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By Nader Elhefnawy




By and large, the tendency in the historiography (particularly the sort represented by Walter Russell Mead's recent God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World) has been to celebrate Britain as the birthplace of modern capitalism. However, it is worth remembering that the French physiocrats preceded Adam Smith in making the case for free markets--and that Britain was nowhere near the free trader it is commonly made out to be until the mid-nineteenth century, after its supremacy had been established.

At the same time, while France was encumbered in its economic development by remnants of the feudal era through the eighteenth century, reform was on from the 1770s. Additionally, it is often forgotten that the Napoleonic Wars (and their conclusion in a British victory) seriously undermined the development of industry on the continent, without which Britain's lead might have been less pronounced. The British blockade, and with it the loss of important colonies and overseas investments, badly damaged French finance, trade and manufacturing. This was especially the case on the crucial Atlantic coast, potentially a locomotive for French industrialization, which was actually "deindustrialized" through the conflict.

Even despite these developments, it has been noted that France had virtually all the makings of a great industrial power, including the requisite capital, financial institutions, entrepreneurship and capacity for scientific education and technological innovation--and in some of these areas, was actually more impressive than Britain. However, France (which still did manage to be the greatest industrial power on the continent up to the mid-nineteenth century) failed to fully realize this potential, and the fact is usually attributed to the slow growth of the country's population and urban centers (a theory this speculation will accept). That slow growth has never been fully explained, historians approaching it frequently offering tentative theories, though the French Revolution seems to have played a role. While it may not satisfactorily account for the demographic slowdown, it does offer an explanation for the slow growth of the industrial labor force in its contribution (through the abolition of feudal dues, a restoration of the common lands to villages, and to some degree, also land redistribution) to a relatively secure French peasantry, slow to leave the farms for the cities.

This would not have happened if the French monarchy was able to head off the revolution, which would likely (assuming the not implausible continuation of the aforementioned economic reforms) have created conditions closer in kind to those in Britain. At the same time, with Britain weaker (and Prussia deprived of the incentive to reform that its defeat by French armies gave it), and the territory of France itself unravaged by war, France could have pulled into the lead. Equally, in the event of the French Revolution, the combination of a weaker Britain, stronger France, and perhaps a relatively swift conclusion to any wars that followed (in France's favor), something not too different might still have been conceivable.

This is not to say that the industrialization of the continent and the world would have proceeded exactly as it did in our timeline. A French-defined industrialism might have been slower to develop, but it is plausible that it would likely have been more statist from the outset, and perhaps also placed a greater stress on applied science in the strict sense--perhaps like an early prototype of the model Germany presented in the late nineteenth century. That economic strength may have done much to sustain the expanded French empire posited here.



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