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France: Peasants

France: Peasants During the entire nineteenth century, despite industrial growth and the transformation of economic structures, agriculture remained predominant in France. In 1848 it overshadowed the economy and demographics. From 1810 to 1840 agriculture contributed 66.5% of the national product. Land taxes and taxes on changes of land ownership covered half of budgetary resources. In 1846 around 26,800,000 of 35,400,000 in France were classified as rural. The countryside was saturated, and despite some movement to cities, agricultural salaries stagnated or declined. Certainly the slow evolution since the eighteenth century continued, but one cannot speak of a revolution or even renovation. Agriculture generally was backward, set in objectives, structures, and methods. Increased production was a result of increasing the land under cultivation by drainage and new methods of crop rotation, rather than more widespread use of manure, improved machinery and tools, or better seed. Outside of a few regions, favored by a rich soil and proximity to large urban centers and good communications, agriculture remained essentially a subsistence economy. Most agriculturists were still not integrated into a market economy. At the end of the nineteenth century autoconsumption still restrained product commercialization.

Several factors restrained the modernization of agriculture. Its renovation collided with the mental attitudes and material obstacles of parcelization and problems of financing. Until now agriculture was called upon to provide the population with subsistence in an autarchical system which slowly expanded to nearby villages and towns. By priority, it produced grains, even on the poorest soil. Prudently, peasants kept to tried practices of reclaiming land, draining marshes, and rotating crops with fallow, triennial in the north, and biennial in the south (but sometimes prolonging fallow in poor soil). Intensive manual cultivation with simple and cheap tools only exacted a minimum of power, suitable to small parcels. In some regions, like the south, it was perfectly adapted to a polyculture of subsistence. Most peasants were very reticent to adopt innovations, declining machinery and implements, whose use was rare in the first half of the century. New crop rotations which accorded a greater place to fodder plants and grasses allowed an increase in cattle at the expense of land devoted to grain. They also refused to abandon all restrictions on the traditional rights of village communities: pasture on commons, gleaning, haying, gathering fagots in the forests, etc., which were an indispensable source of income to the poor. Above all, peasants sought to safeguard usage of communal lands. Several times during the Revolution and Empire government attempts to divide and sell them (first proposed, then withdrawn for the most part) met vigorous resistance. During the Restoration and July Monarchy the defense of the reconquest of common rights caused several peasant uprisings. Actual armed revolts broke out after the vote on the law of 1827 which attempted to end anarchical deforestation.

Two antagonists competed for possession of the land. The first group included the most numerous, often also the poorest workers, for whom the land was a place of work; in addition were modest artisans and village merchants for whom the land permitted them to make both ends meet. All dreamed of acquiring, piece by piece, a small holding sufficient to allow relative economic existence. Their "land hunger" accelerated and multiplied parcelization, which was one of the major obstacles to the use of machinery. This in turn led to indebtedness, because, without organized agricultural credit institutions, loans could only be obtained from local banks or private lenders who frequently extracted usurious terms. On the upper fringe of this group was better off property owners; some could get by on the labor of the family, others hired day laborers. They preferred to increase their domains rather than improving the yield of their lands.

The second group compromised those who bought land as an investment with an assured return. They amount to at least 31% of land owners during the July Monarchy. The "investors in soil" included members of the old aristocracy, who may have been more wealthy than under the old regime. They often lived on the land, where their name gave them prestige. The "master" remained the natural, paternal protector, who knew how to manage possessions and could dispense advances in kind or money, thus keeping tenants and share croppers under his thumb. In addition there were the bourgeoisie, the great beneficiaries in the sale of national properties. They often secured the finest lands. In 1852 they owned 40 to 60% of the soil in the north, Parisian basin, and a band extending from Normandy to Lorraine, but only 10% of poor mountainous soil or waste lands. Bourgeois proprietors almost always lived in the city. They had a reputation for being more distant and exacting than the nobles, but they were also great dispensers of employment.

Thus large and medium properties were concentrated in a few hands. In 1835 hardly 1% of the land assessments reached 300 francs; a fifth were at most twenty-one to three hundred francs. The great majority, eighty percent, amounted to no more than twenty francs. The pattern of landholding was constant in France, from Young's description in the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Great and medium properties, except for a few regions of poor soils, forests, swamps, or mountains never had a single tenant. They were dispersed among various sized tenancies and shares, and in domains of development held directly. A tenant received land and buildings in exchange for a cash rent and furnished his own capital, machinery, and animals; a share cropper provided only his labor, usually receiving half of the product.

New agriculture, to the extent that it began to develop, using machinery, manures, crop rotation, and new breeding stock brought on a change: this required great expenditures of capital which very few proprietors could invest. Small holders did not have the means and share croppers could not take the initiative without the consent of their employers, who were reticent to risk their usual profit. There remained the large domains and extensive farms. The tenants on large estates often possessed the necessary capital, but the terms of their lease held them back; as a general rule, leases ran six to nine years, which prevented long term investments. There were, nevertheless, large proprietors exploiting their own land; these were the avant garde of innovations.

Especially after 1842, new opportunities for investments competed in the capital market. Industries, in particular railways, offered immediate profits greater than in land owning. This led to several developments. For everyone, land remained an attractive and safe investment, which accelerated parcelization, impeded a renovation of agriculture, and increased the price for land. Stocks and bonds made investing more liquid, which caused some to convert disposable capital from land to paper. This risked draining capital to the financial markets from agriculture at the moment when the need was greatest. Finally, some large or medium proprietors, attracted to the new form of property, became amateur stock speculators. From among this new class of stock investors would emerge great entrepreneurs of the Second Empire, who would create a true railway network and open a national market.

Yvonne Crewbow


M. Agulhon La République au village.

Yvonne Crebouw "Salaires et salariés agricoles en France des débuts de la Révolution aux approches du XXe siècle" University of LILLE III, Doctorat d'Etat, 1986.

Georges Duby & Armand Wallon Historie de la France Rurale III.

E. Labrousse & L. Braudel Histoire economique et sociale de la France II.

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