Dialogue, n°62 French Trade in the 18th century: Inflation and Revolution

Guillaume Daudin and Edouard Pignède «French Trade in the 18th century: Inflation and Revolution», Dialogue, n°62, Septembre 2021

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The French Revolution of 1789 was preceded by a crop failure crisis that
played a decisive role in triggering the revolution (Labrousse, 1944). Although this crisis was one of the most severe of the French Old
Regime, its demographic repercussions were very limited compared with
the impacts of the 1693-94 and 1709-10 crises, which claimed
approximately two million lives each, but did not have such radical
political repercussions. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed in his day to a
“paradox of growing dissatisfaction”, arguing that the political impacts of
the difficulties of 1789 were greater because they were preceded by a
prosperous period (Daudin, 2005).

However, this prosperity does not show up in the indices of real wages,
which stagnated in the decades prior to the French Revolution (Ridolfi,
2019). Is this the right indicator? Real wages provide information on the
situation of the urban working class, who spent most of their budget on
food. They say nothing about the effect of industry- and foreign trade-
related economic change on the urban middle classes or the peasant
classes. This article contributes to research into other signs of economic change. It examines international trade price trends, since international trade was the most buoyant part of the French economy in the 18th century. It hence contributes to the literature on the economic causes of the French Revolution (Weir, 1991). Following a presentation of the database and the construction of our indices, we explore market integration trends, variations in terms of trade, and observed structural price differences.

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