Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/January 1901/The Economic Life of France




THE country of France, by reason of its position, has been forced into prominence in the life of Western Europe. The nation is surrounded by powerful peoples of diverse types, and because of its central location has perhaps developed a more cosmopolitan culture than its neighbors. The French people are separated most completely by the natural features of their boundaries from those races most closely resembling them. The road is open where the antagonism of types is greatest. The continental position of France has involved her in the troubles as well as in the reforms of her neighbors, and has opened the door to conquest, but left it open to invaders.

The internal geography of France shows no such extensive mountainous regions, or other sharp geographical divisions, as exist in the British Islands. The vanquished races of France have therefore not been able to retain their separate nationalities as completely as have the Scotch, Welsh and Irish. The British Islands are open on all sides to the sea, and with their abundant harbors have trained up a nation of sailors and colonists to carry Anglo-Saxon culture around the world. France is compact in outline, and though she has much coast, lacks good harbors. The activity of the national mind has been turned inward. This betrays itself in the intense patriotism of the people, in the influence exerted by the national capital and in the failure of France as a colonial power.

The region included in European France comprises about one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of the land of the earth, and about one eighteenth of Europe. The area is 204,150 square miles, or about twice that of the British Islands. The water boundaries are as follows: Mediterranean Sea coast, 395 miles; North Sea, Straits of Dover and English •Channel, 572 miles; Atlantic Ocean, 584 miles.

The boundary between France and Spain coincides, for the most part, with the crest of the Pyrenees Mountains. It is, from the economic point of view, a veritable 'wall of separation.' Indeed, it is a well-nigh impassable boundary, as may be seen from the Spanish proverb describing the passes of these mountains—"A son would not wait there for his father." Communication between France and Spain is carried on by means of railways, near the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and by water. The French slope of the Pyrenees is a pastoral country. Because of the regularity of the mountain chain this region affords an unrivaled opportunity to study social structure as influenced by altitude. In the upper mountain valleys the shepherds group their homes into clusters of houses. From them the flocks are led out to pasture, for weeks at a time, on the highest slopes that support vegetation. In these altitudes there are no true villages except where a military station and a custom house draw a few troops and officers together, or where springs have given rise to water-cures. No minerals have drawn thither a mining population. There is nothing but water, forest and pasture. Ten or twelve miles down the mountains the upper valleys open into larger ones. At these outlets are the mountain market towns. These mark the ends of the railway spurs, and from them the shepherds procure their supplies. Another twelve miles down, and the level plains are reached. Close to the openings of the lower valleys the railway branches join to form railway centers, and towns of considerable size have grown up to transact the business between the mountain and the plain.

Between Italy and France the highest portion of the Alpine range intervenes. Over these mountains the Roman legions and the soldiers of Hannibal toiled. But here has been achieved one of the most striking of the conquests of man over nature. The Mount Cenis railway tunnel route, which pierces these mountains, carries the modern tourist from the Rhône to the cities of the upper Po Valley in a few hours. The French slopes of the Alps support only a scant population of mountaineers. Many of these migrate in winter to the plains in search of work, or, housed for long months in their frozen valleys, devote themselves to household industries or to reading and self-education. It is a matter of general remark in the towns of the Rhône Valley that the schoolmasters come from the mountains.

Switzerland and France are divided by the Jura Mountains, but through the Pass of Belfort a large commerce finds passageway. The Jura present a semi-Swiss character, though, compared with the Alps, they are less lofty, differ in geological structure, and receive a greater rainfall. They are noted for luxuriant pastures and dense forests. The chief industries are cattle raising and the manufacture of butter and cheese. In the latter business the co-operative form of industry largely prevails. The rivulets of the mountains afford numerous small water-powers, which are employed in wood-working and the manufacture of watches. Besançon is the watch market of the region. From the timber are made casks for the wine merchants of Champagne.

North of the Jura lie the Vosges Mountains, along the crest of which the Germans have placed their boundary for some distance. The slopes of the Vosges toward Alsace are steep; those toward France are gradual. The rains which water the region come from the west. The French slopes are, therefore, forest-covered, while in Alsace the lower hills are devoted to the vine, and the upper to grain.

North of the Vosges the boundary line across the plateau of Lorraine before plunging into the rugged forests of the Ardennes. From the latter it finally emerges upon the coast plains to form the Belgian frontier. Between Belgium and France the political boundary is purely arbitrary. There is not an economic boundary, but rather a hive of industry between the two peoples. The political grouping does not correspond with that of race or language.

This hasty review of the land boundaries of France has embraced the consideration of five distinct mountain regions. The general relief of France is less uniform than that of Prussia or Russia, but more uniform than that of Spain or Italy. Forty-six per cent, of French territory is classed as mountainous. Nevertheless, variations in altitude are softened, and there is in France a great deal of what might be called transitional country. The highest mountains are fortunately upon the borders, and but two other regions of broken country need to be considered.

Let us, then, turn from the boundaries to the internal geography of France, and first of all complete our enumeration of mountain areas by considering the Central Highlands and Brittany.

In the south central part of the country there exists an extensive semi-barren plateau of highly fractured, crystalline, eruptive and volcanic rocks. It slopes sharply to the Rhône on the east, more gently to the Garonne River on the southwest, and to the Loire River on the north. The rocks of this region are so fractured that the rains which fall upon them sink almost immediately out of sight. The country is graced by no transparent mountain lakes or sparkling rivulets. Water must be carefully collected in cisterns or laboriously transported from lower levels. Lack of moisture and the forbidding character of the rock make the pastures so meagre that only sheep and goats can be supported. From them is won the wool which supports a household industry, and from their milk cheese is made. In the eleventh century the cheese of the little village of Roquefort was put away in a rock cave to 'ripen'. It was soon found that this cheese possessed remarkable excellence of flavor. Its fame spread widely, and a new use was from that time found for the caverns which abound in the Cévennes Mountains. The demand was so great that 'bastard caverns' were excavated in the hope of securing the coveted flavor, but the cheese in them has never acquired the properties of real Roquefort. The western slopes of the Central Highlands receive a greater rainfall and possess a more durable pasturage and a more dense population than the eastern. Auvergne is celebrated as the home of sharp cattle merchants, as well as of the peddlers of France. The central plateau has been aptly termed, by the French, a 'pole of divergence/ from which the population migrate in all directions, but especially toward the northern plains, within which lies the pole of attraction.

The peninsula of Brittany, with its backbone of crystalline rock, may be counted as a semi-mountainous region. It much resembles the English peninsula of Cornwall. But Britanny contains no attractive mineral deposits, so it has longer remained a world apart than has Cornwall, and it still shields many ancient prejudices and practices. The interior districts are, in analogy with Cornwall, of inferior, unattractive character, but agriculture and the dairy industry are profitably carried on along the coast. This region is the only one in France abounding in good harbors. The sea is the mainstay of a large part of the population. The fisheries yield herring, sardines, mackerel, lobsters and oysters. The four departments which compose Brittany furnish the merchant marine of France with one-fifth of its sailors, while eighty-two other departments supply the remainder.

The portions of France still remaining to be treated may be grouped into river-valley and coast regions. Beginning with the southeast, we have, along the Mediterranean coast, the sea of ancient Phoenician, Greek and Roman colonies. This coast is divided into two very distinct portions, separated by the mouths of the Rhône River. The eastern section comprises the Mediterranean foot-hills of the Alpine system. It is a region of bold cliffs and promontories. It contains several excellent harbors, among which are Marseilles, Nice and Toulon, the last being the first naval station of France. This high, well-drained, romantic coast-land, forming part of the Riviera, is the most popular resort of Europe. Here are Cannes, Nice, Menton and the little principality of Monaco, possessing independence to no better purpose than, to license the gaming tables of Monte Carlo. A little distance from the coast are the romantic islands called by the ancients the Islands of the Hesperides. To the west of the Rhone are to be found low, sandy plains, which stretch away to the foot of the Pyrenees. Toward the coast these give way to malarial swamps. Over these extensive marshes roam herds of half-wild cattle and horses, pastured in the mountains in summer, and brought to the coast in winter, just as are the wild bulls that inhabit the swamps about the mouth of the Guadalquivir in Spain. The inhabitants of the region have to contend with an unhealthy climate. Agriculture implies an expensive system of drainage. The wind-mills used for pumping give to the landscape a striking resemblance to Holland. Along the coast bay salt is evaporated by solar heat. The cities, because they require firm ground for their location, are of necessity situated a long distance inland. This fact has prevented Languedoc from being a commercial country.

Between the Alps and the Central Highlands intervenes the valley of the Rhône, which forms the highway across western Europe from the Mediterranean to the northern plains. The Rhône Valley is a narrow one. In the south the culture of silk-worms forms a special industry. At Lyons the manufacture of silk is located. Between these two regions there are detached areas suitable for agriculture. The Rhone is a beautiful stream of transparent blue water and swift current. The Saône Valley forms the northern continuation of the Rhone. It is transitional in character, having in the east the characteristics of the wooded Jura, in the west those of the parched Côte d'Or, and of the vineyards where Burgundy and Champagne are produced. Here also are blended the races and dialects of the north and south of France.

In the southwestern corner of the Republic spreads out the valley of the Garonne. The winds from the Atlantic which blow up this valley are caught as in a sack, and a rainfall is precipitated, which reaches each of the tributaries of the Garonne. Because of this, the river is subject to great variations of depth. It is not amenable to commercial uses, and has been paralleled by a canal. The region about the lower course of the river is devoted to wine producing, the product being named after the market 'Bordeaux' South of the Garonne extends the level barren moor of the Landes, reaching as far as the foot-hills of the Pyrenees. This region is, in summer, a baked steppe; in winter, an almost endless morass. Steps are now being taken to reclaim the soil by drainage and by planting forests of cork oak. The chances are good that it will soon be converted into a habitable country.

From the northern slopes of the Central Highlands flow the waters which form the Loire River. This river flows first north, and then westward, through a long, narrow fertile valley, emptying into the Atlantic south of the peninsula of Brittany. Its course, at Orleans, lies through the grain fields of France. At Angers are extensive nurseries and market gardens, while hemp-growing and manufacture are prominent. On the lower course of the Loire is the port of Nantes, the traditional receiving station for such groceries as are called 'colonial wares' on the Continent.

Preeminent among the rivers of France is the Seine, which gathers the streams of the gently sloping northern plains of France and flows with even tide into the English Channel. Early in its course it passes the centers of manufacture, and is cut up to afford water power. From Paris to Havre the banks are so closely built up that the Seine has been called a river-street. The largest river basin of France is that of the Loire; the most diversified that of the Rhône. The most fertile is the Garonne Valley, and the most densely populated the Valley of the Seine. The Seine has those qualities in a river which render it useful to man. As Michelet says: "It has not the capricious, perfidious softness of the Loire, nor the rough ways of the Garonne, nor the terrible impetuosity of the Rhône, which comes down like a bull escaped from the Alps, traverses a lake fifty miles long, and rushes to the sea, biting at its shores as it goes."

Having thus reviewed some of the characteristics of the chief regions of France, let us consider the distribution of the population, and the location and character of the chief industries, agricultural, manufacturing and commercial, which are carried on by the French people. The population of France amounts to thirty-eight and one-half million souls. The rate of increase has been, for a number of years, less than that of surrounding nations. Because of this fact it may be observed that foreign nationalities are encroaching upon French territory from various sides. The Spaniards are flowing in around the eastern and western ends of the Pyrenees. The Italians invade Provence, and the Belgians and Germans the northeastern portion of the country, while there are large colonies of foreigners in Paris itself. Within the last forty years the internal movements of the population show that the valleys have gained at the expense of the mountains. The north has increased more rapidly than the south. The coal regions have amassed dense populations. The city portion of the population has risen from 24.42 per cent, in 1846 to 35.95 per cent, in 1886. Aggregate figures show that in that time the city population has been increased by five millions, while the country population has decreased two millions. The occupational statistics still show, however, that France is to be classed as preeminently an agricultural nation. Agriculture and industry are, however, not increasing as rapidly as commerce.

The peasantry of France are the foundation strata of the industrial pyramid upon which the superstructure of manufactures and commerce rests. They are a frugal and industrious class. Holdings of land are small in the fertile valleys, larger in the pasture country and communal in the mountains, where the land remains in a state of nature and where the shepherd must needs range widely with his flocks. The higher portions of the Pyrenees, Alps and Central Highlands are the sheep walks of France. Between these and the valleys stretches the belt of heavy pastures devoted to cattle-raising. As in England one hears of Scotch and Welsh cattle, so in France one hears of the cattle of Auvergne and Brittany. The stock are grown to full size in the pastures, and are then (such at least as are designed for Paris) shipped to the fertile plains around Paris, to be stall-fed and fattened. In like manner, the cattle sent to London from the north of England are 'finished,' to use the trade phrase, in a semicircle of country to the north of that city. The dairy industry must be sharply distinguished from cattle-raising. The economic problems presented by the two are quite different. In France the dairy industry nourishes, especially in the low-lying, moist plains which border the English Channel. France has been divided into four agricultural regions. The first is the land of the olive, bordering the Mediterranean; the second, to the north of the other, is the corn belt, extending in the west to the island of Oléron; in the east, to the middle of the Vosges Mountains. The third is the vine country, limited on the north by a line drawn from the mouth of the Loire to the middle of the Ardennes. The vine is grown throughout central and southern France in detached areas, wherever the soil and exposure especially favor it. The northern plains compose the fourth agricultural region. They are devoted to grain, flax, potatoes, apples, small fruits and garden produce. Southwest of Paris lies the fertile plain of Beauce, the 'Granary of France,' described by Zola in 'La Terre,' and pictured by Millet. Agricultural methods are in the main clumsy and imperfect, and their defects are made up only by grinding toil. This condition of things has been explained as due to the conservatism of the peasant. There is an absence of newspapers and farmers' organizations to spread scientific knowledge concerning the processes of agriculture. The prevalence of small holdings prevents the profitable use of expensive agricultural machinery on private account. While the price of land is high, foreign competition keeps the price of staple products low.

As to mineral resources, France is generally accounted under, rather than over, supplied. There is everywhere an abundance of building-stone. Paris has exhaustless supplies within the municipal area. This has had not a little to do with the splendor and durability of Parisian architecture, which contrasts favorably with the brick of London and the stucco of Berlin. In the northwestern portion of the Central Highlands the mountains of Limonsin afford unexcelled porcelain clays, from which the famous Limoges china is made. The Jura Mountains produce mill-stones and lithographic stones. Brittany has a little tin. The Pyrenees offer nothing but mineral waters, except some iron in the extreme east. At Baccarat, in the Vosges, the ingredients for glass are found, and St. Gobain and St. Quirin manufacture plate glass. Nevertheless, France has perhaps less mineral wealth than any other well-known country of like extent. The chief defect is in connection with the supplies of iron and coal. Iron ore must always be transported to coal, for in producing iron two tons of coal are required to one ton of ore. It is to be desired, therefore, that coal should exist in large beds, accessible to the miner, and of proper quality for coking. Iron, though it may be in small deposits, should be free from certain impurities and not far distant from fuel and flux. France has no large beds of fine coal, and her iron ore is not of high grade; neither is it advantageously located with reference to coal. The largest collieries are in the extreme northeast, and extend across the border into Belgium. Other important beds are southwest of Lyons at St. Etienne, and northwest of Lyons near Creuzot. Some anthracite is found in the Alps; some lignite near Marseilles.

The manufactures of France depend more largely upon skill and artistic ability, and less upon cheap coal and raw materials, than do those of England or Germany. The use of the 'factory system' secures the advantage of cheap motive power and the economy of machines, but it does not so much further the utilization of skill. This accounts, in part, for the persistence of household industries in France. The distribution of industrial skill depends upon the location of trade centers, where the traditions of craft have been handed down from generation to generation of workers. Here and there one finds an industry that grew up under royal patronage, often carried on for a time, as an exotic by Italian workmen, as was the case with the silk manufactures of Lyons. The industries of many towns are the survivals of those founded when the place was one of the privileged cities in which the Protestants were allowed to live and carry on trade. In other places industries are still carried on where they were attracted by mediæval church fairs, or royal courts, or by water powers no longer utilized, or harbors now silted up. Skill is a relatively immobile economic factor. The supplies of raw silk are either imported at or grown close to Marseilles, but to be manufactured they must be taken as far north as Lyons to secure a healthy and temperate climate. The manufacture of woolens is located at five points in France, each being midway between sheep-raising highlands and the populated valleys where markets are found. The supplies of raw cotton come chiefly from America, and are landed at Le Havre. Cotton manufacturing requires exactly such a moist climate as there prevails. It is, therefore, carried on in the lower valley of the Seine, or, at most, is removed but a short distance to the east to secure coal and a labor market. The linen manufactories are naturally in a flax-growing country, and center at Amiens and Lille. The Liverpool of France is Le Havre. Its Birmingham is St. Etienne. The French Manchester is said to be Montluçon. The bank center and city of diversified industries, corresponding to London, is Paris. There a vast variety of art goods, conveniences and luxuries, such as Gobelin's tapestry and articles de vertu, collectively known to the trade as 'Articles of Paris,' are manufactured.

The commercial routes of France have been remarkably distinct from the earliest historical times. The railways of France have opened fewer new arteries of trade, and have destroyed less of the old equilibrium of industry than it has been their fate to do in most other countries. The distribution of large cities serves well to show where these commercial highways are located. The southern trade moves from Marseilles to the Rhône Valley, and across the plains to Paris, or it passes to the west down the Garonne Valley to Bordeaux From Bordeaux a route passes northward, to the west of the highlands, and along the coast to the city of Tours. At Tours this stream of trade is joined by that from the southern and western seas, and is carried inland to Paris. The great capital receives these streams from the south and feeds, and is in turn fed, from the fan-shaped network of commercial highways which branch out in every direction over the plains of the north. The chief of these bring Paris into close communication with Belgium and the coast.

Paris is situated in the center of the largest habitable plain of France. It is at the place where the road from the Mediterranean crosses the overland route from Spain to the low countries. The capital is near enough to the most important disputed boundaries to be able to throw the power of the nation into their protection, yet it is far enough inland from the channel to be safe from naval attack. The latitude gives Paris a climate which permits of continuous labor, and does not unduly complicate municipal sanitary problems. The metropolis is surrounded by regions which supplement one another in a beautiful manner in ministering to her necessities. On the northeast is a group of large cities devoted to the textile industries. In the southeast are the chalk plains, famous for wine. From the southwest comes grain. Due west are the Percheron and Norman hills furnishing their celebrated breeds of horses, while from further away, Brittany sends butter and eggs, honey and fish. Along the shores in the north and west are the ports of Dunkerque, Calais, Dieppe and Le Havre, for communication, while the lover of surf bathing finds the beach of Trouville not far away. The immediate environs have had not a little to do with the prosperity of the city. The merits of these are abundant artesian water and fine building-stone, a fertile surrounding soil able to assist in provisioning a metropolis, and romantic beauty of landscape, able, in the days of a monarchy, to attract a king to erect palaces and, in those of a republic, to stimulate a matter-of-fact bourgeois, and refresh an exhausted ouvrier on a holiday outing.