The French Worker

The French Worker


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The French Worker

This book combines the reflections of seven different French workers during different periods in history. The book includes stories from people who witnessed the starting of the industrial revolution in France. Most of the authors in the book were farmers at times they were writing their stories. Writing from different perspectives, their accounts of what they witnessed might sound different due to their different individual opinions and ways of thinking but there is a common ground in all their stories; the experiences of the common French worker. The different stories were written by a wood turner, an embroiderer, a construction joiner, a mason, a silk weaver, a metalworker and a seamstress.[1]Of all the authors, only two did not reside in Paris.

The French society in the age of industrialization

Preceding this era was the French Revolution that took place between the years 1789-1794. Before the French revolution, most French people had not expected the many changes that the revolution would bring with it. The revolution would be the beginning of a century old civil strife within the French society after Louis XVI was killed. It resulted to new forms of economic activities and even the authorities controlled the economy differently after the war. After the revolution, many French people living in rural areas moved to urban centers hoping to secure employment in the capital city, Paris, Lyon and Marseille.[2]During holidays and other days when people were not at work, most people would return to the rural areas to assist their families in agriculture. Some workers migrated once from the rural areas to the town while others moved slowly camping in several urban centers between the rural areas and the city before finally settling in the city. Because of these big numbers of people migrating to the cities, there were insufficient houses to provide shelter and some people resorted to other substandard means to house themselves. All this time, Paris was the center of all activities while Lyon was the second busiest city.

Economic Expansion

In the period between The French Revolution and the last years of the nineteenth century, France experienced considerable economic growth[3]. This economic growth was not spread equally between the urban and rural centers with the urban centers developing far much more than the rural areas. Industrialization boosted the economy, but it rendered most people jobless after the invention of mechanization. During this period, barriers to trade were scrapped off, the labor force in the cities increased while the returns of agriculture in the rural areas was decreasing. The French economy at this time did not rely heavily on vast industrialization like Germany and Britain did, but relied on the many skilled artisans who produced their wares in the cities. In some sectors where there was foreign competition, industrialization was boosted to counter the effects of such competition in the domestic market. An example of where this was carried out was in the silk-weaving industry where there was a massive demand for textiles to manufacture clothing for the vast population in the cities[4]. With time, different types of industries would develop, and the status of artisans as the sole contributors to the economy was eroding. Mechanization led to large financial returns that were invested in developing the country. With industries returning profits, the formerly egalitarian society crumbled as the divide between the employer, the employee came out, and the gap between the poor and the rich widened.

A Century of Revolution

In the period between The French Revolution and the nineteenth century, France underwent four attempts to topple the government in 1789,1830,18480 and 1871[5]. The rewards of these uprisings by the working class were distributed unevenly and even the governments that came after these attempts did not fully implement the promises they made to the people.

The World of Nineteenth-Century French Workers

In this era, population growth was comparatively slower mainly due to high fatality rates of childhood diseases. One of the authors, Jeanne Bouvier begins her autobiography with an account of how her younger brother died of measles in 1867.[6]Another author, Suzanne Voilquin, also writes how her mother lost three of her children because of infancy diseases. During this period, the whole family was involved in economic production as children who survived early childhood diseases would be engaged in the family economic activities. One of the authors who was a weaver, Nobert Truquin engaged his wife and children in his work at his home that also served as his workshop. Marrying, apart from being viewed as a way of enlarging one’s family, was also seen as a way of merging two economic blocs to form a stronger economic union between the families of the husband and wife. Most women however worked in the textile and clothing industries apart from the normal domestic service. The skills required in these sectors were low, and consequently, the wages paid in these sectors were low. Cases of spouses divorcing were lower than they are today, and most children were orphaned through disease or accidents. However, across all the autobiographies, it is evident that the rate of problematic relations with relatives and stepparents was high. In most urban areas, sanitation was very poor and there were low levels of hygiene among the working class that crowded specific areas of the capital city and other towns.


Traugott Mark, The French Worker, University of California Press, 1993.

[1] Mark Traugott, The French Worker ,(University of California Press,1993), 4

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