Terry Cudbird on 1918 and the beginnings of regional economic planning in France

In the latest Hors d’Oeuvres post about the new issue of the journal, Terry Cudbird joined us to talk about his new article about the ‘Clémentel moment’.

Terry received a BA in History from Cambridge and more recently a DPhil from Oxford for his thesis The Impact of the Great War on French Regionalism 1900–1924: A study of the Auvergne and Lorraine. He has also published two books on France. He is an independent researcher living in Oxford and affiliated to the History Faculty.

Photograph of Terry smiling in a blue shirt.

Hi Terry, thanks for joining us! What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

Clémentel’s economic regions, which were groupings of chambers of commerce, have been described by several historians as a failure because they lacked formal legal powers. What is surprising is that when you find an economically coherent region with effective leadership a great deal was achieved by lobbying the right people in central government. I have also described this development of intermediate bodies between the state and private interests as “corporatist” in spirit. We often associate corporatism with Vichy but I suggest a longer term development of intermediate bodies, which moves us from the economic liberalism of the nineteenth century to widespread involvement of representative professional bodies in policy making today.

Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work?

Although economic policy making does not always seem to be one of the sexiest topics to study, what I found fascinating were the personalities. Clémentel himself was not only the most influential minister for economic matters during the war. He was also a talented artist who counted Monet and Rodin among his friends. He wrote a piece about Vercingetorix for the Paris Opera. Camille Cavallier, the Vice-President of the Nancy chamber of commerce, was head of the famous iron foundry at Pont-à-Mousson, now part of Saint Gobain, and a workaholic. He rescued his enterprise from severe damage and got it up and running soon after the war came to an end. Not surprisingly he died not so long afterwards from a heart attack. He tirelessly lobbied ministers about compensation for German destruction. However, he had no time for women having a role outside the home at a time when he thought France needed more babies. He said he had never visited the new Musée Lorrain in Nancy, which was admired by many regionalists, but preferred to be in Rome. 

What is the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

A sense of regional solidarity and the power of attraction of a regional centre, like Nancy, were both important in making the economic regions effective. I would have liked to say more about both these topics but you can find them covered in greater depth in the thesis. Another topic which fascinates me is how regional identities have changed over time. 

Black and white photograph of Étienne Clémentel.

Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?

Before I started my DPhil I undertook a long hike of 6,000km around the circumference of France (see Walking the Hexagon: an escape around France on Foot.) I remember an evening spent in a remote Alpine refuge, when a Frenchman and I discussed how much regional identity meant in today’s France. My book on the journey says quite a lot in an anecdotal way about the character of France’s regions. I owe a lot to my supervisors of course and to Clotilde Drulle-Korn, University of Limoges, who introduced me to Clémentel’s grand-daughter and authority on his life. Regarding corporatism, I owe a lot to conversations with fellow research students at Oxford, especially Cesare Vagge who is just completing a DPhil on the later history of corporatism.

Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer or a ‘start and see where it goes’ person?

I usually start with an outline of how I want to structure a piece. However, at some point you have to stop prevaricating and just dive in to the writing. You need to be flexible and prepared to alter your plan as you go along. Sometimes, once you are writing, you see important connections between different people or issues which were not apparent at first. These might occasion a re-think.

Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone because we live in hope.

You can have too much information. Sometimes you have to drag yourself away from the research. I think you need a trigger. Some incident or event which will get you started. We all know that the first paragraph or two can be the most difficult. It is best to start by putting the notes and references aside and writing the main argument out of your head, filling in examples later as required. My best ideas usually come in the morning when I wake up so I prefer an early start and strong coffee.

Whose writing do you most admire and why?

Among contemporary historians I have much admired Robert Gildea’s work, particularly Marianne in Chains. I liked the combination of history at the local level but relating this to the national picture.

For sheer narrative drive Barbara Tuchmann’s the Guns of August still takes some beating. Any of Richard Cobb’s essays for the smell and feel of France.

For elegantly written French which conveys the human condition with disarming simplicity I still go back to Albert Camus. Patrick Modiano describes the fragility of human relationships with a similar economy.  

Who did you get feedback from on this article? Did you give talks on this topic or share drafts with colleagues and non-specialists? What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?

I enjoyed a very valuable exchange of views with Julian Wright who has of course written about French regionalism and whose comments were therefore particularly helpful. He challenged my thinking and persuaded me to look at some new sources. I also benefited from conversations with other members of the faculty. Some of the ideas which have appeared in this article were tried out on members of the Oxford Modern European group. Feedback which questions the use of terminology which has not been properly thought through is particularly valuable.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of this process? How did your ideas change? Was there an epiphany?

Studying some conceptual works in greater depth – those by Pierre Rosanvallon and J. Wright and H.S. Jones (eds), Pluralism and the Idea of the Republic in France –  and then applying them to some familiar material from my thesis was particularly helpful. I would not say an epiphany exactly but they certainly changed my thinking.

What’s the word you can never type right?

I am not a good typist and switching from French to English often leads to mistakes.

What are you working on next?

I am writing a short book expanding the scope of my thesis to cover the economic regions up to 1940 and testing out the conclusions from two regions on other parts of France. I hope to show that an assessment of the achievements of the inter-war period is essential to understanding the importance of economic regions in France today. I would like to challenge the lazy assumption that compared with say Britain France is the most centralized state in Europe.

If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?

For younger colleagues I would like to see more post-doctoral fellowships so those with a PhD can turn their ideas into a more wide-ranging book.

Éclair or saucisson?

Un saucisson mangé en plein air avec un bon rouge du pays!


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