Modern history


In his Confessions, one of the best-sellers of the 1780s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau recalled how once, when a young man in 1731, he had got lost walking from Paris to Lyon and sought shelter at a rough peasant dwelling. The inhabitant offered him only crudely made barley bread and milk, but eventually, after careful scrutiny, determining that he was not an agent of the General Farm come to squeeze more tax out of him, opened a trap-door in his kitchen, and descended to bring up a white loaf, an appetizing haunch of ham and a good bottle of wine. Rousseau cursed the country where public oppression was such that a well-off farmer, to avoid the inquisitive eye of the tax-collector, ‘dared not eat the bread which he had earned by the sweat of his brow, and could only avoid his ruin by displaying the same poverty as reigned all round him’.20

Rousseau’s little story is a kind of parable about France’s social and economic identity. Appearances were often highly misleading – and were indeed intended to mislead. Just as members of the labouring classes protected themselves against the tax-man by sporting the trappings of distress, so, at the other end of the scale, a Controller-General could consider, as we have seen, that the best way for France to re-establish itself as a great state was to appear as if it already was. Similarly, in the masquerade culture of the royal court, a duke might wallow in conspicuous ostentation so as to camouflage straitened purse-strings – while the regnant queen was dressing up as a milkmaid in her specially constructed ‘village’. This paradoxical attitude towards shows of wealth and luxury gave French society a rather extreme, polarized look on which English travellers and commentators were prone to expatiate. France was the country of ‘popery and wooden shoes’, ‘privileges and poverty’, and lacked that via media in which every good Englishman and woman revelled. Proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1794 was to attack the ‘cast-like [sic] divisions’ of French society, which were such, she claimed, that the French ‘do not have a word in their vocabulary to express comfort’ – clearly a middle-class and English notion.21

The snap chauvinistic judgements and unknowing jeremiads of tourists and travellers are an unreliable guide to the underlying structure of French society by the late eighteenth century. Although – inevitably – the gap between impoverished beggar or farm labourer and the ostentatious duke or peer was yawningly wide, the benefits of economic expansion were dispersed relatively widely within society, even despite the problems which the economy encountered in the 1780s. But in order to appreciate this, one needed to be able to decipher appearances often constructed to mislead.

The relative soundness of health of the economy in the reign of Louis XVI needs some special emphasis, moreover, since historians have generally found it difficult to resist the notion of a progressive worsening of economic indicators in that period and an erosion of gains made earlier in the century, preparing the way for the explosion of 1789, when France allegedly revealed its true, socially archaic and divided self. This pessimistic view is grounded in the statistical analyses of economic historian Ernest Labrousse, who in pioneering quantitative analyses from the 1930s onwards mapped long-term trends in prices, wages and rents, concluding that whereas agricultural prices rose by around 60 per cent between 1726–31 and the late 1770s to 1780s, nominal wages rose only by around a quarter over the same period, meaning a drop in purchasing power of between 15 and 25 per cent. While for Labrousse the poor got poorer, the rich got richer: over much the same period, land rents nearly doubled. Labrousse’s judgement was particularly severe on the years from around 1778 through to 1787: low agricultural prices entailed a fall in agrarian profits and a slackening of demand which placed industrial as well as agricultural profits under the cosh. The crisis of 1787–9 had its roots in an economy characterized by chronic mass under-consumption.22

Although there is good deal of Labrousse’s work which remains valuable, much of his picture of the economy is wrong. Despite his pessimism about living standards, average real wages seem to have fallen by less than 10 per cent in the half century before 1789 – a figure which compared favourably with most other European countries, England included – and this average, as we shall see, hid substantial variations around the mean. His view of the reign of Louis XVI as a phase of structural crisis is among the weakest parts of his work. Evidence abounds which suggests that many sectors of the economy prospered even until the very end of the 1780s (and in certain cases, beyond); and, bearing in mind short-term factors such as the crisis of credit triggered by the 1786 counterfeiting scandal, many aspects of the economic difficulties seem to have had more to do with unwise government policies than with problems gestating over the longue durée. These problems came, moreover, at the end of a century which had been characterized by growing consumption and expanding prosperity.

Over the century as a whole, the economy had done well enough to support a much expanded population without any of the demographic disasters which had marred the later years of Louis XIV’s reign. For most of the century, political arithmeticians had been convinced that France was doomed to depopulation; from the 1770s onwards the recognition dawned that in fact population was growing, and growing fast. At just about any stage in history prior to this, a sharp fall in population could have been confidently predicted at the hands of war, disease or famine. Yet in the event, population continued to grow – even though signs began to appear that coitus interruptus was beginning to be used systematically to reduce family size. By 1789, population size was one-third greater than it had been in 1715_28. 6 million as against 21.5 million. The national death rate fell from over 40 deaths per thousand head of the population in the first decades of the century to 35.5 in the ninth decade – a drop of over ten per cent. Life expectancy at birth rose between the 1740s and 1780s from 23.8 to 27.5 years for men, and from 25.7 to 28.1 for women. Uneven between the sexes, the improvement was socially and geographically diverse too: the life chances of the middle and upper classes improved faster than that of the rest of the population, while certain areas, notably the east, the north and the Massif Central, outshone others. The crisis of mortality was universally becoming a thing of the past. Even the very severe social crises of 1768–70 and 1787–9 triggered by appalling harvests were not accompanied by grave demographic consequences. Symptomatic of a lightening of the cultural atmosphere was a growing concern not with mortality but morbidity. French men and women, having forgotten how to die,23now learnt to be sick: a diverse cornucopia of forms of ‘civilized’ ill-health were highlighted by medical writers, ranging from nervous maladies to mental disturbances, and from children’s illnesses to geriatric ailments.

The food required to feed the extra mouths was not produced as a result of the kind of agrarian revolution (scientific rotations, fodder crops, seed-drills, etc.) being pioneered in England and the Low Countries. There was, it is true, an anglophile craze for improving works on agronomy, triggered by Duhamel de Monceau’s much reprinted Traité de la culture des terres (1750), yet its impact on popular attitudes was probably slight: ‘everyone reads them’, Voltaire ironized, ‘except farmers’. The peasantry in the Hainaut managed to adapt the new techniques and achieve impressive yields, but in general, productivity on peasant land stayed sluggish – indeed, in certain areas such as the Vivarais, the Auvergne and the Pyrenees it was static. Particularly energetic efforts to experiment with new farming methods came from wealthy landowners (including many noblemen) on the big estates of the pays de grande culture in the north and north-east of the country. The business acumen of these landowners cut two ways. While some took the entrepreneurial route, raising productivity on their lands by introducing the new technology and sometimes enclosing common land, others regarded this as a subsidiary venture and took a more extractive approach, boosting profits merely by employing a more business-like approach to estate management. This included revision of seigneurial registers (terriers) and professional surveying and mapping of property. ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf, the future Revolutionary who worked as a feudal clerk in Picardy in the 1780s, reckoned that two-thirds of all seigneuries within France had been mapped out over the course of the century. The reimposition of feudal and seigneurial dues which had lain dormant for years was extremely unpopular with the peasantry. The ducal Saulx-Tavannes family in Burgundy even dug up and reimposed one due which had last been levied in the thirteenth century. Using such techniques, the comte de Provence boosted his seigneurial income from 0.3 to 1.9 million livres in a matter of years.

The ways in which more food was supplied to an expanding population continued to be extensive rather than intensive in character. They also bore the imprint of government encouragement. First, there was the diffusion of new crops which diversified farming: despite the best efforts of tuber impresario Parmentier and enlightened provincial Intendants, potatoes were regarded as fit only for pigs and Belgians, and made little headway into popular diet. Maize, however, did better, notably in the south-west. Second, more land was brought into cultivation. From the mid-1760s, government offered tax incentives for such measures, and the 600,000 hectares of reclaimed land down to 1789 represented some 2.5 per cent of total cultivable area. In places such as the Auvergne the movement was motivated by sheer need, with poverty-stricken communes extending farming to neglected and often sterile marginal lands. Elsewhere, however, where commercial profit was the spur, gains were more significant: Burgundy added between 8 and 10 per cent to its farming area. Government encouragement of the enclosure of common lands, urged by the Physiocrats, was also bringing more land under the plough: enabling legislation was passed between 1769 and 1781 to allow the division of common land in Alsace and Lorraine, Burgundy, Flanders, Artois and elsewhere.

The third way in which agricultural production continued to expand was through regional specialization. The reliably expanding demand for a variety of agricultural products in Paris, in the bigger cities and in the armed forces stimulated more and more regions to move away from customary polyculture and to concentrate on market crops. The Paris region disinvested in wine production and became even more mono-cereal in its output – knowing that it could import wine from the south, just as it increasingly drew its meat supply from Normandy, the Limousin and the Charolais and its butter and cheese from Bray, Auge and Bessin. Wine-growing was a particular feature of regional specialization. Rising prices over the century encouraged farmers both large and small to plant vines, and by the 1780s, the abbé Expilly reckoned that as many as 4.5 million people were dependent on the wine trade.24 The growth in the sector was rather unbalanced, and a wine glut from the 1770s forced prices down and put pressure on smaller wine-growers. The areas of quality production, however – notably the Bordelais, Burgundy and Champagne (where the discovery of how to make wine fizz led to sparkling whites replacing the area’s traditional reds) – had by then developed export outlets which protected them against the slump. Bordeaux’s exports to Britain doubled in value in the 1780s. The prosperous, export-oriented brandy trade which Irish émigré families such as the Hennessys had helped to develop in the Charente area over the century also boomed as never before.

The development of a strong demand for quality wines and brandies abroad and in big cities like Paris could only be met because of improved communications which vastly extended the city’s provisioning area. Better distribution was the fourth, and perhaps most significant, means by which the agrarian economy supplied the needs of additional population and enriched the economy. As we have suggested, more fluid exchange (commerce) was critical to the economy as well as to the philosophy of the age of Enlightenment. It was better transport – particularly the Canal du Midi linking the Mediterranean through the Garonne valley to the Atlantic, for example, but also the improved road system, on which Grand Tourists commented approvingly, which allowed regional specialization in the south-east. Transport costs fell by two-thirds, so that lower Languedoc could develop its wine trade, as well as olive-growing and woollen manufacturing, at the expense of grain cultivation, knowing that it could rely on speedy and cheap grain transfers. It left grain-growing to the increasingly commercialized grain sector in upper Languedoc. Business on the Canal du Midi tripled over the century, with its high point in 1780. The emphasis on contacts, communication and speed accelerated as the Revolution approached. The Ponts et Chaussées had provided France with some 30,000 kilometres of paved and maintained roads. Turgot’s introduction of an improved haulage and transport system (the messageries) in the mid-1770s brought a sharp improvement in journey times and a reduction in transport costs. Between 1765 and the 1780s, the time taken to travel from Paris to Strasbourg, Marseille and Toulouse fell from 11, 12 and 15 days to 4, 8 and 7 days respectively – an astonishing social phenomenon in terms of market integration and the formation of national opinion.

Much-improved communications aided trade and industry as well as agriculture. Over the century, foreign trade increased fourfold and colonial trade tenfold, while internal trade (which constituted three-fifths of all commerce) also boomed as never before. The apogee of trade over the century as a whole was very precisely the 1780s. Business at the international fair in Beaucaire tripled between the 1750s and the late 1780s. Outside the port cities, urban growth was, in this context, somewhat modest: the share of the total population resident in towns rose from 15 to around 20 per cent over the century. Even where it was slow – Rouen developed from 64,000 to 73,000, Paris from 510,000 to 620–650,000 – these figures often obscured dynamic relations with the surrounding region: Rouen, for example, was a centre of domestic industry with some 60,000 individuals working in its surrounding villages. This form of complementarity was very widespread: proto-industrialization stimulated the thickening of the countryside rather than (or as well as) the growth of urban population.

France had bounced back impressively as a global power after the disastrous Seven Years War. The West Indies remained the jewel in France’s crown – Saint-Domingue in particular exported nearly half the world’s sugar. Participation in the slave trade continued, drawing French interests ever deeper into west and central Africa. By defeating England in the American War, France seemed to be opening up the American mainland as well as the West Indies to commercial penetration. Losses in India in 1763 were followed by a trade boom with the East, including China, while although the expeditions of Bougainville and La Pérouse to the south seas in 1768 and 1785 were intended as essentially scientific projects, the potential interests of trade were also recognized.

France’s international trade position was intricately involved with its industry, many sectors of which also continued to prosper in the 1770s and 1780s. The fate of older industries was mixed, some woollen and linen-producing areas experiencing decline from mid-century. But the new industries like cotton goods, coal, iron, glass and chemical industries on the whole did well. The fashion-driven production cycle perfected in the early part of the century still gave French goods the edge in many international markets.25In the mid-1780s, France had 115 cotton businesses (as against 111 in England) and produced 16 million metres of cloth (as against England’s 12.4 million). The high technology and heavy investment iron industry registered a coup of international dimensions with the opening of the Le Creusotcomplex in the 1780s. Industries linked to France’s booming overseas trade – sugar and tobacco refineries, tanneries for exotic hides – also prospered.

Many of the colonial imports were shipped out to meet Europe’s needs, but much stayed within France, and began to percolate down the social scale, increasing home demand for exotic commodities. At the start of the century, sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate and tobacco had been luxury goods, used almost exclusively by the very rich and as much for medicinal purposes as for nutritional value. By the 1780s, despite some furious assaults by moralists and physicians on these new-fangled forms of indulgence, with help from ‘fashion’s empire’, the substances were on their way to becoming integral parts of the middle-class and popular diet. Tobacco – taken as snuff or smoked in pipes – was issued as rations to troops and had become extremely widespread. D’Argenson reckoned that its consumption held up so well in times of high prices because the poor thought that it had nutritive value.26 Coffee too had gone massively down-market: nearly half of Parisian homes had a coffee-pot, and café au lait had started to become the regular morning drink of the urban working classes. Sugar too was finding its way into more and more food and drinks – causing a mass rotting of teeth for which the birth of scientific dentistry from the 1720s was only partial compensation. Parisians consumed on average 10 pounds of sugar each per year. There would be sugar riots as well as grain riots in the 1790s, when provisions dried up and angry consumers took to the streets, showing how blurred the line between ‘necessity’ and ‘luxury’ was becoming.

This seeming democratization of luxury marked a commodification of material culture which was evident at all levels and which formed part of a transformation of living styles and standards. Though the taste for luxury often had an exotic, colonial flavour, domestic industries such as the drinks trade also benefited from rising levels of consumer demand. Domestic demand from middling as well as noble audiences for exotic semi-luxury imports such as cotton goods, porcelain and lacquer-ware was strong enough to stimulate moves towards import substitution. The extraordinary destiny of calicoes was accompanied by more modest development of cheaper china, and the use of papier-mâché as surrogate lacquer-ware – cheapish versions of cultural artifacts formerly categorized as luxury products which could be called semi-luxury, or ‘populuxe’ products.

The dynamic expansion of the home market for consumer goods above the line of raw necessity formed the backdrop for a ‘revolution in objects’27 which was quietly taking place in middle- and lower-class homes. To judge from the well-documented case of Paris, domestic interiors were transformed: space was more differentiated and specialized; beds became more ornate and showy, while the standard old linen-chest gave way to wardrobes, cupboards, chests of drawers and the like. On the walls, dusty tapestries were replaced by wallpaper, decorated with engravings, pictures and mirrors. Curtains took their place at windows, marking a new concern for intimacy. Showy furniture such as writing-tables, card-tables and coatstands became more common, as did cups, china and domestic utensils. The vogue for the decorative was a form of materialism in which the church, moreover, connived: ‘holy objects’ (crucifixes, pious engravings, rosaries, medallions, as well as religious books) constituted an important sector of the phenomenon. Personal appearance was now more soigné, to judge by the presence of snuffboxes, razors, umbrellas, chamberpots, jewellery, watches and the like. The handkerchief – one way of dealing with tobacco use – established itself in the pockets of poor and rich alike.Pace Mary Wollstonecraft,28 comfort installed itself in numerous homes: stoves warmed and clarified the air, and there were always hotwater bottles and footwarmers for cold nights. People spent more money on clothes, with even the poorer categories having twice the number of garments at the end of the century than they had had at the beginning. Woollen garments worn year in, year out gave way to lighter and more diverse clothes. Though men tended to stick to sombre and reserved cuts and cloths, tidy breeches and stockings took over from workmen’s trousers. Women indulged a vigorous interest in fashion, with clothes more varied in weight, colour and consistency. It was possible, by the 1780s, to mistake a dairy-maid for a duchess – a crisis of recognition which much exercised the indignation of those who preferred the society of orders to be inscribed on outward appearances. The call for new sumptuary legislation was, however, viewed as ridiculously anachronistic – Controller-General Silhouette’s gesturing in that direction in 1759 had won him universal scorn.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the grumblers, and the world had indeed changed since his encounter in 1731 with his prudent peasant. Appearance had become the emblem of a new reality, not a new deception: Parisians increasingly looked different, behaved differently, had different tastes. ‘The French are not in Paris,’ Rousseau snorted indignantly about a city which he saw, like all others, as ‘the abyss of the human species’.29 His act of rebellion against trendy Parisian consumerism was to renounce modish clothes (he gave away his watch too), and to dress in archaic Armenian dress topped out with a beaver hat. The consumerist age would, however, have the last laugh: his taste for vestimentary simplicity initiated a fashion trend which ended up with Marie-Antoinette and her milkmaid dresses. In similar manner, a Rousseauian attack on the use of rouge and other aristocratic cosmetics led to manufacturers developing beauty aids (such as ‘vegetable rouge’) which enabled the wearer to achieve a more ‘natural’ look.30 Even transparency, it seemed, could be a market construct.

Paris was a glittering shopwindow for French wares, but was far from being the sole location for this consumer boom. Many contemporaries tended to draw a broad contrast between a supposedly rampant commercialism in England with a more subsistence-oriented France. Clearly most provincial markets cut a poor comparison when set against the world capital of shopping that was London. Yet though the density of demand for consumer goods was certainly stronger in England, the French home market outsized England’s: 5.3 million lived in French towns, as against 2.3 million in England – an impressive lead, even if we accept that per capita disposable income was higher in the latter. Home demand for consumer goods was thus widely dispersed in French towns and even many countrysides. ‘The most rustic peasant and his wife [are] agitated by the same vertiginous spirit’, fulminated the urban chronicler of Toulouse, Pierre Barthès, at mid-century, ‘the same luxury that I call the decay of the human spirit.’31 Lyonnais weavers, Norman peasants and Limousin stone-cutters too all sported Sunday bests, with silver buttons, ornate shoebuckles and coloured ribbons. Appointed to a parish near to Le Mans, the curé François-Yves Besnard noted that fashions which had formerly taken more than five years to change were in a state of ceaseless oscillation, while he could only distinguish rich from poor by their dress on work-days.32

The modes of transmission of these styles of the modern were many and various. Domestic servants played an important role as cultural intermediaries. Most of these were peasants (90 per cent in Paris were from the provinces, for example), and their post-mortem inventories showed that they were more precocious in adopting the personalized material culture of their masters and mistresses. Fairs and markets boomed, serving as entrepots for rampant commercialism: the number of fairs increased by a third over the 1770s, and by the 1780s there were 16,000 fair-days throughout the country and 160,000 market-days. Pedlars, carrying the kind of knick-knacks which made peasants imagine they were being Parisian by owning them, relayed their efforts. In many localities, post-masters acted as retail outlets for larger enterprises, but a great many small towns were developing a retail shop sector: in 1715, the locality of Arcis-sur-Aube had contained only a few merchants, described as ‘miserable paupers who sell pots and wooden clogs and have no proper shops’. Yet by 1775, the 2,000-odd inhabitants were regaled with 14 merchants, 4 general stores, 2 ironmongers, 1 grocer, 8 tailors, 4 wig-makers, 2 second-hand clothes-dealers and one linen-merchant.33 Nor should the role of the press be underestimated: from the 1750s, a network of provincial advertiser news-sheets (Affiches) had been set up throughout the country, providing outlets for a dazzling array of commodities and services, and serving simultaneously the need ‘for utility and pleasure’ on the ‘Great Chain of Buying’.34

The new taste for consumer goods seems to have had an impact on family organization as well as lifestyles. If the average real wage-rates of rural and urban workers were, as Labrousse suggested, in long-term decline, the presence of consumer goods in the homes of these individuals suggests not just changes of taste but also new work strategies. A great many families seem to have participated in what Jan de Vries has called an ‘industrious revolution’,35 whereby family members engaged more systematically in waged work so as to package a joint income which could give them entree into the market for consumer goods. In the Montpellier region, for example, the daily wage for agricultural work remained static from mid-century; yet workers earned more by getting up at 3 a.m. in the summer and completing the equivalent of two days work, going home with double pay in their pockets. The wide diffusion of proto-industry was especially significant in this tendency for more work to compensate for declining wage-rates. Proto-industry allowed women family members (and sometimes children too) to engage in spinning, weaving and other menial industrial tasks within their homes, and thereby to supplement the income their husbands and fathers derived from agricultural work. It is plausible that the spread of birth control among the middle and lower classes in this period is explicable in terms of such family strategies: restricting the number of children meant more could be spent on consumer goods and services for all family members – and it was in this period that children became the centre of great emotional as well as commercial investment by their parents.

As these examples show, the opportunities presented by commercial expansion were seized with alacrity by a wide range of social types. Clearly, the main agents and beneficiaries of economic growth were the established urban bourgeoisie, which grew rapidly in number – from 0.7 million to 2.3 million (and also in girth, to judge by the acres of fat on display in their portraits). Yet enterprise and initiative in seizing commercial opportunities did not comprise a bourgeois monopoly. As we have suggested,36 a fraction of the nobility used their considerable social advantages to profit from expanding markets in industry and finance as well as on the land. The trend of rising prices for agricultural produce favoured many peasants too. Middling to large peasants who had enough grain to feed themselves and their families needed only a horse and cart and a sack of surplus grain to go to market and realize substantial gains. The buoyancy of wine prices was a godsend to small peasants too: in Alsace a peasant family needed 12 hectares of land planted in grain to support themselves, but only 2 hectares planted with vines.

The fact that large numbers of the popular classes were prominent among those who sought to benefit from the expansion of the economy should not blind us to the problems of commercial capitalism’s uneven development over the century as a whole. This age of consumerism consumed lives and bodies, as well as adorning and enriching them. Those who had invented the term bienfaisance (‘beneficence’) woke up late to the fact that the major social problem of the late eighteenth century was not depopulation – that old spectre had been largely laid to rest by the 1770s – but the threat of mass pauperization in overcrowded and unhealthy cities and in disinherited rural outbacks. Industrial and agrarian entrepreneurs struggled to keep down the claims of labour on profits and rents, particularly at bad moments of the trade cycle, when the contrast between rich and poor sharpened. Russian nobleman Denis Fonvizine in the late 1770s was shocked by general levels of hygiene even in the consumerist shopwindow of Paris, which he concluded overall was ‘just a whit cleaner than a pigsty’ and where the most shocking contrasts were banal: ‘one cannot take a step without coming across something absolutely excellent, which however is right next to something absolutely terrible and barbarous’.37‘Necessities’ were dear while the trappings of luxury were remarkably cheap by international standards: ‘lodging, food and carriage cost twice as much as in Saint-Petersburg, but baubles, dress, books and engravings are half as much or even cheaper’.38

Although governments affected an increasingly humanitarian rhetoric, they were singularly ineffective in staunching the running sore of poverty so evident even in its most illustrious site. Schemes of state beneficence such as charity workshops, disaster relief, pensions to needy gentlefolk, and medical aid programmes tended to be pinpricks rather than solutions. This was all the more depressing in that the financial position of most charitable institutions was worsening over the course of the century, as a result of growing demand for their services, inflationary institutional costs, and a marked decline in charitable donations. The biggest financial commitment made by the state was the creation of a network of a couple of score of dépôts de mendicité from the late 1760s to house vagrants. Subject to biting criticism, the institutions ended up as appallingly repressive and insanitary workhouse-cum-prisons housing a variegated population of the needy and distressed.

The voices of alarm and humanitarian concern were reaching a crescendo by the late 1780s. Yet it is difficult to draw a line between the appearances and the realities of distress – just as it is to distinguish between the appearances and the realities of ‘luxury’. A downturn in agricultural prices in many regions from the late 1770s depressed rural incomes and left many peasants defenceless when the bad harvest of 1788 hit them. A serious drought in 1785 and 1786 caused a die-off of cattle, which ruined many peasant families, especially in the south. From 1786 and 1787, much of French industry was adversely affected by English competition following the 1786 Anglo-French Trade Treaty. The sum of even these serious problems did not add up to a structural crisis in the French economy. Parts of the latter were still doing very well – indeed the brilliant success of British manufactured goods’ penetration of the French market after 1786 highlighted the continued buoyancy of domestic demand. Yet even though mass hunger was beginning to be seen in some rural areas, the economy did not appear to be in a state from which it would not have the resilience to bounce back after catastrophes.

Bad though it still was under Louis XVI, the problem of poverty had been far, far more severe under Louis XIV. Though the 1788–9 crisis hit hard, its significance as a social phenomenon was much amplified by the discursive context in which it now occurred. The Sun King’s reign had not boasted the inquiries, reports, inquests, social analyses, quasi-ethnographic surveys and economic and demographic estimates of Louis XVI’s reign. Ignorance had been bliss: knowledge of popular distress provoked guilty feelings and humane wishes that more should be done – and that the government should do it. A striking feature of the reign of Louis XVI was the extent to which both winners and losers on the commercial carousel looked to government for help and support – and were resentful and critical if and when they did not receive it.

A great deal rode on state policies. The winds of liberalization which swept through government bureaux from the 1750s and 1760s onwards had subjected the economy to the sometimes bracing, sometimes damaging effects of international competition. The extension of France’s areas of commercial involvement left some traditional areas a little neglected, and others prey to international competition. Thus, in the 1770s and 1780s, both the Levant and the Baltic were being penetrated by English and to some extent Dutch traders, at French expense: the Languedocian wool trade, for example, which depended heavily on Levantine markets and which had been in crisis since the 1750s, never recovered its former buoyancy. Spain’s prohibition of charcoal exports after 1769 consigned many Pyrenean mines and forges to irremediable decline. Similarly, in a move which underlined the limitations of the Family Compact, Charles III of Spain’s embargo on French exports of silk and linen to the Iberian peninsula and the Spanish American colonies was a body blow to sectors of French textile manufacturing which hitherto had done exceptionally well.

Many sectors of France’s trade and industry also lost out as a result of the government’s dealings with England and its former American colonies after 1783. France lacked a colony in which there was a significant demand for home-produced manufactured articles, and many hoped that its American allies could be a good surrogate. French merchants lost all the tricks to their English counterparts, but a good deal of blame must also attach to government, which failed to show the flag in the New World in any meaningful way. The French ambassador complained about the ‘unhealthily democratic environment’39 of the new state. French red-tape and administrative torpor were further deterrents. Not only did the Americans not drift away from their English ambit, but they also began to penetrate French West Indian markets themselves.

If the spirit of liberalization had drawbacks as well as benefits attached to it, this was all the more the case in regard to domestic trade and industry. In 1759, the traditional ban on colour printing on cotton (designed to keep out English competition) was lifted and this spurred a prodigious boom in calicoes. Similarly, the decision in 1762 to allow industries to establish themselves outside the corporative framework of the guilds boosted proto-industrialization in a great many areas. Yet the government was only ever half-hearted about liberalizing the domestic economy: tolls remained numerous and costly, increasing distance times and haulage costs. Similarly, though Turgot had abolished trade guilds as a means of deregulating labour, his reforms, as we have seen, went off half-cock: a modified system of guilds was introduced by his successors which in some ways actually decreased mobility of labour, notably by generalizing the practice of the livret, or worker’s passport. (Characteristically, government appreciated the guild system, since the sale of office within it brought it substantial cash benefits.) Then again, there was incoherence and inconsistency over the liberalization of the grain trade, with liberal measures in 1754, 1763–4, 1775 and then 1787 alternating with regulatory phases.

The stop-start nature of economic policies under Louis XVI owed something to the fragility of the post of Finance Minister – a position which, as the duc de Croÿ ruefully remarked, ‘ought to be stable’:40 there were some seventeen incumbents between 1754 and 1789, ten of them in fifteen years of Louis XVI’s reign. Government should not have been blamed for the existence of a real world in which French entrepreneurs had to compete – but it was. The welfarist discourse of power which the absolute monarchy increasingly deployed – legislative preambles became almost philosophical disquisitions on beneficence – set popular expectations high. So too the Enlightenment quest for solutions to social ills through purposive human action made French men and women particularly unforgiving for failings in the state, and they wilfully scape-goated government for a diverse range of ills. In this context, though trumpeted as the start of a new, more liberal era in foreign trade, Calonne’s Anglo-French Trade Treaty was never going to be more than a mixed blessing. In the middle term, the economy might well have had the resilience to take the shock of English competition and turn it to advantage. But short-term difficulties were inevitable. Although the Bordelais was triumphant at the new English outlet for its wines, the textiles and iron industries were furious at the subsequent competition from English manufactured goods: imports of the latter rose from 16 million livres in 1784 to 23 million in 1787 and 27 million in 1788. Many of the loudest complainants – such as the Normandy linen and Montauban wool manufacturies – had been in serious economic trouble even before 1786. Yet difficulties were now routinely ascribed to the state. Louis XVI’s governments found it difficult enough to achieve the possible; by the late 1780s, as Calonne ruefully discovered, they were also having the impossible laid solemnly at their door.

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