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Les entrepreneurs du Second Empire

Author(s):Barjot, Dominique
Anceau, Eric
Lescent-Giles, Isabelle
Marnot, Bruno
Reviewer(s):Dormois, Jean-Pierre

Published by EH.NET (January 2005)

Dominique Barjot, Eric Anceau, Isabelle Lescent-Giles and Bruno Marnot, editors, Les entrepreneurs du Second Empire. Paris: Presses de l?universite de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003. 224 pp. 23.75 Euros, ISBN: 2-84050-293-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jean-Pierre Dormois, Institut d?Histoire Contemporaine, Universit? Marc-Bloch (Strasbourg)

This book is an interim report on a nation-wide project initiated some twenty years ago; it offers summary findings from a collection of twelve already published volumes with another half dozen announced for the near future. Its avowed ambition is to match the British Dictionary of Business Biography (David Jeremy editor, 1984). This particular volume (224 pp.), divided in four sections and thirteen chapters, is the outcome of a one-day conference in Paris in 1999 where participants in the project presented their results and/or prospects for forthcoming research. At the end, a formal conclusion by Fran?ois Crouzet highlights a number of striking similarities between nineteenth-century French and British entrepreneurs and an alphabetical index lists the 770 individuals so far assembled in the sample. The research strategy has consisted in building a random sample of leading businessmen by regions in the period 1850-1870 and collecting information on their lives and achievements from a variety of sources (a sample questionnaire is provided).

As the authors admit, difficulties in collecting information were so great that a rigorous selection process was not feasible but one may consider, ex post, that the common lower bound is around the half-million francs mark — the drawback for historians of the absence of a personal income tax is here again glaring. Questions arise, however, as to the choice of the term ?entrepreneurs? (especially in its English meaning) in the title for describing the main activity of the people collected in the sample. It was obviously intended to emphasize the ?Promethean? dimension of the calling and the introduction opens with a ?classic? attack on David Landes?s celebrated 1949 article — a shibboleth among French business historians.[1] But it is by no means obvious that the portrait gallery assembled here presents the quintessence of ?entrepreneurship.? The project aims to reevaluate the role of what was known in the 1960s-1970s under the infamous term of ?patronat? with a view to convey the exploitative nature of industrial capitalism. Here instead the ?wealth creation? dimension is emphasized. But the sample also includes a sizeable share of assorted businessmen or speculators (2.6%), and bankers, stock-exchange and insurance brokers (14.5%), as well as wholesale traders (17.7%) making up together a hefty 34.8%. Is this a reflection of the heavy-handed ?pro-big business? stance of the Second Empire and Napoleon III?s acquaintance with sometime dubious business personalities, or of the domination of money interests over the production system, as some republican opponents claimed at the time? Paradoxically, the old (?) Marxist term of ?capitalists? would have been more appropriate, especially if one considers the inclusion in the roster of large landowners (3%) — particularly prevalent in areas such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Nord.

The authors concur that the intermingling of business and politics remained a marginal phenomenon. They note that businessmen?s involvement in politics generally stopped at accepting the local mayorship. Little more than 5% pursued a career in national politics as members of the legislature, mostly with an endorsement by the imperial government. However, the mention that some, typically Parisian, ?money-spinners? started their careers as civil servants hints at political connections playing an important role in business creation. The distribution of the sampled individuals by sectors of activity (Table 1), when restricted to industry and transport, comes out as closely related to that of value added (column 3 of Table 1) — an observation which plays in favor of the sample?s representativeness. Only metallurgy, mining and transport appear underrepresented but, as the authors warn, these are industries where the prevalence of joint stock companies (known in French as ?anonymous societies?) implied fragmented (and opaque) ownership: the sample is therefore skewed towards partnerships. At the other end of the spectrum, it left out the vast majority of small family firms (SME), which made up the backbone of French business in the nineteenth century. Thus, among the silk-manufacturers of Lyons, only 19 out of an estimated total of 400 industrialists are represented.

Table 1

The Sectoral Distribution of Sampled Entrepreneurs and Value Added (N = 770)

Self-made men appear to have been a rarity, at least among the very successful, about half the proportion in Britain.[3] Conversely, dynasties found it hard to take root. While 56 business families have two entries or more (typically the founder and his son), only in Alsace (and perhaps in the Nord), as N. Stoskopf and M Hau have already shown, are they conspicuous; two out of the three families with four representatives originated in the province lost in 1871. The bulk of comments is devoted to examining the geographical and educational background, the demographic and family behavior, the religious and political affiliation, as well as the artistic and cultural proclivities of the sampled individuals. As a result, the study leans heavily towards social history and flirts sometimes with the anecdotal: this self-professed ?essay in prosopography? (the systematic collection of biographical evidence used by archeologists and students of ancient history) does not always confront the crucial issues of business management. As a result this approach will leave many economic historians unsatisfied: ultimately, studying businessmen without their firm(s) may offer glimpses on their mentalities but little prospect of understanding their contribution to industrial development — a little like visiting the homes of famous writers and musicians. Despite all the authors? precautions, the identikit picture which emerges from this gallery reinforces the pervasiveness of the conservative, risk-averse money makers reluctant to invest in new technologies, only desperate to join the upper-classes. And incidentally, the reader may have reservations about the obligation under which historians should feel to defend their national heritage.

Notes: 1. Landes?s own 1963 revision of his earlier conclusions which is assigned in the introduction to The Unbound Prometheus appeared in ?New Model Entrepreneurship in France,? Explorations in Economic History 1: 56-75. 2. As taken from Statistique G?n?rale de la France, Enqu?te industrielle, 1861-65 (Paris, 1873). 3. James Foreman-Peck and Elisa Boccaletti, French and British Businessmen in the Nineteenth Century (forthcoming).

Jean-Pierre Dormois is author of The French Economy in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century