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Employment and the Revolution of 1848 in France

Employment and the Revolution of 1848 in France (1845-1852) Encouraged by expansion within the first and stage (1800-1850) of the first industrialization, the industrial and trading economy faced a strong growth in the years between 1840 and 1847: hence many jobs were created. This growth was thwarted by over-lapping 1845-1848 crises: a cyclical crisis of the textile industry; an marketing crisis caused by the agricultural crisis; and a railways investment crisis. In the already strongly industrialized north and in the Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing area, difficulties arose in th e wool industry as early as the end of 1845 and increased in 1846-1847 in the linen and cotton industry: employment was threatened in a branch, that was the primary provider of industrial jobs.

The slump in the railway boom in 1846-47 explained the shrinking of the iron industry, whereas difficulties encountered by railway companies forced them to suspend construction and to dismiss their staff: thus, the Bordeaux-Sète line at the beginning of 1847. When the financial crisis increased the se general difficulties, real estate investment weakened. This included a slow down in construction and consequential lay offs in the building trades, a branch that was the second largest industrial employer. Finally, as a result of the severe commercial crisis many small merchants failed between 1845 and 1847, the number of bankruptcies surged in large towns, particularly in Paris where toll especially affected consumer goods retailers from the fashion industry (lingerie, haberdashery, fancy goods, artic les de Paris).

As early as the end of 1845, 60,000 textile workers in the north suffered a strong erosion of work. In Tourcoing, employment in the textile industry decreased from 21,000 in 1845 to 10,000 in July 1848. In May 1847, 8,000 unemployed workers were registered in Roubaix among the 13,000 workers of the textile with a sharp increase between February and May that augmented unemployment from 30 percent to 60 percent. Paris was flattened by unemployment: among the 35,000 regular workers in the building trades, 30,000 lost their jobs in mid-1849; nearly 56 percent of Parisian workers were unemployed by mid-1848, that is a total of nearly 170,000; the furniture branch (with more than 72 percent of unemployed people), mechanics (58 percent), textiles (53 percent), clothing (51 percent) were the most heavily affected branches. A figure of 800,000 unemployed people in French industries is often mentioned, but the crisis was accentuated by widespread partial employment whose extent is difficult to evaluate. Thus, the 1847-1848 winter was traversed with great difficulties, for, in addition to regular seasonal unemployment, was added an unemployment crisis. In the country side, especially in the center and Aquitaine basin, the agricultural crisis made life, pre difficult for daily laborers and rendered the situation of casual workers more precarious, which explains the increased number of vagabonds, wanderers, and nomads in a socially instable situation. As Labrousse maintained, revolu tion breaks out in a disastrous social environment.

The constituent assembly, consequentially worried about the amplitude of unemployment, launched a vast "survey of the agricultural and industrial work" on May 27, 1848. The presistance of the employment crisis as well as political and social tensions deepened the economical crisis. Although the recovery commenced in late 1847, northern textiles suffered a renewed escalation in unemployment in March 1848 putting two-thirds of the spinning m ill workers ou t of work; 15,000 workers in Lille were unemployed in May 1848; in a population of 34,000 inhabitants, 15,000 in Roubaix received assistance. In Vienne (Isère), with 4,000 unemployed, half of the population was out of work. Employment followed the ups and downs of the business cycle; despite an improving tendency beginning in 1849, precariousness still prevailed. In many regions, rather flourishing branches cohabited with others affected by crisis, with pockets of unemployment. Thus, in Grenoble, the hat and paper trade suffered, whereas the glove makers resisted the downturn.

Unemployment spread to industrial regions with the explosion of 1848 causing a crisis in iron and coal-mining, whose stagnation continued until 1851. Many foundaries extinguished their furnaces; the slippage into unemployment affected all workers from the countryside who provided transportation and the supply of charcoal. The rural excess population suffered when the building trade crisis grew d eeper without any recovery in 1850-1852. Although the republic proclaimed "the right of work" on February 25,1848, unemployment remained intense.

The immediate reactions to the employment crises were defensive; families with a financial reserve liquidated their savings accounts in 1847-48; others resorted to the pawn office. Perceptive workers who had set up mutual benefit societies rarely profited, because crisis was too profound for them to survive for long; in Tourcoing, about ten mutual benefit societies c ollapsed and were reconstituted only in 1849. The labor struggle was a blunt tool because the difficulties of the enterprises were great, even if brotherhoods struck here and there, such as the unions trying to block the fall in salaries in the Lille area. More epidermic were the violent reactions like the hunger riot on May 12, 1847 in Lille, when bakeries were plundered, or the demonstration of May 31, 1848, when 15,000 jobless rioted, or the the rising of June 6, 1848. In the north , unemployment explain s the xenophobic movement: in March-May 1848, workers gave "a real chase to Belgians" in order to force them to return their country and so to give up their jobs. Accumulated resentment during the 1840s found expression in acts of "luddism"; technical progress was once more accused of feeding unemployment; with the outbreak of the February revolution, workers in Lyon attacked factories having recently introduced modern machinery; on May 13 in Jurjurieux, in the Rhône, mechanica l textile frames were bu rnt.

Authorities first reflex was to to reopen traditional "charity work houses" in many provincial boroughs. But the second republic tried an original experience, to merge applied socialist theories with public employment and the safeguard of civil order. The creation of national workshops by the minister of public works Marie was an innovation: interventionism aimed at the social treatment of unemployment not as "charity", but as a contribution to the general econo mic interest. Thus the nat ional workshops were launched on February 26, 1848. Lamartine and finance minister Duclerc considered the reopening railway construction sites thanks to the state take over of the companies; one may think that temporary state financing of work oon some lines, such as the Paris-Lyon, constituted an sort of anti-cyclical struggle. Thus, the laws constituting a form of relative "sharing of work" aimed at improving working conditions, hence on March 2,1848 reducing the working day from 11 to 10 hours in Paris , from 12 to 11 hours in the provinces.

Even if some progressive circles anticipated "the large scale works" policies of the 1930s, the spirit of those initiatives remained pragmatic, based on improvisations and compromise. The assembly rejected anti-cyclical state planning that required a massive increase in employment in railway and road construction; the capacities of the budget remained limited. In fact, mixed feelings of generosity and a sprit of social paci fication coalesced. When the p olitical-social tensions caused the disregard of initial "fraternity" and gave a priority to a relaxation of popular menaces, the policy of national workshops was at the heart of the debate: were they a waste of money or a pretense? Should one continue thus to drain thousands of unemployed to large cities for questionable projects? The number of employees of national workshops in Paris grew from 6,000 in early March 1848 to 25,000 on March 31, to 90,000 in May and to 117,0 00 in June, of which 30,000 came from the provinces. Even if many of them in Paris and in the Provinces were simple make work, like the weaving of 43,000 flags in Lyon or the numerous municipals construction projects, some of these had a creative purpose: work on the Montparnasse station, on the Orsay train line, landscaping etc.

Neverless, the dissolution of national workshops on June 21, 1848 ended that social experience. The political reaction ruled; the armed control on jobless people pr evailed over setting them to work. It is true that the reconstitution of the forces of order could also pass for a means to struggle against unemployment. The mobile guards, so active during the June Days of 1848, kept a few thousand workers employed until their dissolution in October 1848. After its weakening marked by many desertions, the army once more was in control and raised its effectives from 336,000 in February 1848 to 465,000 by June 15, 1848, thanks to a budget increase in April-May. Moreover , the decree of June 21 dissolving t he national workshops obliged workers under 25 years of age to join the army!

In fact, from then on, the government bet on economical revival, on the return of confidence, on the dynamism of employing companies to reduce unemployment in the name of spontaneous "economical treatment." That effaced all notions of public interventionism or of "social treatment" as anachronistic. Thus already in September 1848, the limitation on hours of work was suppressed. From then on, one had to wait for the spontaneous recovery during the 1850s for offers of employment recuperate its dynamism.

Hubert Bonin

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Krista Durchik revised this file ( m) on April 15, 1998.

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© 1998 James Chastain.