nefarious John Law had been helpful to many such families too, by allowing debts to be repaid or annulled and mortgages redeemed. While the rise in prices and the drop in their purchasing power put many peasants into difficult circumstances, many middling and upper peasant households began to do something whose rudiments they had almost forgotten: to prosper.

Little credit was generally given to the state for these novel, optimistic and even somewhat baffling developments. ‘We understand trade in France’, crowed Voltaire, ‘better than anyone knew it from Pharamond [first mythical Frankish king] to Louis XIV,’33 but the general sense was that this had come about despite rather than because of the government. ‘This empire govern[s] itself,’ was the opinion of anti-court polemicist Toussaint,34 reflecting a more widespread conviction that France had become a global trading power in the early eighteenth century in a fit of absence of mind. Certain contributory factors to the changed economic situation were beyond even the knowledge of the state – the booming population growth, for example – while others, such as the beneficent effect of the John Law imbroglio in debt-clearance, were far from intended. Yet it would be wrong to imagine that the state made little contribution to economic growth. Though European power politics lay at the heart of the government’s diplomacy, commercial factors did count. Fleury re-established a royal Council of Commerce and though it met only rarely, it served to register merchants’ interests at the heart of government. It also acted as a bulwark for the maintenance of the monetary stability of the livre, which had been set in 1726. Perhaps most important of all in this respect was a very dynamic communications policy, exemplified most brilliantly, as we have seen, by the work of the Ponts et Chaussées department. By 1739, English visitor Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was commenting favourably on the prosperous transformation which had overcome the face of the countryside since she had last visited the Continent in the aftermath of the Treaty of Utrecht: ‘the roads are all mended, and the greatest part of them paved as well as thestreets of Paris, planted on both sides like the roads in Holland … It is incredible the air of plenty and content that is over all the country.’35

Indubitably the most crucial contribution which government made to boosting economic performance after 1713, however, was its avoidance of expensive warfare. Peace had been, in many respects, the big idea, the prime strategic objective, of both the Regent and Fleury – and one to which, at Aix-la-Chapelle, even Louis XV seemed to be paying grudging, if transient adherence. It provided an appropriate context for economic recovery, if only because in conditions of expensive state-maintained standing armies and a European arms race, war was simply too expensive for an economy beleagured by Louis XIV’s wars to contemplate. Peace meant that tax was light and rose only slowly down to the 1740s – it was probably roughly half the per capita tax load being paid by the English, for example, and in these buoyant economic conditions was probably declining as a share of average income. Fleury and his self-effacing ministerial team thus deserve a good deal of credit for providing the political and economic circumstances in which recovery and growth could take place from the second quarter of the century, inaugurating golden years in France’s economic history.

Even the venerable Hercule, however, had his Achilles’s heel: namely, the navy. Fleury was doubtless prudent to prescribe a goodly dose of peace as a means to achieve economic prosperity, but he failed to appreciate the extent to which the development of the overseas trade sector depended on French merchant vessels receiving adequate protection from rival trading powers – especially the English. He largely endorsed the Regent’s decision to renounce earlier ambitions of maintaining parity in navy size with the English, even though Navy Minister Maurepas perennially made the case for catching up. ‘Protection’, the latter urged the king in a memorandum in 1730, ‘is absolutely necessary for trade.’36 Only as a result of the navy’s poor performance against the English in the War of Austrian Succession was the message heard, and large sums started to be poured into ship-building. The global dimension of that war had also set alarm bells ringing: if it highlighted the need for better naval protection for trade, it also underlined the importance of resisting economic vulnerability in these circumstances by building up the indigenous economy, especially in the countryside. A wave of ‘agromania’ was triggered by the sudden appearance in the immediate aftermath of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle of numerous tracts on improving farming – after more than a century of conspicuous silence on this front. Agrarian self-sufficiency was a virtue again.

It was very worrying, therefore, that by the mid-1750s, France seemed to be drifting towards a further global conflict against the English whilst still at a signal disadvantage as regards the security its navy could provide for its merchants, and without there having been a sufficient time-gap for agrarian reforms to have strengthened France’s rural economy. The Seven Years War was to prove a come-uppance for decades of naval neglect. It would place a question-mark against France’s commercial performance and international position. And it would provide a knock to the great nation’s confidence in itself as a major power, providing a fertile terrain for critics of government on a developing public sphere.

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