The term Industrial Revolution, invented over a century ago to describe the rapid economic transformation of Britain, is not entirely appropriate to describe the change of manufacturing methods in modern France. To be sure, the two economies appear remarkably similar now, but France’s transition to an industrial economy was much more gradual. French industrial production lagged behind that of Britain and Germany for many decades.
This pace was in large part the result of the slow expansion of the French population relative to population growth in virtually all other countries of Europe. During the 19th century, the British population increased by about 350 percent, the German population increased by about 250 percent, and the overall European population more than doubled. But the French population increased by only 40 percent, to about 39 million. French mortality rates did decline—from 25.3 per 1,000 between 1816 and 1820 to 18.3 per 1,000 during the period from 1911 to 1913. However, the birthrate declined more—from 32.9 per 1,000 from 1816 to 1820 to 18.8 per 1,000 from 1911 to 1913, which was unusually low for Europe in this period.
Part of the explanation for France’s low birthrate lies in the persistence of the peasantry, which grew in absolute size, although it declined as a fraction of the total population. Peasants were typically forced to limit family size because they earned only very modest incomes from cultivating small plots and working at a variety of low-paying jobs. Some peasants migrated to the cities in search of work, but France’s urban growth was modest relative to Britain’s. Only 14 percent of the French population inhabited cities of over 10,000 by 1851, compared to 39 percent of the British population.
Slower rates of population and urban growth meant smaller domestic demand for industrial goods. The foreign market did little to increase this demand because France exported only 8 percent of its manufactured products until the 1840s. High protective tariffs until the 1860s reduced foreign competition that might have stimulated innovation.
As in Britain, industrialization in France began in the textile industry. It then spread to heavy industry, especially iron, which became the dominant industrial sector by the mid-19th century. Not all sectors of manufacturing were immediately affected by the Industrial Revolution. Until the 1880s, for example, glassware continued to be produced by small family firms of skilled workers employing traditional, manual glassblowing techniques.
Beginning in the 1840s, railroad construction powerfully transformed all sectors of the French economy, spearheading an economic boom that lasted until the 1860s. Earlier in the 19th century, canal and road building had begun to create a truly national market, but the railroads allowed goods to reach virtually all areas of France by World War I (1914-1918). Railroad construction also stimulated demand for metal to produce rails and rolling stock. Railroads did not, however, prevent the onset of a serious economic recession beginning in the 1860s. The recession was caused primarily by the inability of French agricultural and industrial producers to meet the growing worldwide competition for markets to which a reduction in tariffs in 1860 had exposed them. The recession slowed but did not halt French industrial growth until the strong recovery of the 1890s. Between the 1890s and World War I, French economic growth accelerated to twice the rate of the previous three decades.
The impact of industrialization on French society was strong, but not so dramatic as in Britain and Germany, where faster rates of economic change altered the landscape within a few decades. Paris suffered critical problems related to health and traffic congestion because it was so large and grew relatively rapidly. In the 1850s the government undertook a massive program of urban reconstruction under the leadership of the George Eugène, baron d’Haussmann, who was prefect of the Seine. Haussmann demolished many buildings, widened streets, and constructed a massive network of waterworks and sewers. Haussmann’s projects, which were accompanied by a great deal of private rebuilding, transformed Paris from a medieval city into a modern city and provided a model of urban renewal followed in other French cities.
Industrialization also led to the formation of a French working class. The industrial labor force expanded from 1.9 million in the period between 1803 and 1812 to 6.7 million in 1913. However, as late as 1906, only about a quarter of these people worked in establishments of more than 50 workers, while the remainder worked in smaller businesses. Many people worked under dangerous conditions, lived in overcrowded housing, and had little employment security. The living standards of most workers did not begin to rise substantially until the boom of the 1850s. This improvement was followed by further uneven rises until World War I.
Peasants, too, improved their standard of living during the 19th century, as comforts once known to only a few became more common. Some peasants had maintained commercial relations with urban areas for centuries. However, the coming of railroads and the opening of state-supported schools, especially during the Third Republic, broke down the commercial and cultural isolation of others. Standardized French gradually replaced old dialects. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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