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France on the threshold of the 20th century /
A steady but controversial government /
French society

French society

An agricultural economy in flux

France was still largely a rural society with an agricultural economy. The farming, forestry and fishing sector employed 43% of France's working population-compared with 35% in Germany, 16% in Belgium, and only 8% in Great Britain. Industrialization and urbanization made slow inroads, while at the same time the Ministry of Agriculture was supporting family farms and traditional polyculture. An 1881 law established France's protectionist policy, which was confirmed by the introduction of the Méline Tariff, in 1892, named after Jules Méline, a deputy from the Vosges. He coined the phrase "neither revolution nor reaction," and was Ministry of Agriculture and served as president from 29 April 1896 to 15 June 1898. France was nevertheless a very wealthy country that invested a great deal of money abroad. It was also technologically innovative: its industrial production index tripled in the second half of the 19th century.

The need for immigration

While the populations of Germany and Italy were growing by 51% and 41%, respectively, France still had less than 39 million inhabitants. The birth rate was declining, and an immigration policy was needed. Beginning in 1889, a law was promulgated that encouraged naturalizations and granted French nationality to children born in France to foreign parents (the droit du sol). Although the one million foreigners working in France were mostly of European origin (37% from Italy, 25% from Belgium), this did not stem the tide of xenophobia-as illustrated by the massacre of seven Italian workmen at Aigues-Mortes on 16 August 1893.

The arrival of a new civilization

For Republicans like Jules Ferry, universal suffrage for farmers was "a granite foundation," which made France's social edifice "the most solid in all of Europe, and the best protected against social revolutions." Nevertheless, a new civilization was on the way, aided by the development of the railways and a banking network. In 1911, Jean Jaurès wrote, "through its revolutionary spirit of profit, capitalism has forced the law of large, modern production (…) into the very flesh of the working class. (…The worker) is a labor force on the vast market." According to Jean Bouvier, at the threshold of the 20th century, the Creusot-based company Schneider, based in Creusot, could compete with the German firm Krupp in selling the most sophisticated weapons, armor plating and steel cannons. France's economic might contributed to its position in international affairs.


Agricultural France

Industrial France

Prime Minister Méline, who in 1898 stated, "There is no Dreyfus Affair"