Traditionally one of the most powerful countries in Europe and one of the largest economies, France, and until the 1950s, the French Empire, was a dominant force in global business. France still remains important in the global economy in many sectors, and French companies or French products can be found in every country in the world. The Celts in France certainly traded with the Britons in modern-day southern England, and there is also evidence of products from France in parts of southern Europe in this same period. During Roman times, Gaul (as France was then known) was an important center of Samian ware, reddish pottery that was exported throughout the Roman Empire, as was wine from southern Gaul, and sandals and military supplies for the Roman army.
As an entity, France has been a relatively cohesive nation since the Middle Ages, and although parts of it were occupied by the English and other nations, and Burgundy was effectively independent for most of the period, the French language served as a common bond. During the Norman and Angevin empires, when England and much of France shared a single ruler, regular commerce across the English Channel increased, with some of the stones used on Norman castles in England being sourced in France and brought over as ballast in ships.
France was devastated during the Hundred Years War, but it also saw Paris emerge as the major city in the country, and the undoubted center of business, although northern France started to become wealthy through the wool trade and its links with Flanders. This saw the emergence of wealthy port cities such as Rouen and Dunkerque (Dunkirk), and elsewhere in France at the same time, Nantes, Bordeaux, Le Havre, and Marseilles. King Henry IV of France (reigned 1589–1610) managed to help establish a major silk industry, persuading the English Elizabethan clergyman Rev. William Lee to move to France to develop his knitting frame; but the design was never taken up seriously, with the Wars of Religion in France from 1562 until 1598 having done much damage to the French economy.
With Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715), the country went through a great period of prosperity, which he lavished on the palace at Versailles. Unfortunately, it was also a period when inventions such as the first self-propelled mechanical vehicle designed by Nicolas Cugnot (1725–1804) were not taken up, and in 1685, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes of 1598— the law guaranteeing toleration to the Protestants— led to the flight of many Huguenots from the country. The country remained prosperous under Louis XV (reigned 1714–74) but ran into major problems under Louis XVI (reigned 1774–93), partly over the large budget deficit, the aristocratic reaction to paying higher taxes (or indeed, in some cases, any taxes), and the added cost of financing France’s involvement in the American War of Independence.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution led to a transformation in French society. The system of tax farming ended and was replaced with a single and unitary state. Under Napoleon, many of the archaic systems of measurement—which had done much to hinder trade around France and with other countries—came to an end with the introduction of the metric system. Napoleon was also involved in plundering the wealth of many other countries and this in turn helped augment the finances of the French state. However, the constant wars were to drain the country, both financially and also through the loss of so many men in fighting. The French Revolution itself led to many French Royalists such as Marc Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) fleeing the country. Others like the chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94) were executed by the revolutionaries, but some like the statistician Sébastien Bottin (1764–1853), flourished, introducing the business directory Didot-Bottin, which was heavily used in France and overseas, especially in countries in the former French Empire, until the 1960s.
The 19th Century
Napoleon tried to increase European trade, and his Continental System, which stopped trade with Britain, certainly increased the manufacturing base of some of Europe as there was no longer the danger of cheaper British imports. From the mid-19th century to the period just before World War I, France was the center of much of the creative talent in the region. Joseph Eugène Schneider (1805–75) designed the power hammer; Joseph Monier (1823–1906) invented reinforced concrete; the Michelin brothers, André-Jules Michelin (1853–1931) and Edouard Michelin (1859–1940) developed pneumatic tires; Alfred George de Glehn (1848–1936) contributed to the development of the steam locomotive; and Paul Cornu (1881–1944) devised a helicopter in 1907.
Even though some of these designs never led to any manufacturing—such as Cornu’s helicopter—it did show that France was at the forefront of design. Louis Bleriot’s flying across the English Channel set the scene for French aviation. The work of Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923) and the Suez Canal of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805–94) were examples of this on a much wider scale, although mention should be made of de Lesseps’s plan for the Panama Canal, which collapsed amid major controversy in France and led to widespread criticism of the French government. The Paris Exposition of 1881 and later exhibitions showed off French produce to the world.
There was also a growth in French financial institutions that in turn led to some problems such as the Mexican Expedition, when the French intervened in Mexico where the government had tried to cancel large amounts of debts incurred by their predecessors. Alsace-Lorraine was the center of much of the industry of France, and for this reason, the area was captured by the Germans in 1870, only to be returned to France after World War I.
The creation of the French colonial empire transformed France, and French products were soon sold all around the world. The French economy expanded with the availability of cheap agricultural produce from Algeria, and later rubber from Vietnam, spices from East Asia, and nuts, palm oil, and other products from French Africa, as well as tobacco from a variety of sources. Many of the companies, now household names, originated during this period. For the automobile industry, Michelin (founded in 1888) and Renault (founded in 1899) are two examples.
The French as manufacturers were producing trains, trams, and aircraft. French foods such as chocolates, truffles, cheeses, and wines were exported to many other countries. Mineral water companies such as Perrier Water and Vichy Water became household names around the world. In banking, Crédit Foncier de France (founded 1852), Crédit Lyonnais (founded 1863), the Société Générale (founded 1864), the Banque de l’Indochine (founded 1875; now a part of the Crédit Agricole group), and other banking and insurance institutions, were institutions trusted by businesses and individuals around the world.
World Wars I and II
The fighting and the losses that France suffered in World War I had a traumatic effect on France. With the deaths of almost 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the war, as well as many more badly injured, it was a loss that the French population noticed greatly during the 1920s and 1930s. War production had dramatically altered the economy, but there were noticeable improvements. Prior to the war, the telephone system was antiquated. It was replaced by the Americans with a new one that served Paris and the nearby region. Factories were larger and more efficient, and women had entered the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. However, there were also many political problems with regular strikes and agitation by the newly powerful trade union movement. It was also a period when the communists, and later the socialists, started to flex their muscle.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the French colonial empire was maintained, although increasing numbers of non-French personnel had to be trained, providing opportunities for locals, some of whom were to lead the subsequent nationalist movements after World War II. During the 1920s, the United States came to epitomize mass production, but the French companies were seen as having “style.” Nevertheless, owing to the jurisdictions of the various colonial empires, most goods produced in France were sold either to a home market or to parts of the French Empire. This allowed many of the French companies to expand into Africa, Indochina, and other parts of the world.
The German invasion of France in May 1940, and France’s collapse less than six weeks later, led to four years of German occupation. After the war, some French wanted to return to the glory of the pre-1939 period, but colonial struggles in Indochina, and then in Algeria, ended this. Many of the French colonies in Africa became independent by the early 1960s, although most of them did retain close ties with France and continued buying goods from French companies.
The loss of the French colonies caused a major rethink in French government policy, and combined with the absorption of many former residents of the colonies, especially from Algeria. France saw itself more and more as a leader in Europe, becoming a major force in the Common Market, which became the European Economic Community, and later still the European Union. This helped protect the agricultural sector in the country, much to the chagrin of the British, with regular disputes in the early 1980s between the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her French counterparts. In spite of this, agriculture accounts for only 4 percent of the French workforce and contributes 3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The service sector accounts for 72 percent of the current workforce in France and makes up 76 percent of the GDP, with industry employing 24 percent of the workforce and generating 21 percent of the GDP.
During the late 1960s and from the early 1970s, France established itself as a major arms supplier in the world, and this has led to accusations about its involvement in many conflicts such as those in Africa and the Iran-Iraq War. France has continued exporting weapons and military supplies, with companies such as Aérospatiale (makers of the Exocet missile) and Dassault well known internationally. In terms of fashion, French designers such as Christian Dior (1905–57) and Yves St. Laurent (1936–2008) have led to the great interest in French style. French manufacturers of glass and plastics, and also French publishers such as Hachette, have also expanded their operations. Tourism has long drawn many people to France—some 76 million visited France in 2005, spending US$42 billion (the overall population of the country being 60.8 million)—and Air France, and through it and other companies, ownership of hotels and resorts around the world have kept most countries in the world in contact with France.
In 2005, France exported US$434.4 billion, with the major part being machinery and transportation equipment, aircraft, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceutical products, iron and steel, and beverages, especially wine. Imports included machinery and equipment, automobiles, crude oil, aircraft, plastics, and chemicals. Germany made up 15 percent of the export market, and 17 percent of the import market, with Spain and Britain being substantial recipients of French exports, and Italy and Spain being, after Germany, the main sources of imports into France.
- William James Adams and Christian Stoaffaes, eds., French Industrial Policy (Brookings Institution, 1986);
- Timothy Baycroft, France: Inventing the Nation (Hodder Education, 2008);
- Contemporary France (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009);
- Marion Fourcade, Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Great Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s (Princeton University Press, 2009);
- Claire Goldstein, Vaux and Versailles: The Appropriations, Erasures, and Accidents That Made Modern France (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008);
- Sanche de Gramont, The French: Portrait of a People (Putnam, 1969);
- John H. McArthur and Bruce R. Scott, Promotion and Control of Industry in Postwar France (Harvard University Press, 1963);
- William Safran, The French Polity (Pearson Longman, 2009);
- Julain Savary, French Multinationals (St. Martin’s Press, 1984);
- Monique Wagner, From Gaul to De Gaulle: An Outline of French Civilization (Peter Lang, 1989).
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