What I desire is that the people have bread,
In addition to putting state finances in order, Napoleon was careful to ensure that industry, which was back on its feet after Barbé-Marbois’ irresponsible conduct, should not slide into a slump again. He counted on industry, which also created jobs, to put an end to his dependency on England for the manufacturing of clothing and for supplying France with cane sugar.
“My aim,” he declared forcefully, “is not to stop some of our merchants from going bankrupt – the Treasury of France would not be enough for that – but to stop such and such a factory from closing. The accounts that you send me (he was addressing his Minister of the Interior, Champagny) should be reduced to this formula: I lent so much, to such a factory, with so many workers, because otherwise they would be out of work.”
In the same spirit, he recommended to Fouché, Minister of the Police:
“Take whatever steps you need to make sure that under any circumstances whatsoever the police do not pick up a labourer that they cannot send to a workshop.”
Unemployment had never been so low, and Napoleon’s popularity increased still further in the working class districts.
Napoleon was well aware that lack of work led to public disorder, followed by inevitable repression, which was also contrary to his ideas.
“It is very harsh to give people musket-fire when what they demand is bread.”
As for bread, which was the staple diet of the French, he wanted it to be good.
“ What I desire is that the people have bread, that they have it aplenty and of the best, and that it be cheap enough for the working man to feed his family on his daily wage.”
Bearing in mind that there were no “voter concerns” to be considered, what regimes in the past or present have cared so much and so sincerely of the relative, but nevertheless real, welfare of the working class?
Such was the man that the royalists of the time, referred to as the “Ogre”!
The hour of triumph for the silk workers of Lyon
In the clothing industry and yarn mills, Napoleon continued to apply the same policy as he had applied when he was First Consul and he continued to see to it that the ladies in his close entourage who were the fashion leaders and trend-setters of the day gave up wearing English garments and accessories that were so fashionable at the time.
Hortense, the Emperor’s stepdaughter, who was later to become his sister-in-law by her marriage to Napoleon’s younger brother Louis, tells the story of the domestic war her stepfather waged against this fashion trend.
“To revive the factories of Lyon and prevent us from paying for English goods, the First Consul forbade us to wear muslin and cast anything that seemed English-made into the fire. Whenever my mother [Josephine] and I came in dressed up, his first question was always “Is that muslin you are wearing?” We often replied that it was Saint-Quentin lawn, but a smile would betray us and in a flash his fingers would tear apart the dress made of foreign fabric. This happened more than once and several of our gowns were destroyed, so we had to turn to satin or velvet. Fashion completed what the First Consul had begun…”
The silk workers of Lyon were happy, and with good reason.
The city that was ravaged by the Convention in 1793 had already been solidly rebuilt by Napoleon, who had never forgotten the warm welcome he received from the Lyonnais on his return from Egypt when he was still only General Bonaparte.
Each year, Napoleon ordered draperies and furnishings from Lyon for the various palaces.
“This was in order to support the silk factories of the city,” wrote Mme de Rémusat, a memorialist of the time.
The city and its silk workers became more prosperous than ever and the number of looms rose from 3,500 in 1800 to over 10,000 in 1810.
The same was true for other trades such as cabinetmakers and porcelain workers, she wrote. Each year the Emperor purchased fine mahogany furniture that was put into storehouses, while the china makers received orders for entire services “of exceptional beauty.”
When Louis XVIII was brought back to France and restored on the French throne by the English and Russians, he found all the palaces newly furnished and the furniture repositories full.
Mme de Rémusat, who was never an unconditional admirer of the Emperor emphasized, “all in all, the expenditure for the most expensive years, including the coronation and marriage, did not exceed twenty million francs.”
It is interesting to note at this point, since expenditures are under discussion, that Napoleon’s budget for his personal wardrobe amounted to forty thousand francs. This was more than enough because, wrote the same memorialist, “he always said he wished to dress like an ordinary officer in his Guards.”
Jean-Antoine Chaptal, in his Souvenirs sur Napoléon cited in the previous chapter, relates that the luxury of the imperial court reached “a level of extravagance… He [Napoleon] gave by the armful, but you knew that he wanted you to spend, and that was enough to produce this luxury.”
One might find it surprising to see Napoleon, a man of very simple tastes and few needs, requesting his Court to “increase its pomp and spending.”
His concern was not for a stupid display of ostentatious luxury, explains Chaptal, but simply a wish to “encourage national industry and rouse business from its sluggish state.”
To those who remarked to him that this display was excessive, the Emperor gave an answer that dissipated any ambiguity on the subject:
“Luxury for the rich provides the essential for the poor.”
Napoleon pays tribute to French industrialists
The capital was not forgotten. Hence, the Bulletin of May 26, 1806, contained a short article that read like news of victory:
“The Richard Factory in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine has improved its technique. It is now making brocades in colours that are considered superior to the English product.”
It was certainly not Austerlitz, but still no small victory!
Conditions improved so much that the workers who had been laid off were rehired.
Anxious to show the industrialists in what esteem he held them, the Emperor knew how to make the right gesture. Visiting the Jouy yarn mills (today Jouy-en-Josas near Paris) on June 27, 1806, with the Empress Josephine, he asked Christian Oberkampf, the well-known industrialist of German origin, if he was a member of the Legion of Honour. When he received a negative answer, Napoleon took off his own cross and gave it to him.
The news appeared in the newspapers.
In the spring of 1806, in order to stimulate all branches of national industry simultaneously, Napoleon had the idea of organizing an exhibition of all the products of French industry as he had already done in 1802, when he was First Consul. The new exhibition was to be held in spring on one of the national holidays that were to commemorate the victory of Austerlitz .
He therefore instructed the Minister of the Interior to issue a circular to all the prefects who were to announce in their respective departments that an exhibition of everything “pleasant and useful” that deserved to be displayed would be held on the first of May on the Place des Invalides in tents erected especially for the purpose.
Mémoires of the time report that “Commerce was thus aroused from the depression into which it had fallen during the war.”
The Emperor shows deep sympathy for the peasants
Napoleon held farmers in high esteem and he always showed sympathy for the peasant class.
The Emperor used to say that revolutions are born more from lack of wheat and the consequent high price of bread than from the endless blather of ideologists. Farmers who already supplied the country’s tables with bread were asked by Napoleon to also provide sugar, and thus alleviate the trade deficit in cane sugar.
The moment was right. The industrialist Benjamin Delessert had just succeeded in extracting the first sugarloaf from beets.
Beets alternated with wheat, and the Beauce region alone, which was the granary of France , also became its main sugar supplier and provided it abundantly. Beets were even planted on the plain of Saint-Denis near Paris .
Let us say a word here on the relationship between the French peasants and their sovereign. In the relentless campaign to denigrate Napoleon we often read that the rural population in France, infuriated by conscription, was hostile to him.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if desertion was rampant in the country regions, as indeed elsewhere, the French peasant would never be hostile to the Emperor, since under him they had no need to dread the return of the hated tithe (a tax which consisted of paying one tenth of their products or earnings especially to support the church and the clergy), or the restitution of the émigrés’ estates and the domination of the old aristocracy.
Moreover, the land registry program, which despite having been approved by the Assemblé Constituante in 1790 had languished in limbo since, together with many other good ideas, before it was accelerated by the First Consul and later by the Emperor. Although it was not completed before 1850, the energy devoted to its implementation (twelve million hectares in 1814) avoided many long and bitter disputes in the countryside.
Napoleon had already expressed his sympathy for the man of the soil when in 1801, as First Consul, he declared in front of the Council of State in his usual, direct, blunt manner:
“What do I care about opinions in the salons! I do not listen to them. I heed only one, and that is the opinion of our good peasants. The rest are of no account.”
The newly restored prosperity brought about by the Emperor’s concern for the peasantry is described by an Englishwoman, Lady Morgan, who visited France after the restoration of the Bourbons and published an account in 1817 on the condition of French peasants during the latter days of the Empire which says more for Napoleon’s achievements than any dry and learned statistical analysis.
But predictably, this new prosperity displeased the other European monarchs, and it was just as Napoleon was settling the financial crisis and beginning to resolve the economic problems in France that Haugwitz, the envoy of the King of Prussia , presented himself in Paris .