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Aircraft manufacturers in interwar France were quick to invent new airplanes but slow to convert to mass production. This combination of technical prowess and business conservatism had deep roots in a country where industrialization had done little to diminish the prominence of specialty trades, artisanal production, and the family firm. In the early days of aviation this penchant for small-scale, high-quality production was a blessing. Between 1906, when the Voisin brothers established the first factory for making airplanes for sale, and 1914, when more than twenty small firms had entered the business, France quickly emerged as the world leader in aviation. Much the same story could be told of French automaking. But by the early 1930s French aircraft builders were losing ground to American and German firms better equipped for aggressive marketing, corporate mergers, and mass production. As early as 1928 nearly everyone connected with French aviation recognized that French manufacturers were slipping behind. But if the malaise was obvious, its remedies were not. Business and government officials spent nearly a decade battling with one another over how to revitalize a troubled industry.
Despite the predilections in France for entrepreneurial caution, it is puzzling that French aircraft manufacturers had such difficulty in the interwar period modernizing their industry. For one thing, French manufacturers had already made one successful effort to mass-produce aircraft-during the First World War, when French firms employed two hundred thousand workers to build more than fifty-one thousand airplanes and ninety-two thousand motors, an achievement that made France the leading producer of aircraft matériel in the war. During the 1920s, moreover, several French firms-Potez, Bréguet, Hispano-Suiza, Gnôme-et-Rhône-remained major competitors in the world market. In the French business community at large there were several entrepreneurial visionaries-men like Ernest Mercier and Auguste Detoeuf, who proselytized in behalf of scientific management, industrial concentration, and a new partnership between business and the state to stimulate growth. These neoliberals dissented openly during the early 1930s from the dominant values of laissez-faire liberalism and called instead for a planned, mixed economy. Yet despite a strong start in aviation and a business culture at least partially open to new ideas, the French failed to rejuvenate the industry in those years. Government policy, military doctrine, budgetary austerity, and entrepreneurial strategy all conspired to freeze the industry in a structure ill suited for a rearmament effort.
Industrial Drift in the 1920s
The troubles in French aviation began with demobilization after the First World War. Peace cut short the demand for warplanes, and new markets for aircraft only slowly emerged. Throughout the 1920s the industry floundered. In 1919 employment shrank 50 percent to one hundred thousand workers and then plummeted in 1920 to an astonishing fifty-two hundred workers. Many firms managed to survive by investing war profits shrewdly and making other products until demand for airplanes revived. As a result, by the late 1920s at least twenty-three companies were still in the business of building airframes in France, and about ten companies were making motors-fewer firms than the forty of 1918, but a sizable number nonetheless. Since nearly all these companies made their profits on military aircraft, builders in this troubled industry appealed to the state to keep them alive.
For the most part, government officials obliged. The army had served as the industry's main customer since before 1914, and despite the emergence of commercial aviation state orders remained the lifeblood of the companies after the war. Eager to preserve the industry as a military resource, the government followed a politique de soutien, or support policy, of dispersing orders widely to keep firms afloat. Such a policy had the virtue of maintaining excess capacity in the event France had to rearm for another war; it was also consistent with the military's desire to avoid becoming too dependent on any one firm for supplies. A support policy, of course, could easily degenerate into pork barreling, as was the case in the notorious stock-liquidation scandal, when some manufacturers were alleged to have bought back surplus airplanes at a pittance from the government to sell them at premium prices abroad. Questions of collusion between state bureaus and the companies kept the industry in the newspapers throughout the 1920s; it was commonplace to assume that airplane companies depended as much on government connections as on the talent of entrepreneurs.
Not that the industry lacked for talent: by the late 1920s two generations of remarkable builders had emerged to dominate the aircraft business. Several of the prewar pioneers, men like Louis Bréguet, the Farman brothers, and Fernand Lioré, still ran firms and served as chieftains of the industry. Typically these pioneers had trained in elite engineering schools and worked in machine construction or the new automobile industry before throwing themselves into aviation. Louis Bréguet, for example, after graduating from the Ecole Supérieure d'Électricité, worked for a while in his family's electrical machine firm before turning to airplanes in 1905. Louis Blériot established an automobile headlight factory before taking to the air. When Fernand Lioré, a polytechnicien with several years' experience in the chemical industry, saw Blériot fly in 1907 in the fields of Issy-les-Moulineaux outside Paris, he gradually began to convert his own new automobile accessories firm into an airplane company. Aviation became a passion for men with just the right blend of money and madness to adapt swiftly to a novel technology.
During the First World War a second generation of builders entered the business alongside the early adventurers-young men like Henry Potez and Marcel Bloch, who after graduating from the new Ecole Supérieure de l'Aéronautique in Paris joined the army engineering corps and used their positions to launch a firm of their own. Emile Dewoitine, a brilliant young engineer, had a similar start in Toulouse; during the war he rose to the rank of technical director for Pierre Latécoère's company before breaking away to set up his own Toulousain firm in 1920. But whatever their differences in experience, both generations of builders, the pioneers and the younger newcomers, possessed that special combination of qualities it took to succeed in the business-creativity, ambition, an obsession with flight, a measure of greed, and, not least, a capacity to cultivate contacts in the ministries. If the world war taught these airplane manufacturers anything, it was that military orders made a firm.
Not surprisingly, then, builders and politicians looked to the state for remedies when the ills of the aircraft industry became apparent in the late 1920s. By 1927 employment had risen to eleven thousand. Only a few firms really prospered. Bréguet, Potez, Farman, and Lioré et Olivier remained competitive internationally, but many firms just limped along. Blériot's director, for instance, warned parliament in 1926 that despite the firm's recent technical successes it might soon have to close for lack of orders. The irregularity of demand and a chronic shortage of capital-few bankers could stomach the risks of the aircraft business-plagued nearly every firm in the airframe sector. The major engine firms, especially Gnôme-et-Rhône and Hispano-Suiza, flourished reasonably well building motors for a host of client firms; but in the end their health, too, depended on the vitality of the airframe business.
Nor did the general condition of French aviation give cause for comfort. Throughout the 1920s the fledgling French air force that had emerged from the war remained little more than a stunted stepchild of the army and navy. Military conservatives and their parliamentary allies stymied every effort to create an autonomous air force. Commercial aviation languished as well. French fliers may have been winning trophies and grabbing headlines, but the French airlines appeared to be less of a match for their rivals abroad. The German aircraft industry, which had been prohibited from building military aircraft by the Treaty of Versailles, spent the 1920s developing the world's most advanced commercial aircraft to supply an aggressive group of German airlines. By 1928 Germany boasted a network of domestic air routes covering sixty thousand kilometers, which made the paltry three-thousand-kilometer domestic network of France seem in comparison like a blank wall, as one despairing journalist put it. More worrisome still, the new British and German semipublic airlines, Imperial Airways and Lufthansa, threatened to squeeze French airlines out of the new international air routes opening up in Asia, the Near East and the Americas. When Charles Lindbergh beat his French competitors in the race to master the Atlantic in 1927, French journalists announced to the public what experts had been fearing for years-that French aviation was fast losing its competitive edge. By 1928 every airplane accident, business scandal, or setback at the international air races only deepened the awareness of a dreadful crisis in French aviation. Henry Paté, a deputy from Paris, captured the prevailing mood of frightened frustration when he introduced the air budget of 1928 to his colleagues in parliament: "Once again we cry: French aviation is gravely ill. In its general organization, its technology, its industry, in supplying military and naval units, and in developing its commercial airlines, it suffers from profound troubles which have become chronic, will soon kill it, and which in any case have now made it inferior to aviation abroad."
The New Air Ministry
By the summer of 1928 ideas were circulating in parliament about how the state could rejuvenate aviation without jeopardizing the private status of the industry. The most serious effort to chart a policy came from a commission of the Conseil National Economique (CNE), the quasi-governmental body that a center-left government, the Cartel des Gauches, had created in 1925 to bring together spokesmen from business, labor, and the state. Raoul Dautry chaired the commission. As a polytechnicien and director of the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Nord, Dautry bridged the worlds of engineering, business, and state administration. A Freemason and political centrist who stayed clear of party rivalries, he embodied the Saint-Simonian optimism and political pragmatism that had become common in progressive business circles since the war. Like many technocrats of the late 1920s, he viewed industrial rationalization and a closer partnership between business and the state as the keys to economic rejuvenation.
In his CNE report Dautry offered a hardheaded diagnosis of commercial pathology. He said the government's support policy, its failure to promote research, and its haphazard subsidies all conspired to weaken French aviation. As a remedy, Dautry's commission called for policies that would enhance state regulatory powers without encroaching on the autonomy of private firms, including state subsidies for research, state-guaranteed loans for private companies, improvements at the Ecole Supérieure de l'Aéronautique, and the creation of a Superior Air Council to coordinate air policy. Dautry drew attention to Germany, where a subtle partnership between the state, the big banks, and the companies had enabled the builders to make strides. "From the example of foreign countries," he argued, "it would seem useful to make a small number of creative firms prosper and to steer industrial manufacturers toward series [mass] production." But he stopped short of recommending a way to reorganize the industry, calling for industrial concentration but refraining from saying how it was to be done. Dautry's commission, which was itself divided over whether the state should take over the airlines, proved astute in analyzing the illness but equivocal in prescribing a cure.
Meanwhile support grew in parliament for creating an Air Ministry. A parliamentary coalition stretching from the conservative Pierre-Etienne Flandin to the Socialist Pierre Renaudel shared the view that a new ministry might help revive aviation. Since the war, aircraft questions had fallen under-and often between-the purview of four ministries: war, navy, commerce, and the colonies. Air policy had become a hodgepodge of programs; as the army's leading advocate for aviation, General Hirschauer, put it, "There were too many tensions, too many cliques, too much of a desire to be isolated from one another and to have one's own schools..., personnel, workshops, [and] experimental commissions." A single ministry, as many aviators had been arguing since 1920, could coordinate policy, economize funds, and pave the way for a bona fide, autonomous air force. But since an autonomous air force was precisely what military conservatives bitterly opposed, Poincaré's center-right government dragged its feet on the issue.
When on 6 September 1928 Poincaré's cabinet finally yielded to the notion of an Air Ministry, the irony of the circumstances escaped no one. Four days before, Maurice Bokanowski, Poincaré's commerce minister, died in a plane crash en route to Clermont-Ferrand, where he was about to address a gathering called to popularize the idea of air travel. The Socialist press took the opportunity to ridicule the government: "Criminal French aviation," the headlines of Le Populaire read, "has killed even its own leader!" An embarrassed cabinet approved the new ministry, and within days Poincaré named André Laurent-Eynac to run it. Amid the uproar opponents of an Air Ministry, not the least of whom had been Bokanowski himself, now mounted little resistance.
Poincaré's new air minister, Laurent-Eynac, a lawyer and parliamentarian, seemed ideal for traversing between the government bureaus and company boardrooms of aviation. He had flown in the war, chaired a subcommittee on aviation in the Versailles Treaty deliberations, and promoted air routes to French colonies as under secretary of aviation in 1921. A powerful insider in aviation circles, he had shown his gift for delicate brokering in 1924 when as under secretary once again in Herriot's Cartel des Gauches government he managed to keep the lid on investigations of the stock liquidation scandal. Once a Radical-Socialist, Laurent-Eynac had gradually migrated like so many of his colleagues to the respectable moderation of the center-right. As one prominent general said of him, "he knows the airline executives and the manufacturers in aviation thoroughly; he has confidence, firmness, tenacity, and savoir-faire.
Excerpted from State Capitalism and Working-Class Radicalism in the French Aircraft Industry by Herrick Chapman Copyright © 1990 by Herrick Chapman. Excerpted by permission.
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