The industrialisation of France began late and proceeded so hesitantly that one cannot speak of an "industrial revolution". The soils of the "Grande Nation" do not contain such large, easily accessible reserves of coal and iron ore as in Great Britain or Belgium. The key resources are mainly found in peripheral areas such as Lorraine and the north of the country. In addition, there was less labour available because the population did not grow as rapidly as in Britain and because the arable land was transferred to the peasants in the French Revolution: Thus there were hardly any propertyless agricultural workers. At the same time, the abolition of large landholdings eliminated a source of investment capital.

France's colonial empire also brought less profit than its British rival, although in the 18th century it still included large territories in America, Asia and the Caribbean. In this era, the French shipped more than one million slaves from Africa across the Atlantic, the third highest amount after the British and Portuguese. Slaves were also taken to the plantations on the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. By far the most, however, were taken to the sugar cane plantations on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), because the exploding demand for sugar in Europe ensured high profits.  In French ports like Le Havre, Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, merchants, shipbuilders and financiers, operators of sugar refineries and resellers profited from human trafficking - and craftsmen and manufactories throughout France or its neighbouring countries profited from the goods that were exchanged for slaves in Africa. The business ended when the country lost almost all its colonies to the British in the second half of the 18th century.

For a long time, trade in France was dominated by small craft businesses that produced high-quality goods such as furniture, porcelain or clocks for the nobility and the bourgeoisie. In individual regions, however, key branches of industrialisation flourished in the 18th century: Guillaume-Philippe Oberkampf built a textile factory near Versailles, and in Hayange in Lorraine Jean-Martin Wendel, founder of a dynasty of "steel barons", began iron production in 1704. In the later "Départment du Nord", coal fields were discovered in 1720 - by the end of the century, the mines already employed thousands of workers.

However, widespread industrialisation did not take off - poor transport routes contributed to this and countless domestic customs barriers hindered sales. The development of waterways did little to change this: the famous Canal du Midi had already been completed at the end of the 17th century, leading from the Atlantic at Bordeaux to the Mediterranean at Sète and saving sailors from having to circumnavigate the Iberian peninsula. In the heart of the country, the Canal de Briare and the Canal du Centre followed, sections of a chain of canals that eventually connected the Seine to the Mediterranean via the Saône.

The Revolution of 1789 promoted trade and commerce by abolishing guild restrictions and internal customs duties. Napoleon Bonaparte also unified the legal system with the Civil Code, established a stable currency in the form of the franc and founded the Banque de France. Nevertheless, only a few industrial nuclei remained.

By 1830, three centres of cotton spinning had become established: In the north of the country near Rouen, around Lille and Roubaix, and in Alsace. After coal was discovered near Oignies in 1842, adjacent to the northern mining district, the huge mining region of Nord-Pas de Calais was created. In Lorraine, the De Wendels expanded iron processing using the latest technologies from Britain. However, the Royal Foundry of Le Creusot in Burgundy, which the industrialist Eugène Schneider took over in 1836, developed into probably the most famous steelworks in France: he founded an empire with the production of locomotives, rails and weapons.

The construction of the railway network was delayed by strong resistance and the notorious shortage of capital. In 1827, the first train carried coal from the mining area around St. Etienne to the Loire for shipment, and in 1832 the route was extended to Lyon, the metropolis of silk weaving. But it was not until the 1850s that the entire country was opened up with a network of lines radiating out from Paris, plus cross connections between Bordeaux and Lyon, for example, or Calais and Basel.

Now industrialisation was gaining momentum. In the north, large spinning mills opened in Fontaine-Guérard and Wazemmes near Lille. In Lorraine, the Hayange steelworks expanded and when coal deposits were discovered in 1858, new mines were built. The traditional methods of paper production around Angoulême and near Annonay were mechanised and  factory-based production began. The service sector also flourished: Bon Marché"opened in Paris the first of its chain of world-famous department stores. The brothers Émile and Isaac Pereire, bitter rivals of the Rothschild bankers, founded the first investment bank, "Crédit Mobilier".

At the end of the century, another push followed. Heavy industry in Lorraine profited when a new smelting process was used to eliminate the troublesome phosphorus from the "Minette" ores found there. New mines sprang up, and in 1878 construction of a huge blast furnace group began in Uckange. At the same time, industries of the "Second Industrial Revolution" such as electrical engineering, chemistry and aluminium production became established.

The emergence of the second French colonial empire from the middle of the 19th century was closely linked to the successful industrialisation:  The new factories generated a constantly growing demand for raw materials and for sales markets - and the major European powers entered into increasingly fierce competition for them. However, France's new colonies only achieved their greatest economic importance in the 20th century: The countries of West Africa produced agricultural goods, Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) initially supplied mainly rice to neighbouring countries, and later the mining of coal and ores began. The extraction of rubber for rubber production took off after the turn of the century, when industrial car production had also started in France.

Panhard and Lévassor started building cars in Paris in 1886. Three years later, Renault opened its doors in nearby Boulogne-Billancourt, Peugeot followed in Sochaux, vehicles rolled out of the "Berliet" workshop near Lyon, soon known for heavy trucks, and in 1919 Citroën started production - again near Paris, where the most important group of buyers resided: aristocracy and high finance still ordered luxury goods from craftsmen's workshops, but also established the market for the expensive new means of transport. Despite all this, agriculture still made a significant contribution to the economy until well into the 20th century.