chapter  1
Rural France – Terra Incognita?
ByHugh Clout
Pages 16

In spite of a rich inheritance of urban life and traditional manufactures, nineteenth-century France moved more slowly towards factory-based industrialisation than did her neighbours across the Channel and across the Rhine. Their national populations increased rapidly throughout the century but in France rates of growth declined substantially after 1850 with more deaths than births being recorded in some years. Unlike her neighbours, France retained a surprisingly large population in the countryside and a large workforce on the land. These facts were the root cause of the slowness of her economic and social transformation. By the turn of the century 59 per cent of the French nation still lived in rural areas and 42 per cent of the workforce was engaged in farming and forestry, by comparison with 46 per cent and 31 per cent in Germany, and only 25 per cent and 12 per cent in Great Britain. As Napoleon had recognised a century earlier, agriculture was the 'heart' of the French economy. 1 Agrarian interests retained great significance in French political life and the average Frenchman of 1900 was still unquestionably a countryman. Many 'Parisians' had been born in the countryside and certainly kept their roots implanted in their home village and pays natal. In spite of highly centralised systems of administration and education and a railway network which linked each pays to its chef-lieu and that in turn to Paris, the French countryside continued to display a great diversity of agricultural activities, settlements and lifestyles which mirrored the enormity of physical and human resources that the 'hexagon' contained. It was in no way fortuitous that several generations of French geographers devoted so much of their energy to recording, classifying and trying to explain the complexity of the rural environment. 2