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The French Economy in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Dormois, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Flandreau, Marc

Published by EH.NET (July 2005)

Jean-Pierre Dormois, The French Economy in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xviii + 151 pp. $43 (hardback), 0-521-66092-0; $14.99 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-66787-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marc Flandreau, Department of Economics, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris

As a French economic historian, I get now and then requests from colleagues overseas asking for an English language crash course in twentieth century French economic history. So far, I was never able to provide a single reference, and thus tried to get a better sense of what they were specifically after (sub-period? topic?) before providing, well, several references, and several of them in French. This little book by Jean-Pierre Dormois (a leading French historian known for his remarkable works on productivity comparisons and the impact of trade policies and technical progress in the late nineteenth century) is therefore most welcome: it fills a gap and provides an excellent starting point for whoever is interested by the achievements of the French economy during the last century.

Being part of Cambridge’s New Studies in Economic and Social History, The French Economy in the Twentieth Century has been formatted to match the series style: it is both concise (151 pages: you can digest it in, say, one Eurostar trip between London and Paris) and precise (an index, a bibliography, a glossary and a “national portrait gallery” of famous Frenchmen and women in the twentieth century). But it is also very readable. In the preface, Dormois confesses a soft spot for the British magazine The Economist, acknowledging that it helped him to “write economic English.” Dormois has undoubtedly been an excellent student, possibly surpassing his master: I found his book not only informative and clearly argued (a quality shared by The Economist), but also often quite fun to read (a quality sometimes lacking in The Economist). Most importantly, Dormois knows much more about France, French history and the French economy than the famous British magazine.

The organization of the book is innovative. Rather than going over the classic chronology of the twentieth century (Belle Epoque, World War I, Entre deux Guerres, World War II, Fourth Republic, Fifth Republic), Dormois has chosen an analytic approach covering a series of themes. This is especially useful for readers interested in a specific topic (say France’s industrial policy) who will therefore make further savings. The volume as a result is organized into eight chapters of about fifteen pages each: Chapter 1, “The End of French Exceptionalism,” sets the stage: was France different and has it stopped being so? Chapter 2, “French Economic Performance in Historical Perspective,” provides numbers and benchmarks on France’s macroeconomic achievements. Chapter 3, “France and the Wider World,” tells the fascinating story of the radical transformation of the French economy from a closed to an open economy. Chapter 4, “The Changing Face of Colbertism,” provides a broad brush picture of the changing patterns of government intervention in economic activity. Chapter 5, “The Institutions of French Capitalism,” gives a perspective on such issues as corporatism and the changing organization of the financial system. Chapter 6, “Labour: The French at Work,” describes the evolution of the labor market in order to give a perspective on the current unemployment problem. Chapter 7, “Plough and Pasture: Lifeblood or Drain?” discusses the importance of agricultural policy across the century. And finally, chapter 8, “Industrialization, De-industrialization, and Post-industrialization,” provides some perspectives on the impact on the French economy of the “service revolution,” with extensions into speculations for the future.

The main value of this book is that, while being essentially a textbook, Dormois’ volume is at the same time an essay. Dormois, like The Economist, is a critic of French economic policy (its taste for dirigisme, its inability to rely on competition, its illiteracy in “orthodox” economics). The book, as a result, gets a pamphlet-like aspect, which makes its reading exciting. Some may complain that Dormois’ views lead him to make statements that are not always warranted: his attempt to relate France’s fertility in the nineteenth century with limited growth performance, for instance, is an example. Or again, his portrait of a consistently protectionist France conflicts somewhat with his description of a vibrant economy that internationalized so rapidly in the past thirty years. Isn’t it possible to see in France’s recent anti-globalization moves the backlash against the deep transformations of the past decades, rather than the mere continuation of an established pattern? Readers will find other causes of concern, in proportion of their own biases towards state intervention. Which is another way to say that subscribers of The Economist will find themselves at home in Dormois’ short and provocative history.

Marc Flandreau is the author of The Glitter of Gold: France, Bimetallism, and the Emergence of the International Gold Standard, 1848-1873 (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII