“Between 1786 and 1789, the Norman workshops quickly went from gentle trade to social crisis”


En 1789, like many other French provinces, Normandy was shaken by “subsistence riots”: the soaring price of bread, after the bad harvest of 1788, launched the poorest to attack the stores and convoys of grains. Paul Maneuvrier-Hervieu, a researcher at the University of Milan, counted 164 that year, compared to 23 between 1780 and 1788. But the Norman riots have a particularity, he explained on March 10 during the seminar « Temporalities of capitalism, XVIIIe-XIXe century” at the University of Paris Cité. Their cartography is superimposed more or less on that of the municipalities housing textile workshops, in a lower valley of the Seine which was at the time one of the most industrialized regions of France. And these cost-of-living riots are accompanied by the breakdown of recently implanted cotton-spinning machines.

It is true that the number of bankruptcies declared to the jurisdiction of Rouen, which hovered around a hundred per year during the previous ten years, rose to 150 in 1787 and 250 in 1788, especially in the textile and fabric trade. .

The scarcity of that famous spring of 1789 was, in Normandy, the last straw that caused an already full vase to overflow under the effect of a political decision taken six years earlier. On September 3, 1783, France and England signed a peace treaty which put an end to the naval war born of Paris’ support for the victorious American “insurgents” (1778-1783). In line with the ideas of the Enlightenment, article 18 stipulates that a trade treaty will be signed between the two countries: the “sweet trade” will make peace eternal. Its negotiation will nevertheless last three years: signed on September 26, 1786, it comes into force on May 10, 1787.

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All customs duties on industrial products are lowered to 12%, on both sides of the Channel. For the enlightened ministers and advisers of Louis XVI, Vergennes, Calonne and Dupont de Nemours, it was a matter both of forging the English alliance, of ensuring tax revenues by eliminating contraband caused by tariffs prohibitive, and finally to modernize the French industry suddenly confronted with English competition: the production costs of the Manchester spinning mills are, thanks to the mule-jenny machines, much lower than in Rouen.

Blinded by his ideological principles

Nobody heard the alarm sounded by the report of an official of the trade office, Edouard Boyetet, who estimated that the French workshops would not bear the shock of the entry into force of the treaty. While the British Parliament has, over the course of three years of negotiations, investigated each branch of English industry to better negotiate their clauses…

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