I want you to imagine you are Jules de Polignac, chosen by the king himself to be prime minister of France. But as we saw in Episode 34, you were definitely not the choice of France’s Chamber of Deputies. They would rather like you fired.

In short, your job’s on the rocks, and you’re trying to find enough support, somehow, to let you save the country from certain doom. So you’re probably not going to enjoy learning that there’s even more bad news: you are prime minister of a country whose economy stinks.

This is the The Siècle, Episode 35: L’Économie.

To untangle the deep recession that gripped France’s economy in 1830, we’ll need to understand exactly what the “French economy” was back then. Because while some parts of this story are going to sound strikingly familiar to modern ears, other parts will be deeply alien.

The basics

The first thing to know about the “economy” of Restoration France is that it’s primarily agricultural. Around three-fourths of France’s economy came from farming, and a similar share of workers were farmers.1

Looked at another way, farmland accounted for just under 50 percent of all French national wealth in the Restoration — compared to just 2 percent today. That’s according to calculations by the economists Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman. France’s combined housing stock was about 17 percent of national wealth in 1820, compared to 61 percent today. And all other forms of capital, including ownership of businesses and financial investments like stocks or government bonds, were around 35 percent of all wealth. That’s actually pretty similar to modern levels.2

In short, if you lived in Restoration France, odds are you lived in a rural area. If you worked, odds are you worked on a farm. If you were rich, odds are a big chunk of your wealth came from owning farmland. (This was especially true for the politically active rich — not only was being a landowner more prestigious than owning a business, but farmland was more heavily taxed than commercial income. That might sound like a bad thing for landlords, but remember — eligibility to vote and hold office was based on how much you paid in taxes. Comparing one man who invested a fortune in land and another who invests it in a business, historian Sherman Kent estimates the business owner would have to invest three times more money to get the right to vote than the landowner would.3)

Now, don’t take this too far: France in 1830 had craftsmen and industrialists, builders and teamsters, servants and professionals, and all these various jobs played vital roles in the French economy. It’s just that compared to agriculture, they were all minor aspects of France’s economic picture. To a major degree, farming was France’s economy.

But I’m not going to start off by talking about French agriculture. Because while agriculture is the biggest part of the Restoration economy, there’s something else that’s even more important for understanding the Restoration economy. See, France in the 1820s was a country where it was really hard to get around. It turns out this one simple fact, the difficulty of transport, impacts everything.

Foot, hoof and water

The Restoration is, for all intents and purposes, a pre-railroad era. Vehicles pulled on fixed tracks existed, running for short distances and often pulled by animals instead of engines. But they remained novelties, and don’t connect cities.4

Instead, if you wanted to get yourself or some goods around the country, you had three basic options: by foot, by hoof, or by water. France did have a nationwide network of highways, but many of them were in rough shape. Even among the “royal roads” — the best and most important highways in the kingdom — only around one-third were paved. Anything unpaved turned into a quagmire when it rained, though even the paved portions were “so bumpy” that wagons often voluntarily drove on the shoulders. In 1811, only 36 percent of these highways were rated as being in a “maintained condition.”5

This situation did improve somewhat during the Bourbon Restoration. The Bourbons increased road spending above Napoleonic levels, to around 3 or 4 percent of the total budget. As a result, the share of well-maintained roads rose to 44.5 percent in 1824 and 52 percent in 1830. But even this improvement still left nearly half the royal roads in rough shape, and that’s not even considering local routes.6

So what does that mean? Well, let’s say you’re a farmer who just produced a wagonload of grain, or a manufacturer who wants to acquire a wagonload of iron. Getting this wagon from its place of production to its place of sale is going to be slow and expensive.

The basic number to know is that in 1818 it cost — on average — about 1.25 francs to move one metric ton of goods four kilometers over land. Now, that’s a little abstract, but that’s almost 250 francs to cover the 775 kilometers between Paris and Marseille, or around how much an unskilled day laborer might earn in a year.7

Things were a little better if you happened to live on the coast or by a river. It’s about 630 kilometers over land between the port cities of Bordeaux and Le Havre — only a little shorter than the Paris-Marseille distance. But where it cost 250 francs to carry a ton of goods overland between Paris and Marseille, it cost around 42 francs per ton to ship goods through the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel. On inland stretches of the Loire River, a 50-ton boat might cost 160 francs to move around 210 kilometers downstream. Adjusting for distance, Loire transport cost around 0.6 francs to move one ton four kilometers — perhaps half the 1.25-franc price of going overland. In other words, it was an improvement, but still quite expensive.8


That’s a lot of numbers. Here’s the key takeaway: because it was so slow and expensive to move goods around France, the country was effectively fractured into hundreds of different micro-economies instead of one big unified economy. Most food was produced for immediate consumption, or if not that, for sale for local consumption.9 In most cases, it was only economical to transport food around 50 kilometers. After that, the cost of transportation made shipped food too expensive. This 50-kilometer distance was itself up from a minuscule 15 kilometers in the 18th Century, but — to peek ahead a little — would jump to 250 kilometers in just a few decades with the spread of railroads.10 This meant the price of basic goods could vary wildly across the country. In December 1827, for example, it cost around 14 francs to buy 100 liters of wheat in the northwestern area of Rennes, and more than 30 francs to buy the same amount of wheat in the southeastern area of Avignon.11

This slow travel also meant that most of the food for Paris was grown in the city’s immediate vicinity — even in the city’s suburbs, as I covered in Episode 4. Paris needed 500,000 pounds of grain every day just to survive, plus more meat, wine, cheese, and produce, and highly efficient suburban greenhouses provided a crucial baseline.12 Unsurprisingly, during this time, the availability of food was one of the biggest factors restraining urban growth.13

The Restoration governments were well aware of how transportation difficulties constrained the country’s economy, and they took modest steps to combat it. As I mentioned earlier, the Restoration did increase spending on roads over Napoleonic levels. They also launched a major canal-building program, which exploded from building an average of 15 kilometers per year from 1800 to 1825, up to more than 150 kilometers per year built in the 15 years after 1825.14 Despite hopes that private enterprise would step up and build France’s new canal infrastructure, the national government ended up funding most of these waterways themselves.15

These efforts absolutely helped. But despite improved roads and longer canal networks, the general transit situation remained mostly the same. A final point you should take away from all this is just how impactful the railroad is going to be when it arrives over the coming decades. France’s economic life in the Bourbon Restoration is essentially defined by slow and expensive transportation, and the ability to send goods and people around the country, quickly and cheaply, is going to change everything. As one historian noted, from an economic perspective, the France of the 1820s was closer to the 1600s than it was to the railroad age of the 1850s.16

Our daily bread

So with that established, let’s take a look at French agriculture, the driver of what passed for France’s “economy.”

This is going to be a zoomed-out look at big-picture economic statistics. So if you’re interested in a survey of how various French regions were different from each other, I recommend you revisit Episode 3. And if you want to learn more about what the lives of French peasant farmers were like, I’ve got you covered, too — I talked about that in Episode 10.

While some areas did specialize in certain agricultural products, such as wine or silk, most staples were produced everywhere. Grapes were grown in all but three northern areas of the country, flax in 40 departments and hemp in 57. Cereal grains were grown not merely in fertile lowlands, but also in hills and mountains where immense effort was needed to produce meager yields.17 For day-to-day products, the cost of transit meant France couldn’t afford to specialize. Crops needed to be grown near where they were used.

Around 12.5 million acres in France were used to grow wheat by 1830, plus another 2 million for mixed wheat and rye crops. Grapes accounted for around 5 million acres, oats for 6.9 million, and potatoes for around 2 million.18 This was an evolving mix of crops. In particular, the New World crops of potatoes and maize were becoming more popular. Maize — also known as corn — often did well in weather that hurt the wheat crop, and vice versa; the potato also provided precious insurance against harvest failures.19

Farming in this period was often a precarious business. This was pre-mechanization, and most farming was done by hand in a fairly laborious manner, with simple plows, shovels and hoes, sickles or scythes. Draft animals were rare, since the need to plant as much food as possible took away land that could be used as pastures. In turn that meant limited fertilizer for fields. And in turn that meant the usual way to get nutrients back into the soil was to let fields lie fallow every two or three years — a hugely inefficient use of limited land.20

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the output of French agriculture in the Restoration is to look at seed yields. Each year farmers had to set aside a part of their harvest to be seeds for the next year, and could eat or sell the remainder. When growing wheat, farmers generally needed to get at least three seeds back for every one they planted in order to survive. A 5:1 yield is the bare minimum surplus to support a significant share of the population in non-farming jobs. Higher ratios meant more food security, more profit, and more ability to invest in things like modern equipment and fertilizer.21

French farmers at this time could generally expect to harvest 5 or 6 viable seeds for every one they planted. The most fertile part of France — Flanders — might see a 15:1 yield, while poor people limited to marginal land might be lucky to get yields of 3 or even 2.5 to 1 — yields where a farmer would have to do outside work or beg to survive.22 By contrast, modern scientific agriculture can easily generate wheat yields of 20:1, and under optimal conditions can even exceed 50:1.23

Above: Average wheat seed yields — wheat grains returned for every seed planted — in France in the 1830s. From Hugh Clout, Agriculture in France on the Eve of the Railway Age, 115. Used with permission.

Livestock at the time were also smaller and less productive than people today might expect. Nationally, French cows around 1840 averaged around 240 kilograms in weight. Today’s Limousin breed of cattle average 650 to 850 kilograms.24 That had the kind of impact on milk and meat yields that you might expect.

All that said, there were some areas of France that were able to break away from subsistence farming and specialize in cash crops. The Loire Valley, with relatively cheap transit provided by the Loire River, was already specialized in winemaking by this time. Boats enabled exporting, especially for luxury products for whom the fixed costs of shipping were relatively small. In less-connected areas, grapes were still frequent crops since vines could be grown on hillsides otherwise unsuitable to growing grain. If you couldn’t export your wine, you could at least sell it locally — resulting in a highly fragmented wine market.25

Cash crops like wine were important because even rural peasants often needed money for occasional purchases. Taxes sometimes needed to be paid in cash, and the same could be true for traveling peddlers. Perhaps most valuable of all, cash reserves could be used to purchase food when the crops failed — as they inevitably did, sooner or later.26 But more on that in a little bit.

Cottage industry

The other big way that peasant farmers might accumulate precious hard cash was by taking a job. Sometimes this was as simple as doing day labor on other people’s farms, but often it involved producing crafts. And now we get, at last, to the non-agricultural part of France’s economy, only to discover that in the 1820s “industry” was pretty intimately tied up with agriculture.

Crafting was widespread on French farms, and not just for personal use, either. Instead, France operated under a system where merchants contracted out piecework to peasants around the region, who would spin wool, weave cloth, sew gloves, make shoes, or whatever else, in their homes, and return the products to their boss for money.27 It was a literal example of cottage industry.

For one example, we can turn to the widespread rural industry of making clogs, or wooden shoes. The actual work of making these clogs was done by workmen scattered around an area, often from small work-huts in the forest. There they would cut, drill and smooth their shoes, then dry them for months at a time before delivering them for sale. These clogs might sometimes be sold to neighbors, but often they were sold to a clog dealer, who might have contracts with up to 50 different clog-makers. Court cases have brought us some examples of these contracts, such as a certain Julien Choplain, who agreed to make clogs for a dealer named Lemaire for one year, in exchange for 8 francs per load of finished clogs, plus a 10-franc signing bonus noted as “for wine.” In turn, a dealer like Lemaire might be one of 25 different regional dealers supplying a Paris-based distributor.28

In many cases, the peasants bringing in vital cash through their handicrafts were women, while the men of the family worked the fields. In other parts of the country the entire family might get in on a small enterprise. A master silk-worker of Lyons, for example, usually employed his own family and perhaps “a limited number of journeymen” to produce cloth for a merchant. France’s iron industry was “predominantly rural” in this period, spread out over “small, scattered forges.” The cloth industry in Normandy was similarly dispersed, with 3,000 mostly small mills scattered around the region. Sometimes these cottage industries would spend part of their time on agriculture, and sometimes they’d focus entirely on the industry.29


This isn’t to say there weren’t big factories and workshops in Restoration France. They were relatively rare, but existed, and were becoming more common. A key driver here is the capital costs involved in implementing new technology. For example, the new “Jacquard machine” invented in 1805 let weavers weave complex patterns by feeding a punch card into the machine. It was a tremendous breakthrough and a harbinger of mass production to come, but it was also quite expensive. As a result, it began “to make the formerly independent master more reliant on the merchant.”30 Meanwhile loans from Paris bankers helped fund the consolidation of previously dispersed industries around the country.31

This consolidation and capital investment helped fuel some big improvements in the efficiency of French industry. Production of pig iron doubled, and cotton production tripled, while consumer prices dropped. In 1817, France produced 72,000 scythes; ten years later a single factory in Toulouse alone produced 120,000.32

Chasing England

But these improvements in efficiency mostly just represented France trying frantically to keep up. Because for every improvement French industry adopted, British industry seemed to have made it years earlier. This British head start stacked with much cheaper transport in England, where more of the population lived near the coast and where the canal-building boom had kicked off 50 years before.33

One stat encapsulates the disparity for me. In 1830, French bar iron cost between 420 or 500 francs per 1,000 kilograms at the factory — before any transportation costs were applied. In contrast, 1,000 kilograms of British iron cost 167 francs — at the port, after having been shipped all the way across the English Channel.34

Things got worse once French manufacturers had to ship their goods. A single load of coal from a major mine in central France cost 2,475 francs at the pit-head, and more than 13,400 francs in Paris. “Tax doubled the original price, navigation tolls accounted for 600 francs, and the rest of it was made up by general transport costs.” This had huge downstream impacts, because coal was a much more effective source of energy than the nearest alternative, charcoal formed from burning wood. Using charcoal, it cost 300 francs to smelt a ton of iron — but only 88 francs to produce that same iron with coal.35

It’s no wonder that the French in this time loved to complain about cheap British goods flooding their market.36

Nor is it a huge surprise that the French government responded by slapping big import tariffs on foreign goods. By the time the huge tariffs were paid, that 167-franc load of British iron was cost-competitive with the 420-franc load of French iron. The result was the survival of the French iron industry, but higher prices for everyone who used iron as an input.37 Other tariffs protected the prices of domestic wheat, cloth, dye, oil and livestock.38

Foreign trade

The other impact of tariffs was the retaliation. One by one France’s major trading partners hit back with tariffs of their own on the limited number of high-value French exports. Above all the target was French wine. The Netherlands slapped a 100 percent tariff on French wine imports, while German states and Switzerland had their own fees. German imports of French wine fell from 11 million liters in 1821 to just over 1 million in 1824, and even this reduced level of exports was at drastically cut prices. Overall French wine exports fell by 50 percent between the 1815-19 period and 1820-24.39

These retaliations severely battered French commerce. Overseas trade had recovered from the days of the British blockades, of course. But official statistics show only modest annual growth in commerce over the 1820s, and some historians suggest these statistics are unreliable, with “values attributed to goods in trade [being] completely arbitrary” and not distinguishing between genuine imports and goods merely passing through France. The country’s biggest ports like Marseilles and Bordeaux saw increased traffic during this period, but smaller seaports shrunk.40

Another blow to French commerce was the sad state of colonial trade. France’s overseas colonies, often relying on brutal slave labor to produce raw materials for export, had been the most dynamic part of France’s pre-Revolutionary economy. Many of these colonies had been seized during the Napoleonic Wars, and while Britain gave most of them back after 1815, these colonies remained small and relatively unproductive. Colonial monopolies on products like sugar failed to provide enough to meet domestic demand, driving up prices. And France’s richest colony before the Revolution was now the free republic of Haiti. I’ll talk much more about France’s colonial empire in a coming episode, but know for now that colonial trade was not a major part of the French economy in the 1820s.41

The food crisis

And that brings us back to the beginning: France’s crappy economy in 1830.

This is worthy of note because for most of the Restoration, France’s economy was not crappy. To be sure, poverty was rampant, agriculture inefficient, and industry and trade limited. Restoration France was, by today’s standards, a desperately poor country. But by the standards of the 1820s, it was a pretty rich country. And over the decade leading up to 1827, France had been getting richer. Its population was growing, construction boomed, tax revenue and gold reserves grew, as did French personal savings. This growth was not dramatic or transformative, but it was real.42

And then in the late 1820s, a whole bunch of bad things happened all at once to bring the good times to an end.

The most important factor in this recession was one we don’t encounter a lot today: bad harvests. The 1827 harvest was as much as one-third below the prior year in some areas. Peasants could often survive one bad harvest, but then the 1828 yields were also bad. The same was true in 1829.43

The primary culprit was usually the weather. France might have had 90 different agricultural markets separated by slow transportation, but bad weather crossed market boundaries that wagons rarely did. The summer of 1828 saw crops damaged by drenching summer rains; in 1829 it was autumn rains that did the damage. And any hopes farmers might have had for a recovery in 1830 were battered when the winter of 1829-30 saw frigid weather that destroyed stockpiled potatoes and wheat.44

Bad harvests thus hurt in two ways. First, they hurt farmers directly by reducing the harvest they needed to eat. Then, by the laws of supply and demand, bad harvests led the price of what food was available to skyrocket. So a farmer hoping to supplement his own shortfall by buying food found his precious stockpile of cash didn’t go as far as it used to. In eastern France, wheat prices went from under 17 francs per hectolitre in 1826 to more than 21 francs in 1830, a 26 percent increase. Every market was different, but prices went up around the country, and the biggest price increases happened in the most isolated areas.45 This wasn’t a coincidence — prices rose even more than simple supply and demand would suggest, because fear of famine lead to hoarding, where those who could bought up all the food they could afford, to either eat themselves, or with the idea of re-selling it when prices rose even higher.46

Above: Average wheat prices in France in the 1830s, francs per hectolitre. Wheat was most expensive in the southeast and cheapest in north-central France, which was a major wheat-growing area. From Hugh Clout, Agriculture in France on the Eve of the Railway Age, 127. Used with permission.

The industrial recession

Really, bad harvests hit in three ways. Because after the peasants spent their meager reserves on overpriced food, that meant they didn’t have money available to spend on other goods and services. Which meant the providers of those goods and services had less money themselves. “The result,” economic historian Roger Price notes, “was a generalized crisis of the economy.”47

For example, falling demand led the price of spun wool to plunge by nearly 40 percent. This devastated the 200,000 rural spinners I talked about earlier. The town of Besanscon near the Swiss border had a thriving clock-making industry, but in 1827 thousands of migrant Swiss clockmakers “were forced to return home due to lack of orders.” In northeastern France, manufacturers cut wages, then scaled back hours. We have records of hundreds of workers quitting their jobs and going back to subsistence farming; it should speak volumes that this was seen as a better way to avoid starvation than working for the low wages offered by the factory.48

Another huge impact was on the construction industry. In modern times, we’re used to seeing data about how construction of new homes drops during recessions, as cash-strapped buyers put off their purchases. The same thing was true in Restoration France — as the economic crisis hit in the last years of the 1820s, the construction trade suffered terribly.49 This was a big deal — somewhere around 4 percent of French workers were in construction, the single largest sector other than agriculture. And the first 10 years or so of the Restoration, before the crisis hit, had been boom years for the French building industry, driven by generally good harvests in rural areas and a huge influx of migrants to Paris. Paris had grown by close to 30 percent over two decades, from 622,000 in 1811 to more than 800,000 by 1830, and two-thirds of that growth was domestic migration. All those people needed places to live, and while new construction generally didn’t keep up with demand, it did proceed briskly until the late-20s recession ground everything to a halt.50

This recession was not solely limited to France. Back in Episode 31, I talked about how one big factor in the bad economy — besides the bad harvests — was a financial panic in Great Britain. This had immediate spill-over effects in France, where England was both a key consumer of exports and provider of imports.51 We can even see the impact in obscure metrics like France’s tax on the imports of foreign carriages. Its revenue fell from 381,000 francs in 1825 to 75,000 in 1827, as tourism from British aristocrats plummeted.52 Back in Episode 31, I quoted the journalist Adolphe Thiers that “the English, who had by their considerable purchases given great impetus to our manufactures, suddenly withdrew. Thus all Normandy, Picardy and Flanders were dropped into dreadful suffering… Everywhere there were the cries of unemployment.”53

Responses to the recession

All this economic misery provoked a series of responses, both attempts to restore economic growth and to help those suffering. In the Chamber of Deputies, the Martignac government held a series of inquiries and debates into various struggling industries. Their report on France’s iron industry, for example, concluded that those high tariffs were counter-productive and ought to be lowered. This met with a furious response from ironmakers, who quite liked those protective tariffs and insisted that the real problem was the government, which limited the supply of furnace fuel by limiting logging in state-owned forests. Martignac’s weak government had no hope of overcoming the influential ironmongers, and the tariffs remained high.54

Similarly unsatisfied were the winegrowers, who swarmed the Chamber of Deputies with petitions demanding tax relief to aid their tariff-battered business. Despite a vigorous debate and support for relief from the government, nothing was done.55 Partly, this was because — while everyone recognized the economy was bad — many people in politics thought deficits were worse. This was heavily influenced by the experience of the 1780s, when France’s mounting debt had directly provoked the French Revolution. The French government continued to report balanced budgets throughout this economic crisis.56

That’s not to say the government did nothing. Local officials organized quite a bit of welfare. For example, in Lyons, the local prefect arranged to hire unemployed workers for day labor, set up a workhouse for struggling carpenters, and organized a privately funded committee for poor relief. These met with mixed success — the private committee was supporting more than 3,000 families by April 1829, but the city’s poor were “suspicious” of the workhouse and only 50 people applied there for relief.57

In Paris, the rich responded to the crisis by organizing fundraisers. The biggest of these was perhaps a Jan. 25, 1830 charity opera that raised more than 41,000 francs for poor relief, with King Charles X in attendance. This display of conspicuous luxury from the decked-out elites was somewhat awkward amidst widespread popular misery.58

That misery was abundant in working quarters of the city. Between 1825 and 1830 wages in many Parisian trades were slashed by 30 percent or more, and that was for those who could even find work. Open-air “hiring halls” for day laborers in 1829 saw 500 or more would-be workers turn out per day, and usually no more than 10 or 20 percent were hired. Meanwhile the poor harvests led to the price of bread skyrocketing. A standard four-pound loaf cost around 60 centimes in good times; in 1828 it reached 95 centimes, and peaked in early 1829 at 1.05 francs. That’s a roughly 50 percent increase in the cost of food, which even in good times took one-third of a workingman’s income.59

In response, the city government handed out “bread cards” that entitled recipients to purchase bread for 80 centimes per loaf. At the peak in 1829, more than 227,000 Parisians got bread cards, more than one-fourth of the entire population. Both the government and wealthy donors opened soup kitchens, and the Prefect of Police reported that “almost all factory owners in Paris had offered their buildings to the city for use as charity workshops, so little use did they have for them.”60

Charity and make-work projects were also common in rural areas. In the hard-hit department of the Nord, for example, the prefect estimated that a full one-sixth of the department’s million residents were being kept alive by charity in 1828. In the city of Lille, “half of the town was entirely dependent on the charity of the other half.”61

This assistance, both public and private, was not purely charitable. The government and the wealthy elite alike shared an interest in maintaining order, and starving, unemployed poor people were prone to riots.62

Protests and riots

In rural areas, unrest centered on the grain trade. As we’ve seen, this was fairly limited by our standards, but it did exist — and struck many peasants as deeply unjust. Imagine your family is on the verge of starvation, and then you see that a rich merchant is shipping wagons of perfectly good food to another department, or is asking a price for it you could never afford. This sort of situation happened all the time, and a frequent response was food riots, where peasants stopped food wagons from leaving and forced merchants to sell at a “fair price.” In April 1829, for example, a crowd of 200 women in the 4,000-person town of Châtillon-sur-Seine forced merchants to sell food at “nearly a sixth below the agreed price.”63

Urban areas saw their own forms of unrest. In October 1829, frustrated winegrowers marched on the Besançon town hall to demand tax relief, leading to soldiers being called out to break up the demonstration. In Lyons, workers held a 10-day strike in May and June of 1830, with more than 1,000 people protesting. Strikes being illegal at the time, more than 60 people were arrested, and many were sentenced to between three and five months in prison, leading to an attempted jailbreak by their colleagues.64

Paris saw only limited protests in this period despite popular misery worse than most rural areas. The biggest incident happened in May 1829, when the price of bread peaked. At that time small crowds of protesters began to gather in densely populated parts of the city. Police, on their guard, dispersed the crowds promptly, and there were no more incidents in the coming months. 65

Were protests political?

But the striking thing about all this economic unrest was how little of it became political.

There are some examples of protesters connecting their economic grievances with anger at Polignac or Charles. For example, a lazy historian might be tempted to make hay from an 1829 poster found in northern France, which declared:

Down with Charles X — he’s a fool! Down with the nobles — they’re scum! Down with the rabble of grain speculators who put up the price of our food! Long live the revolution!66

But this poster was a rare exception, not the norm. Most food protests were purely about food and other economic conditions, and most political dissent was about questions of government or religion.

This shouldn’t be that surprising, of course. Poor people weren’t allowed to vote under the Restoration’s wealth-based franchise, and in many areas literacy and communication were poor. You didn’t have to be rich or literate to be interested in politics — many were, especially in Paris — but it’s notable that we have all these reports of economic protests and only a tiny handful of reports about political slogans being used, like that anonymous poster-writer.67

There are examples of worker organization during the Restoration, most notably in the compagnonnages, which were associations of skilled workingmen. The compagnonnages were technically illegal but generally tolerated, and looked out for the interests of their members. Sometimes this meant functioning sort of like street gangs — one historian notes that “each compagnonnage… defended its territory like a Mafia ‘family,’” and that “the police of the Bourbon Restoration had their hands full trying to prevent and to control the frequent brawls between the various orders of compagnons.” They also pressed for higher pay and other benefits, but under the Restoration remained largely focused on these “bread-and-butter issues” instead of bigger political questions.68

Historian David Pinkney argues that the rare examples of anti-Charles or anti-Polignac commentary among economic protesters doesn’t reflect focused dislike of those two men, but rather pops up as part of general attacks on a range of elites: the king, but also “the rich,” merchants, “monopolists,” landowners, and more.69

This isn’t nothing, of course. The masses filled with general anger against elites is a really notable development! We just have to be careful to not take this argument too far. The French people were unhappy in 1830, and if the king’s government was not the focus of this discontent, it was part of it, which wasn’t a good sign for Polignac.

Even among the rich who could vote, though, we don’t see a strong linkage between political and economic grievances. To be sure, we have police reports that French businessmen blamed “the government for their economic difficulties.”70 But to the degree this sentiment existed, it broke apart once you got to specifics. What policies should the government change to fix this economic difficulty? If you were a liberal grain producer, you favored high tariffs. But if you were a liberal winegrower, you wanted low tariffs. Historian Pamela Pilbeam notes of that bad economy that “far from concentrating the minds of liberals in opposition to the regime, it tended to split them.” Published opposition documents focus almost entirely on political questions like press censorship or the influence of the Church, not on economic questions where the opposition had no consensus alternative.71

This argument of Pilbeam’s is not not universally held. Many historians have interpreted the political crisis under Charles X in terms of economic class, of an ascendant bourgeoisie asserting its power against the vestiges of the old landholding elite.72 This is a huge question of historical interpretation and I’m not in a position to tell you which side is right. We’ll talk more about questions of economic class in future episodes. The important thing I think you should take away is that the connections between the economic crisis of the late 1820s and the political crisis of the late 1820s are more tenuous and indirect than you might expect.


Let’s circle back to the beginning, when I asked you to put yourself in the shoes of Charles X’s prime minister, Jules de Polignac. Not only were his social and political policies widely unpopular as he took office in late 1829, but the French economy stunk.

If you’re Polignac, though, there were silver linings to this dilemma. By the spring of 1830, when Charles prorogued the Chamber of Deputies to protect Polignac, France’s economy seemed to be getting better. Better harvests meant the price of bread fell down below 80 centimes per loaf, ending the need for the bread cards. The construction industry picked back up, and in 1830 there are reports of Parisian job fairs where every single would-be laborer got hired by eager builders. Other industries also picked up, and the reports of the Paris police contain no more signs of sedition or protests as had happened in 1829.73

The catch is that while things were improving, especially in Paris, they were still bad. Bread was down to 77 centimes, but still above the pre-crisis norm of 60 to 65 centimes. The poor sections of the city were overcrowded, with high rates of crime and a death rate one-third higher than the national average. Even better-off Parisians were stressed, with bankruptcies at near-record levels and the stock market down. A leading stockbroker killed himself in May 1830, and even the fabulously wealthy banker and liberal politician Jacques Laffitte was pushed to the brink of insolvency.74

So what is an incumbent politician supposed to think? In the big picture, France was generally growing wealthier during the Bourbon Restoration, but slowly and in fits and starts.75 But while it was growing wealthier, it also remained heavily poor. While the first embers of an industrial revolution were lit, the country remained overwhelmingly agricultural. And above all, whether due to Charles’s blunders or opposition agitation, whether due to the clash of social classes or the misery of an economic slump, France under Charles X was discontented. And that discontent is going to play a role as the political crisis comes to a climax.


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Now I’m off for a quick “mini-moon” post-wedding vacation with my wife. When I return, I’ll be right back into researching future episodes of The Siècle. I’m not traveling overseas this week, but you will be, as we visit the remnants of France’s colonial empire — and one of the most infamous shipwrecks of all time. Join me for Episode 36: Wreck of the Medusa.

  1. Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, translated by Lynn M. Case (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 212. 

  2. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 146, 158. 

  3. Sherman Kent, Electoral Procedure Under Louis Philippe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937), 48-50. 

  4. Roger Price, The Economic Modernization of France (Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 1975), 20. Industrial tramways had existed since the 1700s, and short railroad lines opened up in the late 1820s, connecting mines to waterways with carts often pulled by animals. 

  5. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 202-3. 

  6. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 203-4. 

  7. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 208. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 9. For average wages, see McPhee, A Social History of France, 165. 

  8. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 12-15. 

  9. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 43. 

  10. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 72. 

  11. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 212. 

  12. Robert B. Carlisle, The Proffered Crown: Saint-Simonianism and the Doctrine of Hope (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 16. André Jardin and André-Jean Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 355. 

  13. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 68. 

  14. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 16. 

  15. Reed G. Geiger, Planning the French Canals: Bureaucracy, Politics and Enterprise under the Restoration (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 15-18. 

  16. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 212. 

  17. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 43-4. 

  18. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 216. 

  19. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 45-6, 57. 

  20. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 44-5. 

  21. Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime (New York: Scribner, 1974), 7-8. 

  22. Hugh Clout, Agriculture in France on the Eve of the Railway Age (London: Croom Helm, 1980), 113-6. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 47. 

  23. Karta Kaske, Abebe Atilaw and Astawus Esatu, “Lower seed rates favor seed multiplication ratio with minimal impact on seed yield and quality,” Ethiopian Journal of agricultural Sciences 26 (2015), 53. “Seed Technology,” TNAU Agritech Portal, accessed Aug. 13, 2023. 

  24. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 79. Marie Dervillé, Stéphane Patin and Laurent Avon, Race bovines de France: Origine, Standard, Sélection (Paris: Éditions France Agricole, 2009), 168. 

  25. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 51-2. 

  26. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 34-5, 50. 

  27. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 221. 

  28. Alain Corbin, The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 78-84. 

  29. Pamela Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 53, 49. 

  30. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 53. 

  31. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 225. 

  32. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 224-6. 

  33. Geiger, Planning the French Canals, 19. 

  34. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 48. 

  35. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 47-8. 

  36. Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 58. 

  37. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 48. 

  38. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 226. 

  39. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 43-4. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 227-8. 

  40. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 228-30. 

  41. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 162. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 227-8, 286-8. 

  42. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 39. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 234-5. 

  43. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 40. 

  44. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 219-20. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 40. 

  45. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 40. 

  46. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 59. 

  47. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 59. 

  48. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 51, 55. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 224. 

  49. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 59. 

  50. Price, The Economic Modernization of France, 98-100. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 237. Sauvigny also notes that most of this Restoration-area migration to Paris came from the northern and eastern areas of France — areas where liberal sentiment was high. 

  51. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 229. 

  52. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 233-4. 

  53. Kent, The Election of 1827 in France, 108-9. 

  54. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 44, 48-9. 

  55. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 44-5. 

  56. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 234-5. 

  57. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 54. 

  58. Vincent W. Beach, Charles X of France: His Life and Times (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett Publishing Company, 1971), 305-6. 

  59. David Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 60, 63. 

  60. Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830, 61, 64. 

  61. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 56. 

  62. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 57-9. 

  63. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 41-2. The lead role played by women was no coincidence. “Such episodes normally involved mainly women and children: women were less likely to be arrested because of their responsibility to provide for their families.”. 

  64. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 45, 54. 

  65. Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830, 63-5. 

  66. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 42. 

  67. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 42. 

  68. Edgar Leon Newman, “What the Crowd Wanted in the French Revolution of 1830,” in 1830 in France, ed. John M. Merriman, 22. 

  69. Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830, 71-2. 

  70. Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830, 61-2. 

  71. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 57-8. 

  72. Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, 57-8. 

  73. Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830, 65-66. 

  74. Pinkney, The French Revolution of 1830, 61, 65-7. 

  75. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 235.