Modern history


The Directory’s distinctive mélange of unexpected reverses, of changes of tack, and of a constantly evolving spectrum of political choices was set against economic upheavals of equally bewildering scale. These were linked to ongoing social and political transformations, but they were also shaped by the vagaries of war, civil and foreign, which affected individuals and social groupings in quite unforeseeable and sometimes catastrophic ways.

At the outset, most Revolutionaries had shown boundless confidence in the capacity of their emancipatory reforms to inaugurate an era of prosperity, by freeing the country from ‘privileged classes’, who were viewed as inhibitory and parasitic. From the reforms of the Constituent Assembly onwards, the framework of the kind of social and economic freedoms consonant with a successful capitalist economy were put in place. The abolition of seigneurial and ecclesiastical dues on the Night of 4 August boosted productive potential, while the nationalization, then sale, of church lands brought between 6 and 10 per cent of cultivable land out of ecclesiastical cold-storage. In addition, the abolition of venality removed a major source of non-productive investment. The removal of tolls and the generalization of free trade boosted circulation and distribution. The removal of economic privilege freed up the productive process, while the abolition of guilds, corporations and workers’ associations (by the Allarde and Le Chapelier Laws of 2 March and 17 June 1791) removed labour restrictions much resented by manufacturers. Employers and workers entered an era of free contract. The move towards uniformity of weights and measures, begun by the Constituent Assembly and brought to fruition under the Thermidorian Convention, reduced transaction costs and provided benchmarks for a national market.

Despite this outstanding legislative achievement, early hopes were cruelly disappointed, and the economic position in 1799, after a decade of Revolution, seemed much poorer than it had been in the (hardly economically brilliant) year of 1789. In some ways, of course, it is silly to draw up a balance-sheet for the economic impact of the Revolution based on the single year of 1799. The dust was still settling after a decade of sometimes frenetic chopping and changing in state policy: the move to laisser-faire from 1789; the complete policy turn-around between 1792 and 1794–5 caused by the Revolutionary government’s acceptance of the need for an authoritarian planned economy; and the return to economic freedom under the Directory. Many of the changes introduced over the decade were likely to have an impact in the longer rather than the shorter term, and in a real sense it was too soon to tell what the impact of the Revolution was. This was all the more the case in that some of what had occurred in the economy by 1799 might well have happened without a revolution taking place. That from 1792 France was at war is a further complicating factor, since disentangling the effects of war from those of Revolution is highly problematic.

Insofar as we are able to judge, it would appear that French GNP in 1799 was running at around 60 per cent of what it had been in 1789. Perhaps the most evident sign of deterioration was the collapse of the most dynamic sector of the eighteenth-century economy – colonial trade. Slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue in 1791 had severely shaken the jewel in France’s colonial crown. But it was war, and in particular the economic blockade of France by the British navy after 1793, which did most damage. The number of sea-going vessels harboured in French ports shrank from around 2,000 to a mere 200 between 1789 and 1797, and over the same period, foreign trade slumped from representing 25 per cent of the national wealth to a mere 9 per cent. There was some degree of readjustment and adaptation, particularly under the Directory: American, Danish, Spanish and other neutral vessels allowed France to keep a trading lifeline out to the Caribbean and to the Indian Ocean. A reprise of privateering and contraband also helped the economy, as did military expansion into the Low Countries, Germany and Italy, which freed up land-based outlets. By 1799, however, French exports were still only around a half of 1789 levels.

The disruption and loss of foreign markets had a highly deleterious effect on those manufacturing sectors which had depended on the import of raw materials or which had specialized in exporting. The gamut of refining, finishing and ancillary industries which had grown up in and around the Atlantic ports suffered particularly badly: sugar-refining factories in Bordeaux fell like flies; up the Garonne at Tonneins, the number of rope-makers dropped from 700 to 200; while many tobacco plants and tanneries using imported hides went out of business. Many commercial cities experienced effective ‘de-urbanization’ – Bordeaux and Marseille, for example, shrank by 10 per cent (as did Paris) – and this also affected nearby rural areas formerly engaged in proto-industrialization. The traditional textiles industries were particularly badly affected. The output of linen in Brittany and Maine fell by a third, and the woollen industries had much the same experience: Carcassonne in Languedoc had produced 60,000 rolls of cloth in 1789; ten years later it was only producing 20,000. The story was identical in Dauphiné and on the Belgian border. Silk suffered too: the number of silkworkers in Nîmes dropped by half, while in Lyon the number of looms working fell from 16,000 to 5,000. Iron and coal extraction also experienced difficulties: the emigration of noble mine-owners and the nationalization of mines owned by the clergy complicated matters here. Production at the great Anzin complex was one-third less in 1800 than it had been in 1789. The vicissitudes of aristocratic owners also help explain the bad times suffered in many iron-works, which were also affected by worsening firewood shortages. Le Creusot, showcase of modernizing heavy industry before the Revolution, fell apart.

The Revolutionary decade was a pretty challenging time for business. The litany of complaints by industrialists was long and heartfelt. Besides disrupting foreign markets, war had led to a reduction in technology transfers from Britain, from now onwards the world’s most highly industrialized nation. The luxury trades had been very badly hit by the emigration of wealthy noble consumers. The financial morass of the 1790s had an appalling effect on all businesses. Over-production of paper currency fuelled spiralling inflation down to 1797. When government then acted to right the situation, it initiated a severe and damaging period of deflation. This financial instability – plus the emigration and the practice of hoarding – made specie in short supply, while credit remained rare and dear. Two paper money débâcles within a single century – John Law’s System and the assignat – gave Frenchmen an enduring distrust of the phenomenon. If war seemed to be paying for itself by the late 1790s, moreover, this did not alter industrialists’ view that taxes were still punitively high. This was all the more irritating in that workers’ wages appeared to have gone up over the 1790s: industrialists blamed the war for this, through potential workers being drawn away from the labour market into the army, allowing those who remained at home to be grasping and insubordinate. The business community was not always appreciative of the freedoms which the government had given them, and pined for a measure of the protection which the Bourbon state had formerly afforded.

Some of the problems of the 1790s would have occurred even without the dual impact of war and Revolution. Le Creusot, for example, had been a highly fragile creation. In addition, France was already by 1789 losing its competitiveness in many overseas markets, notably to the English.33 Similarly, some of the problems of linen and woollen textiles and the silk industry pre-dated the Revolution, and they were to a considerable extent a reflection of changing consumer taste, which preferred cotton. And cotton did very well in the 1790s. Despite problems of supply of raw cotton, the cotton-works in Paris, Rouen, Alsace and the Lille area boomed. The Rouen factories were producing 32,000 kilos of cotton in 1800 where in 1789 they had managed 19,000. This was partly a result of improved mechanization, notably through the diffusion of the spinning jenny. Chemical works also prospered – dyes were used to make materials more colourful and attractive. The picture was far from bleak even in industries which overall were in decline: by 1799, the Anzin mines almost quadrupled their output against 1794 levels, while the coal-fields in the Gard were also by then starting to perform strongly again.

These developments demonstrated how, alongside the headaches, the Revolutionary decade provided new opportunities for enrichment. Revolutionary legislators had supplied businessmen with a superb institutional platform for economic development. In addition, the state’s commitment to warfare offered a promising terrain for business: war might have damaged many merchants and industrialists, but it was a blessing for those who attached their fortunes to the military effort. Prior to 1792, the textiles manufactories at Montauban and Castres had been totally dependent on Levantine and Caribbean markets, for example. When these disappeared, they shifted into production of army uniforms and military blankets – and prospered. Iron-works which produced either cannon or small arms also boomed, stimulated by the efforts of Revolutionary government to equip the levée en masse. ‘Let locksmiths cease to make locks,’ had enthused Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varenne, in a CPS decree. ‘The locks of liberty are bayonets and muskets.’34 The Revolutionary government supplied not only capital and infrastructure but also manpower: semi-conscripted labour was supplied for war manufactories under the closed economy of Year II. In addition, contracts for army supply became a notorious source of enrichment, especially as government bureaucracy could be evaded (or, under the Directory, bribed), allowing much scope for embezzlement and racketeering. The nouveaux riches of the Directory more likely than not had their fingers in the army-contract pie. The millionaire Ouvrard had started the Revolution as a grocery clerk in Nantes, but made his money in paper-manufacturing in the early 1790s before landing the contract for provisioning the entire French navy (followed by the Spanish navy to boot) with all its requirements.

The national lands which came on to the market were also a real bonanza for businessmen, who bought in considerable numbers. In some cases, this merely represented the old bourgeois ethic of buying land to secure gentlemanly status and leave trade behind. In general, though, motives were mixed. Diversification of income streams made better sense in a period of economic difficulty, and land traditionally held its value better than other forms of investment – all the more so when purchased in hyper-depreciatedassignats.Given the meagreness of credit mechanisms available, moreover, the purchase of land could be seen as a means of acquiring collateral for business development. Industrialists and merchants brought good business practice to the estates they purchased: the success of Bordeaux fine wines on the northern European markets owed a good deal to imported business acumen. Big town-based monasteries and convents also provided very handy ready-made spaces for factory production – as cotton masters in particular soon showed. The brother of the Toulouse Conventionnel Boyer-Fonfrède purchased an ex-monastery in his home city which he made into a cotton-works, employing orphans and foundlings from the local poor-house. (Two other Toulouse ex-monasteries were also hard at work in the city at the same time, producing cannons and bayonets.) The Boyer-Fonfrède case highlighted another advantage which the Revolution had brought to industrialists: by removing guild controls and deregulating labour, it made the industrial employment of small children (and of women for that matter) much more common and accepted. In addition, Boyer-Fonfrède relied on advice from a Yorkshireman who had chosen to stay in France even after war was declared, highlighting the continued possibility of cross-Channel technology transfers. Other businesses used English prisoners-of-war as a means of acquiring apprenticed skills from English workshops.

Although war had removed established foreign markets, internal demand had not collapsed as disastrously as might have been feared. The loss – as a result of exile, imprisonment, execution or intimidation – of the big spenders of the eighteenth-century economy on whom the luxury trades had relied was a heavy blow. Luxury might have been frowned upon in the virtuous days of the Terror, but after Thermidor – both in Paris and the other big cities – conspicuous consumption returned with a bang, a bang which caused intense annoyance to any remaining sans-culottes. Thermidorian Paris became – and remained – the byword for display. There were the mad fashions sported by the extraordinarily (by turns over- and under-) dressed Incroyables and Merveilleuses, the guzzling of champagne, and the ingestion of bountiful meals in smart restaurants (a recent invention). Though there was never to be a return to the kind of showy male styles popularized by the pre-1789 nobility – the enduring fashion for men was the dark business suit, with unpowdered hair – women’s styles were more exuberant. Almost the first thing that happened to returning émigrée Madame de La Tour du Pin when she arrived in Mont de Marsan in 1796 was that the local hairdresser offered her 200 francs for her hair, which he could sell with profit to the Parisian wig-makers, who were crying out for beautiful hair for ‘fair wigs’.35 Haute couture was re-emerging. On top of their commitment to Directorial dolce vita, arriviste businessmen who were doing so well out of the war also showed an interest in artistic patronage: Ouvrard’s favourite château at Raincy, near Paris, for example, had thirty-two Doric columns lining the vestibule and was decorated with outrageously wealthy and conspicuous taste.

The potential size of the internal market had not diminished. Many towns suffered a drop in population levels; nearly half a million men were lost in the Revolutionary wars; and maybe around 200,000 individuals emigrated (though many of these had started to return by 1800). Yet overall population size rose – from perhaps 28.6 million in 1790 to 29.1 million in 1800 – and the conquered territories also represented significant ancillary demand. Furthermore, an important effect of the British blockade had been to reduce competition from English manufactured goods, which had caused so much grief in the late 1780s: the French field had been effectively left free for the French manufacturers to exploit.

Sir Francis d’Ivernois, a perceptive observer of the French scene at century turn, felt that the transfer of incomes caused by the Revolution, ‘from the class of consuming landowners to that of non-consuming [but landowning] farmers’ produced real problems for France’s manufacturing sector.36 The expropriation and then sale of the estates of the church and of the émigrés had reduced demand at the luxury end of the market and also led to a fragmentation of the large properties on which agricultural improvement had often taken place since the 1750s. Yet though the structure of the rural economy had certainly experienced significant change, its impact on the overall pattern of demand was probably less than d’Ivernois thought. Many of the big estates still survived. Nor was the peasantry a broken reed in terms of demand for manufactured products.37

Although the return of top-end elite consumption after Thermidor constituted the most spectacular proof of the new buoyancy of demand, there was also abundant evidence of a recrudescence of middling and even quite humble tastes for fashionable objects. Manufacturers catered for this demand by using techniques of ‘populuxe’ cost-cutting and import substitution, around which, prior to 1789, a good deal of French industry had been orientated.38 ‘We need iron, not cotton,’ proclaimed Saint-Just at the height of the Terror.39 This rallying call only made sense in the context of the difficulty of the CPS to enforce its patriotic criteria over a public well inured to fashion and consumerism (and which had instigated sugar riots in Paris in the early 1790s). Despite its commitment to ascetic Spartan virtue, even the Revolutionary government made concessions to consumer change: the General Maximum fixed the prices of ‘objects of first necessity’, and extended that ‘necessity’ list to cover a veritable cornucopia of butters, cheeses, honeys, wines, eaux-de-vie, anchovies, almonds and figs plus nearly a score of different kinds of coffee, half a dozen sugars and as many tobaccos, plus tortoise shells, camel-hair and much else besides. After 1795, moreover, it was not just cotton that was à la mode:fashion was back in fashion too. The contemporary problems of the wool and linen industries, for example, owed a good deal to the fact that choosy consumers, including many peasants and workers, were preferring to purchase cotton goods – to the considerable benefit, as we have seen, of the cotton industry. Particularly strong recovery was evident in Directorial Paris for luxury and semi-luxury items popularized as ‘articles de Paris’ – watches, ribbons, glasses, jewels, earthenware and sundry knick-knacks. Parisian shops and cafes were soon ‘swimming in abundance’.40 In the countryside, too, contemporary observer Jacques Peuchet noted, many peasants were picking up on new consumer habits such as hats, boots and shoes for the first time. As d’lvernois commented, reflecting on the across-the-board increase in wages in the late 1790s, they were ‘better dressed because they are better paid’.41 Agricultural wages may have risen by 80 per cent on 1789 levels, and peasants remained within the outer fringes of the consumer markets which had been opened up over the course of the eighteenth century. Many English tourists who visited France in the brief respite of peace in 1802–3 would express surprise at the general levels of prosperity among the lower orders, which did not fit at all with the received propaganda about them being emaciated, blood-drinking wraiths. The peasantry were indeed, as we shall see, amongst the major beneficiaries of the new regime.

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