A history of state forestry in France

See part II of this series on state forestry in Zimbabwe here.

Whilst slightly less economically-driven in the direct forestry sense, the development of state forestry practice in the mountainous regions of France – principally the Alps and Pyrenees – provides for another example into how state forestry has been met with civil unrest. Traditionally, the agrarian peasantry of the mountainous regions of southern France had maintained a close connection with the forest (comprised of species including silver fir Abies alba, beech Fagus sylvatica, oak Quercus robur / Quercus petraea, pine Pinus mugo, and spruce Picea abies), using it, for example, as pasture for local breeds of cattle and sheep, for medicinal purposes, or to provide for the necessary timber and firewood for sustaining a somewhat comfortable existence. Forest was also cleared for agricultural purposes, as was it harvested for charcoal to fuel the developing ironworks industry. Management typically adopted what is defined as jardinage, which entails the management of the forest as if it were a form of garden – felling was irregular, and there was no ‘scientific’ approach to forest management; simply because it didn’t need to be, as the forest was managed for subsistence purposes by the peasantry. Therefore, the forest – as well as the pasture lands surrounding – was understood as belonging to the peasantry, sometimes on a private basis but more often on a communal one, and its existence was critical for sustaining their way of life. Consequently, when the state began to encroach upon this assumed right of forest and land ownership, for a multitude of reasons, such an intent was met with marked vitriol.

Forest being cleared for charcoal production. Source: Z-Blogs.

Whilst the bulk of the protest occurred during the period of 1860-1940, it is important to recognise the political dynamics that led up to this tumultuous period of French history, and therefore one can begin observing how the state interfered in the management of forests (both lowland and upland, as one combined entity) as far back as 1215. From 1215 through to 1800, a series of Ordinances had governed the use of the forest across France. Different Ordinances meant different limitations were in place, though in principal royal and ecclesiastical forests had limited potential use by the peasantry. Largely-speaking, such Ordinances were geared towards the management of lowland forests of France, and not to the mountainous ones referenced here. Therefore, the Ordinances, and in particular the 1669 Ordinance, did not hold much clout in the mountainous regions of southern France, and were therefore intentionally ignored – or simply not enforced – by and upon the peasantry, respectively. Nonetheless, forestry did occur in France, and this prior period is detailed by Matteson (2015).

However, come the 18th and 19th century, as the state observed the forests of the mountainous regions slowly dissipate as a consequence of continued degradation by the peasantry, and the adverse environmental impacts of this (soil erosion of upland areas, large-scale flooding in critical lowland agricultural areas, and so on), it sought to alter its modus operandi with regards to the upland forests. However, military efforts and the improvement of infrastructure also demanded timber, which must be provided from national forests. Most importantly, because the state did not trust the peasantry to restore the mountainous areas to high forest cover, it pursued the acquisition of territory to undertake such reforestation itself. Such a process began in 1790 when the state initiated the accumulation of ecclesiastical land, though the Rural Code of 1791 (put in place following the French Revolution that ended earlier that year) prohibited the state from acquiring communally-owned land, which limited its capacity in developing large tracts of mountainous land for reforestation purposes. However, come 1801, the Administration des Forêts was established, with the main aim of supplying timber for shipyards – this birth of a new era in state forestry soon led to the establishment of the Forest Code in 1827, which adopted a much broader set of aims.

Artwork depicting the Pavillon de l’administration des forêts in Paris, 1878. Source: Wikimedia.

The Forest Code of 1827 was a particularly undesirable piece of legislation, in the view of the mountainous peasantry. The Code allowed the state to acquire communally-owned land with relative ease, and forbade pasturing in forests, the gathering of firewood, and the felling and extraction of particular trees. It also established the footings of future reforestation efforts. Crucially, the Code did not recognise the huge distinction between mountainous forests and lowland ones. In this sense, the traditional way of the mountain regions was directly in opposition to the Code. The situation was further exacerbated by the heavy policing that came with the introduction of the Forest Code. Forest guards, employed by the state, were instructed to arrest individuals for crimes that were once not even considered crimes (and by the peasantry still were not), and prosecutions for these crimes (however little – such as illegally grazing one cow outside of permitted zones) in court were met with fines and jail time. Therefore, by 1829, the electrical social and political standing was so severe that mountainous peasants began to revolt. One notable example of such revolt, which was certainly violent in many aspects, was the War of the Demoiselles (1829-1832) in the area including Massat, which saw male peasants dress up as women and ransack privately-owned and state-owned forests, and also attack the much-maligned forest guards and noblemen (see Sahlins, 1994). The famine of 1848 also saw many peasant revolts in these forests, for the limited usage of the forest was certainly a driver behind the extent of the famine of the mountainous peasants.

In 1851, when the state voted to relax the control of lowland forests to promote better agricultural practice, the mountainous forests took a further step towards state ownership and management. The state saw agriculture as highly important for France’s economy, and therefore considered the mountains to be of supreme importance in safeguarding lowland plains from the throes of flooding (as so pertinently demonstrated by the horrific floods of the 1840s). Subsequently, the mountain slopes had to be reforested, as their current state was far from sufficient in the aim of having such upland forests protect the lowland plains from harm. As ascertained, because the state was not trusting of the mountainous peasantry, it pursued reforestation through its own means; as well as mandating land owners to reforest their land that, if refused by the land owner, resulted in them forsaking at least half of their land to the state (who would then reforest it). Laws passed by the state in 1860 enabled for even more communally-owned upland land masses to be occupied by the state, which certainly aided in this reforestation effort; albeit to the huge detriment of the mountainous peasantry.

Moorland prior to afforestation with pine in the middle of the 19th century. Source: Abelard.

It was therefore this period, from 1860, when political tensions were reaching the proverbial boiling point between the state and the peasantry of the Alps and Pyrenees. After all, the attrition upon and erosion of their traditional customs had resulted in their way of life having to alter greatly if their agrarian existence was to remain tenable. Matters were made worse by the lack of inclusion of the peasantry in local decisions made on reforestation, and the exclusion of the very same peasantry from some – if not all – of the land upon which they made their living. In 1864, the state recognised the friction between the state and the peasantry, and made more lax the regulations of reforestation, allowing instead for some areas to remain as grassed pasture. 1870 also witnessed the close of the 1860 law, and the subsequent pursuit of new forest laws to protect the mountain slopes from erosion and flooding. Discussions began in 1873 to produce a new law, though it only were properly formalised as a new law in 1882, and was entitled Restoration and Conservation of Alpine Lands. Curiously, its title entirely omits the idea of reforestation, though the peasantry were just as wary of this new piece of legislation as the end goal of the state was no different to what it had been in 1860 – it was simply more inclusive of the needs of local peasants, and opted to pursue engineering solutions as well as natural solutions for the protection of mountain slopes. The law also restricted the state’s ability to acquire new land for reforestation, and mandated there be ample justification in purchasing communal or private land, and created a department known as the Restauration des terrains en montagne (or RTM). This department would largely be responsible for reforestation projects.

However, the constant change in leadership of the Administration des Forêts resulted in this approach (of being more accepting of the peasantry) lacking long-term commitment, as different forest managers approached the pursuit of reforestation and land acquisition in different manners; certainly, some approaches were far more militant, and the 1882 law didn’t always appear as being more lax than its 1860 predecessor. Therefore, whilst having ended in 1832, the War of the Demoiselles evolved into the Affair of the Mountains, for example. This new era of protest, which gained serious momentum after in the later periods of the 19th century, saw peasants adopt a progressively more political and legal approach to protest, culminating in the early 1900s with the local government being comprised of almost exclusively the peasantry. This approach was spearheaded in part, from 1870-1900, by Francois Piquemal, a peasant farmer who promoted rebellion against forest law and the innate right of the peasants to the lands they lived within and worked upon. In response to this political uprising and modernisation of peasant protest, the French state quelled quite extensively its pursuit of reforestation in the area, having realised that state forestry in a location so opposed to it – and with a peasantry willing to hamper quite zealously any efforts made to create forest cover – was an exercise in futility.

An entire mountain slope within the Alps void almost entirely of trees, in 1889. Source: Landscapes for People, Food and Nature.

Partly as a consequence of the association of the Administration des Forêts in the late 19th century with a lack of consideration for peasants, though also because the administration also became responsible for France’s waters in 1896, its organisational name was changed to Eaux et Forêts in 1898. Such a name change also reverted the administration’s name back to what it was prior to 1801, thereby reflecting a more traditional approach to state forestry and land management. Despite this homage to traditionality, the Eaux et Forêts (principally the RTM) pursued the acquisition of land (communally- or privately-owned) for the state en masse, and by 1900 a total of 163,000 hectares had been secured and another 172,000 hectares were highlighted for acquisition. This almost industrial rate of conversion to state-owned land had ramifications for the peasantry of the mountains, and by the project was falling short of its targets – in part, because of protests.

Regardless, the state continued with its aim of obtaining land for reforestation, and therefore in 1913 the Audiffred law was passed, and enabled the state to impose more controls upon privately-owned forest land. Scope even existed to allow the RTM to manage the forest on behalf of the land owner, with the interest of protecting lowland plains from the throes of flooding brought about from the mountains. In the same year, to supplement this new law, the state’s means of managing communal lands was enhanced. A revision potentially triggered initially by the unrest in the late 19th century, the new law developed into one of allowing the Eaux et Forêts to have much greater control over the management of land in upland areas. Whilst the 1882 law had not allowed the state to acquire land for the purpose of reforestation unless there was marked justification for doing so, this new law gave the state scope to acquire any land it desired.

A century of difference on mountain slopes within the Pyrenees. Source: Revuelto et al. (2016).

The onset of World War I, some months later in 1914, relayed the enactment of the 1913 laws, though also led to the laws being supported by a further wave of legislation and political standing pertaining to forest management, which would have repercussions for the rural Alpine and Pyrenean communities. The evident frenetic demand for timber for the war effort rapidly demanded additional resources beyond what the RTM could provide, and therefore in 1915 the Service forestier aux armées (SFA) was created the help with the felling and transport of timber to the front line. By 1917, the Comité général des bois also was born, for similar purposes. In late 1918, when the war has come to a close, a total of over 600,000 hectares of forest had been literally consumed in France, and it was estimated that there was a deficit of 1,636,000 cubic metres of timber each year. The decimated landscape, courtesy of persistent shelling and military action, also meant many standing forests were scarred, and areas to be reforested damaged significantly. Consequently, the Eaux et Forêts and RTM very rapidly earmarked massive areas for replanting, and the mountainous tracts of land did not escape this process.

Initially, the RTM entertained the idea of planting up coniferous forest stands within the Alps and Pyrenees, though the documented evidence and evidence gained after some initial planting projects soon lay waste to this pursuit – the conifers simply could not grow desirably, given an array of climatic and geological factors. Therefore, notably after the formalising of the Chauveau law in 1922, reforesting projects were undertaken under the banner of ‘protective forestry’. In short, the aim of reforestation reverted back to the initial aim from the century before, though with an added impetus: the lowland areas below the slopes were now becoming more heavily industrialised and infrastructure was better, and therefore protection was even more necessary as the costs associated with flooding would be even greater. Not only did the new law drastically limit the ability for agrarian peasants to undertake grazing, the felling of trees, and so on, but it also gave the RTM the power to very swiftly obtain land and reforest areas earmarked for planting. After consultations in 1925 over land masses to be planted, despite being near universally met with unease by rural councils and peasants, projects began as soon as 1926. This resulted in many peasants losing access to their land, and in turn a rural exodus began; such an exodus paved the way for what was to come.

Quite simply, following the exodus, those who remained became more reliant upon the Eaux et Forêts for employment and financial aid; such a reliance was accentuated by the economic plights of the 1930s. Furthermore, within the same decade, and also because of the exodus of rural peasants, the state passed laws recognising the importance of traditional customs in rural communities. Certainly a means of trying to safeguard rural economies and communities, laws in fact allowed – and even promoted – jardinage, which had historically been frowned upon by foresters. Peasants could also collect firewood from state forests, as could they gather fodder for animals, and timber from deformed branches (collectively known as sarclage). Ultimately, as long as the forests remained in tact and could fulfil their purpose for protecting the lands below, peasants had more freedom to practice their traditions. Even pastures were opened up for grazing by sheep and cattle, and some foresters also allowed pastoralists to graze their sheep or cattle within the forest itself by 1936. As a result, peasants began to warm to the idea of state forestry (and the role the forests themselves played in rural life), and the Eaux et Forêts began to warm to the peasantry – quite ironically, one could remark, given the centuries of almost unsolvable animosity between state and mountain peasant.

This decade also witnessed the decline in power of the Eaux et Forêts, however. By 1935, it had 25% fewer staff than it had in the preceding decades, and peasants were calling on the organisation to employ more foresters to enable communal forest management projects to be overseen properly. For the foresters that remained within the organisation, though also those that worked for private landowners, the situation was concerning. Therefore, many had begun to join organisations dedicated to promoting tourism within the French mountains (such as the Société des Amis des Arbres and Touring-Club), as these organisations championed the idea of reforestation upon the slopes of the mountains – notably on communal land abandoned following the outward migration of pastoralists. Since the last decade of the 19th century, such tourism had begun to gain popularity, and by the 1930s the Eaux et Forêts had formed partnerships with many of these organisations – partnerships that also provided funding, from the Eaux et Forêts to the tourist organisations, for the purpose of reforestation projects. The main aim of such reforestation, in the eyes of the tourist organisations, was that their clients (often well-off individuals) wanted to experience unadulterated nature, away from civilisation (notably the peasant under-class). Consequently, this is what the organisations would seek to provide.

Alongside tourism came industry, and in turn a changing demographic. Because the well-off tourists didn’t want to experience the ways of the traditional peasantry, and compiled with the fact that the peasantry could not provide the services demanded by the tourists, businessmen migrated into the mountains and the peasantry further migrated out. In spite of organisations such as the Société Française d’Économie Alpestre and the Fédération Pyrénéenne d’Economie Montagnarde promoting pastoralism during the 1920s and 1930s – a pursuit even funded by the Eaux et Forêts up until 1937 – the rural exodus did not wane, and the original aim of reforestation on the mountain slopes was fulfilled through the natural regeneration of forests on abandoned pasture. Traditional custom of the French mountain slopes thus became a practice of novelty, undertaken only by a few and relegated to the halls of memory for many.


Whited, T. (2000) Forest and Peasant Politics in Modern France. USA: Yale University Press.

Additional reading

Matteson, K. (2015) Forests in Revolutionary France: Conservation, Community, and Conflict, 1669-1848. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sahlins, P. (1994) Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France. USA: Harvard University Press.

A history of state forestry in France

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