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 Great Britain, for example, and because the arable land had been transferred to the peasants in the French Revolution: there were hardly any landless agricultural workers and only a few large landowners - which also meant that an important source of investment capital was lost.

For a long time, France was characterised not only by agriculture but also by small-scale trade, countless craft enterprises that produced high-quality goods such as furniture, porcelain or clocks for the nobility and the bourgeoisie. In the 18th century, the key industries of industrialisation flourished in individual regions: 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".

However, it is typical of the development in France that the boom came to an end after about 20 years and a second upswing only set in during the Europe-wide boom at the end of the century. 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 the construction of a huge blast furnace group began in Uckange. At the same time, industries of the "Second Industrial Revolution" such as electrical engineering, chemicals and aluminium production became established.

Car production finally began in Paris in 1886 with the Panhard and Lévassor company. 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.