The course of industrialisation in France was so idiosyncratic that for a long time people wondered whether an industrial revolution had ever taken place in the country. One of the main reasons for this was that the "Grande Nation" did not possess as large and accessible natural supplies of coal and iron ore as countries like Great Britain or Belgium. Coal, in particular, was always a scarce commodity; the result was that the French relied on timber for an astonishingly long time. In addition, French agriculture functioned extraordinarily well. The 1789 revolution freed farmers and peasants from debts and taxes, thereby guaranteeing them a comparatively secure existence. The result was a lack of superfluous workers, a fact which gave a particular boost to the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.
That said, there was a large variety of highly developed trades in 18th-century France. This can often be attributed to the wishes and demands of the aristocracy in the "ancien régime". Furniture and porcelain, leather goods and silk were manufactured in great style; and for many years French clocks were reputed to be the most precise in the world. The first person to process cloth on sewing machines was also a Frenchman. But this proved highly unfortunate for Barthélemy Thimonnier, because angry tailors burnt down his factory in Paris in 1830.
Industrialisation set in hesitantly, not least boosted by the measures introduced by the State after the 1789 revolution. The introduction of the "code civil" occurred simultaneously with the abolition of the old guild restrictions and internal customs tariffs. The currency was stabilised and the Bank of France created. The state was involved in the construction of roads and canals.
But France remained primarily an agricultural country until way into the 20th century. Large new factory areas were concentrated in specific regions, above all in the north and east of the country. By 1830 there were three established cotton mill centres: around Rouen in Normandy, between Lille and Roubaix in the North, and the most modern in Alsace. In Mühlhausen this led to a highly efficient engineering industry which went on to export spinning machines and cotton looms to the whole of Europe.
Around the mid-19th century intensive coalmining sprang up in the Pas-de-Calais region. The other major coalmining area was in Lorraine. For several generations the industry there was dominated by the De Wendel family. They not only owned coal mines but also iron mills, and were highly committed to the new techniques coming out of England. They introduced both the steam engine and puddling kilns at a relatively early point in time. The latter dramatically improved the quality of the iron.
But the most famous ironworks in France was in Le Creusot. In 1784 it was one of the largest state creations in France, alongside arepresentative saltworks and glass manufacturing factory. But it only really became significant when an entrepreneur by the name of Eugène Schneider took it over in 1836. It was about then that the Industrial Revolution in France really began to take off, not least because of the beginning of the railways. It was not long before the first French locomotives were being built in Le Creusot, and the Schneider family began to lay the foundations for their empire with rails and weapons.
The immense influence of the ancien régime made itself felt with the introduction of the motorcar at the end of the century. This luxury article was above all purchased by members of the aristocracy and major banking families in Paris. French companies ensured the spread of motor manufacturing, for firms like Peugeot, Panhard et Levassor (and shortly afterwards Renault) manufactured and sold motorcars in much greater volume than the small workshops of inventors in Germany were able to do. The French also supplied wealthy buyers in the important British market and finally captured a large share of the market by producing cars for the growing middle class market.
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Arc-et-Senans. Royal Saltworks