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The French don't learn quickly

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted April 17, 2006

The French don't learn quickly.

Recently, TV news channels have featured vivid pictures from France. First, The French Muslim youth rioted and burned cars because their unemployment runs close to 50 percent. Then, French students counter-rioted, against liberalizing French labor laws designed to guarantee the old General Motors-style "jobs for life" for a lucky few.

The truth of the story is that the welfare mentality in France helped prevent the creation of a single additional French private-sector job in the past 30 years.

How long will it take the French to adapt to globalization, with its increasing opportunities for the skilled and flexible?

A clue: During the Little Ice Age, it took them literally 500 years to recognize that the Earth's climate had shifted.

France suffered more than 100 famines in the 500 years after the Medieval Warming ended in 1300 AD. Ultimately, the famines set the stage for the French Revolution in 1789.

Under the stress of a colder climate, the Dutch and English launched farming revolutions after 1600 that doubled farm yields and banished famines. The French refused to change, despite two more centuries of colder, wetter growing seasons that ruined their main food crops -- wheat and rye -- with heavy rain, cloudy skies, and early frosts.

The Medieval Warming, which lasted from 950 to 1300, had been a fabulous period for farming. Higher temperatures, sunshine and longer growing seasons fed human populations that increases by 50 percent.

Then, after 1300, came another of the sudden climate shifts that occur on Earth about every 1500 years, according to the ice cores and pollen fossils. The world suddenly turned cold, stormy and unstable. Late, wet springs and cloudy skies became the new norm across Europe. Grain crops too often didn't ripen, or were killed by early frosts.

The Dutch responded with windmills that reclaimed huge tracts of highly productive low-lying "polder" land from the sea.

The British turned to crop rotation. They'd been letting half their cropland lie fallow and unplanted in alternate years to rebuild fertility. Now they fenced or hedged their fields and communal pastures, and rotated crops and livestock on the same land. The manure from the cattle and sheep fertilized the succeeding grains.

An Englishman invented the mechanical seed drill about 1700, which produced far higher grain yields than strewing seeds on the ground.

Potatoes, introduced from South America, yielded far more food per acre than grains -- especially the low-yielding oats of the marginal farmers. Potatoes spread across Europe as animal feed, then as food for the poor because potatoes and milk provided better nutrition than bread.

But seeders, potatoes, and crop rotation did not spread in France. French farmlands were mainly owned by absent noblemen. Its illiterate peasants remained committed to bread, even when the wet crop years provided only damp, moldy grain.

The ergot fungus flourished in the wet years, especially in the cheap rye ground for peasant bread. The mold often produced mass hysteria. Bread riots were common. In particularly cold periods, hundreds of women were burned as witches whom the peasants were sure had cursed their crops.

By 1700, England had ample food for 7 million people, far more than the 5 million it fed during the Medieval Warming and double the 3 million left by the famines and bubonic plague of the early Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age was almost over (1850) by the time France got over its famines, revolutions, and Napoleon's grandiose dreams of world conquest.

Unfortunately, the French aren't winning much in the Modern Warming either.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director the Center for Global Food Issues.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.  Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.


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