Henri Astier begins his review of L'identité economique de la France. David Todd's study of French economic theory and practice in the first half of the nineteenth century, by stating the usually accepted views of the different approaches France and England took to national and international trade, protectionism, and empire:

The British dismantled their tariffs and led to the first wave of globalization. The French rended to regard commerce as a threat, not an opportunity. After timid attempts at liberalization, they turned to full-blown protectionism in the 1880s onwards. These contrasting — and enduring — positions are often seen as the result of deep historical forces. An empire with a huge empire and a liberal economy was always going to be more open to the world than a Continental power that had developed a siege mentality under royal and imperial absolutism.

Nonetheless, as Astier points out, this emphasis upon the two countries' supposed “inevitably different approaches“ misleads on two counts: first, until the 1820s "both were equally mercantilistic" and second, even after the second decade of the nineteenth century, France did have advocates of liberalizing trade policy. In fact, one of them, Jean-Baptise Day, “was more widely read than his hero Adam Smith.”

To understand the French approach we have to realize the very different situations in each country. For example, in France one has to contrast protectionism not only to free trade (which won the day in England) but also to the French practice of outright prohibition:

As a rule, foreign goods were not taxed, but simply banned. This suited domestic producers who had prospered under Napoleonic blockades. But above all, Todd argues, prohibitions reflected the political ethos of the time. A well-ordered society would not submit itself to the vagaries of world markets; it was composed not of autonomous individuals but of interdependent groups whose delicate balance was ultimately underpinned by the monarch. This “organic representation of society“, as Todd calls it, harked back to the ancien régime. Its logic was that of privilege and hierarchy — as was the case for Britain's mercantilist Corn Laws, also enacted in 1815.

The basic beliefs underlying this social, political, and economic trade policy are also, one may point out, ironically similar to those of Thomas Carlyle, whose French Revolution stands as the epic poem of the destruction of the ancien régime and the old order. The sage from across the Channel of course had absolutely no faith in either French or British aristocracy — those people who were always "protecting their game," as he put it in Past and Present, rather than protecting (and leading) the people of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Ironic convergences appear in some of the French arguments for protectionism: they “did not defend monopoly or privilege: they spoke of the new language of the nation, progress and democracy.“ Interestingly, the French “drew inspiration from across the Rhine“ as the individual German principalities removed trade barriers among themselves while setting up tariff barriers “for development and nation-building.“

One reason for the French rejection of free trade lay in the failure of its advocates to unite liberalization with democracy and radicalism, such as happened in Britain. Another reason, the reviewer Astier suggests, lay in French “administrative centralization“ and a consequent “anaemic civil society“: “Britain's proud tradition of local democracy was crucial to Cobden's success. In France, where the state is held to be the sole repository of the public good, there is little scope for grass-roots activism. French citizens make their feelings known through elections and occasional revolutions; they rarely bother with the chores of civic rallies, petitions, fund-raising, and pestering of officials and newspaper editors.”


Astier, Henri. “Winds of change in the cornfield.” Times Literary Supplement (march 19, 2010): 25.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Todd, David. L'identité economique de la France. Libre échange et protectionnisme, 1814-1851. Parius: Grasset, 2010.

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Last modified 22 March 2001