Alexandre Fernandez. Economie et Politique de l'ElectricitÖ© Ö Bordeaux (1887-1956). Talence: Presses Universitaire de Bordeaux, 1998. 359 pp. FF 150 (cloth), ISBN 978-2-86781-222-4.
Reviewed by Dieter Schott (History Department, School of Social and Historical Sciences, Darmstadt University of Technology)
Published on H-Urban (July, 1999)
Fernandez's book, the published version of his 1994 dissertation at the Universite Michel de Montaigne, Bordeaux, is a new offspring of the quite flourishing literature on electrification in France as it has developed since the founding of the Association d'Histoire de l'Electricite en France in 1983. Fernandez pursues a course of investigation which differs from the main routes taken by scholars in the last years. While their main fields of interests had been either the relationship between history of technology and history of electricity, business history and history of electricity, or local and regional history and history of electricity, Fernandez proposes a different approach. He wants to study the electrification of Bordeaux and its agglomeration in terms of the relations between the evolution and diffusion of electric technology and economic growth. To do this, he has to analyse the legal and regulatory frame of reference in which electrification could evolve, i.e. the politics of electrification, especially on the local level. To study the interactions between technology, economy, and politics is thus the principal object of Fernandez's book. And the city is for Fernandez not just the site where electrification takes place, but rather and foremost also an actor, inhibiting, allowing, accelerating, and completely directing electrification processes. Therefore his study is also a contribution to urban history.
Fernandez has worked his way through a wide array of primary sources, mainly of legal and administrative character. While files of former private utility companies have been very sparse and fragmentary, there are verbatim records of the municipal assembly debates which also shed light on some points not clarified by other documents. In spatial terms Fernandez limits himself to the municipal territory while admitting that, in strictly economic terms, it might make sense to include the agglomeration since a considerable number of industrial corporations developed in the banlieue of Bordeaux that used electric energy. However, long-term economic trends cannot be sketched with valid data for the agglomeration. Also, restriction to the municipality allows a clearer grasp of political actors like the prefect, the ministeries involved and above all the mayor with his police powers, especially the power to grant concessions for the installation of the networks. Fernandez attributes a very considerable degree of power to the mayor to influence the direction and extent of electrification. Perhaps this is a somewhat 'bordelaise' perspective as Bordeaux constitutes a special case in the French history of electrification: In 1919 the city of Bordeaux took over the distribution of gas and electricity into municipal hands, quite exceptional for French cities. And from this exceptional fact Fernandez also generates a dual question: did this, (in the French context) daring policy generate also a dynamic economic growth and secondly, what was the significance of continuing municipal service until 1956 despite the fact that in the rest of France electric power production and transmission was nationalised in 1946 and integrated into the framework of "Electricite de France"?
Fernandez outlines six "fields of investigation," through which he wants to approach his subject: technology, economy, law and legal affairs, the geography of electrification, the sociology of electricity (implying social diffusion as well as mental appropriation and symbolic usage), and last, but by no means least, financial aspects. The focal point uniting all these dimensions and aspects Fernandez locates in the political sphere. He definitively rejects any technological determinism and emphasizes the choices open to the decision-makers who, in turn, underwent, because of the challenging technological and scientific issues, a process of rationalisation and modernisation of public administration.
Fernandez's study is organised along chronological lines in three major sections. The first section, termed "Le temps des compagnies 1887-1919," deals with the early electrification process, dominated by private companies. In 1887, the first small-scale electric installations were set up on private premises, and the municipal council discussed the issue of installing electric lighting in the assembly hall and in the "Grand Theatre" for the sake of fire safety. However, no municipal action was taken, yet and electrification proceeded in a gradual and small-scale fashion, mainly in cafes, restaurants, music halls and department stores. Electricity became popular and remained a luxury illumination, a fairy-like source of light, associated with play, fun, leisure and luxurious consumption, not with everyday needs. This changed to some degree after 1896 when electric lighting was introduced on the custom docks of Bordeaux. But on the whole the city of Bordeaux imposed a prohibition on all attempts of introducing electric lighting on a scale encompassing more than one block of buildings and using public streets. The city was enforcing a grant which the gas company which had obtained in 1875: the total monopoly for all public and private lighting provided through networks on public streets.
With the expiration of the gas concession in 1904, things changed. The gas company now also adopted electric lighting into its activities and obtained a prolonged concession. It did not, however, get a full monopoly for the city, so other companies already operating within the city could continue their operations. However they could not extend their networks. In 1906, a new national law gave increased regulatory powers to the municipalities in respect to electricity, defining electricity as "public utility." This meant that companies given the concession could more easily use public and private property for their lines and networks. The law also prescribed the drafting of a "file-of-duties" to be observed by the company on the grounds of public safety. It also prevented municipalities from granting monopolies, other than for street illumination and from giving better terms to concessionaries than before. In the case of Bordeaux the legal situation was far from clear and the private company tried to exploit this unclear situation to its advantage, since it had received a new concession in 1904.
From 1910 onwards, the company secured electric power from a hydro-electric power station on the Dordogne, 120 km from Bordeaux. With this source of power secured, there was a wide horizon for the progress of electrification in Bordeaux. Fernandez proceeds to show this control of the most important source of power initially slowed progress for different groups of consumers: the city with her public buildings and street lighting, and the industry which after 1910 started to turn to electric energy, with a special acceleration during the First World War, caused by the shortage of coal-based gas. The "Great War," as the French call it, really brought about the breakthrough for electricity in Bordeaux; the total amount of electric power exploded from 6 millions (after mio.) kilowatt hours (kwh) in 1910 to 18 mio kwh by 1915/16 and 27 mio kwh at the end of war.
Fernandez also analyses the quantitative and qualitative development of users, and states the predominance, quite typical, of shops, hotels, restaurants, and associations among collective users, and of professionals, merchants, and other members of the middle and upper middle classes among individual consumers, while the portion of workers using electricity in their households remained extremely small. Fernandez makes a very interesting and innovative interpretation of 82 letters from Bordeaux citizens with complaints about public illumination. Fernandez shows that a large percentage of these come from associations presenting local interests of city quarters and of house-owners. He also classifies the letters according to subjects such as public safety, economic development, and so forth. As he can show from these sources, modernity became closely linked to electric lighting while gas was increasingly considered inferior and outdated.
The war marked a break, on the one hand, greatly increasing the demand for electricity because of coal shortage and rising prices for gas while, on the other hand, openly showing the inadequacy of the technical equipment of the "Compagnie General" to sustain further growth. In the second section of "La ville et l'electricite: Le bel age de la regie municipale 1919-1939," Fernandez analyses the changes which took place in the interwar period. Most significant was the change in ownership: in 1919 Bordeaux took over gas and electricity and ran these as municipal services. Again he distinguishes different periods, marked by different mayors. While a conservative mayor actually carried through the municipalisation, it was the socialist mayor Adrien Marquet (1925-1939) who tried to develop the potential of local electrification to promote urban and industrial development. The mayor pursued an energetic program of public electrification after 1925, the effects of which Fernandez demonstrates on computer-drawn maps. Fernandez's account of the central administrative building of the "Regie Municipal" is fascinating. It shows how intimately related the guiding idea of its architecture was with central notions governing the public ownership and usage of electricity as technocratic modernisation of society (p. 240).
This energetic policy of was slowed by the Great Depression. In the early 1930s, industrial demand lessened, and with it total demand declined, only to recover slightly in the late 1930s. The general effect was a rather slow growth of electricity consumption. While total consumption trebled between 1920 and 1930, there was no significant growth until the end of the following decade. This pattern marks Bordeaux off from the general development in France, where consumption still increased by 23 percent between 1930 and 1938. Fernandez shows how the city reacted by trying to develop new usages, especially in domestic water-boilers, to compensate for the losses in industry. The electrification policy was definitively successful in bringing electricity into almost every household: in 1941 98 percent of all houses in Bordeaux had electric installations, an even higher percentage than those for gas and running water (90 percent).
To sum this section up, Fernandez assesses the interwar period as the time when electricity changed from "fairy" to "servant," becoming an everyday-technology serving all ranks of society. The administration, however, did use electricity foremost for public and symbolic means, nor to promote industrialisation. The fiscal considerations of the city (revenue from electricity was always counted on to balance the municipal budget) prevented an aggressive low-rate policy, which might have speeded up electrification in industry. Thus the general effects of economic decline could not be completely compensated by increased domestic and public demand.
The third section, "Les impasses du systeme electrique local, 1939-1956," discusses the electrification from the outbreak of WW II until the general incorporation into the national electricity supply in 1956." The War brought about a significant drop in consumption and the introduction of a system of forced economy. From a level of 84 mio kWh in 1939 consumption dropped to 58 mio in 1944, a reduction of almost a third. The catastrophic drop in 1944 was partly due to sabotage to high-voltage transmission lines outside of the city, partly to the lack of coal for power stations. But the provision of power remained unstable even after the end of the war, due to the bad quality of the equipment, which had been run down for a very long period. And this lack of investment then also became decisive, motivating the final renunciation of municipal ownership and the integration of Bordeaux into the general network of "Electricite de France."
Fernandez shows the special logic of electric utility operations where supply has to develop ahead of demand to meet anticipated peaks and where cost-prices and sales-prices have to decrease together. This means, in economic terms, that investments have to be made in equipment to increase production and distribution capacities, which will not be immediately balanced by increasing returns in the same magnitude. The change of ownership after World War I is interpreted by Fernandez as a change to a proprietor with superior financial potential to guarantee the investments necessary to continue the dynamic balance of decreasing cost prices/decreasing sales-prices/increasing supply/increasing demand. Fernandez makes his point in a somewhat overly functionalist fashion, claiming that "the system changed its dominant actor with the purpose of maintaining its coherence" (p. 326). In terms of actors, Fernandez emphasizes their change in scope and potential for action, while the state assumed a much greater potential for intervention in the long run, integrating electricity supply into a national system of generation and distribution by the 1950s. Private actors, first individual engineers, then joint-stock companies, were eliminated from Bordeaux on the grounds of their incapacity as demonstrated during World War I to guarantee a stable and sufficient supply. The hostility of city councillors to externally based companies played an additional role.
However the city herself was trapped in this dilemma after 1945, when again equipment had been run down due to lack of investment during the late 1930s, a period with very slow growth that did not force the city to expand capacities. When demand started to rise again during the economic recovery in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city had no opportunity to catch up, since the state also restricted its freedom to fix higher rates for electricity. Fernandez attributes this neglect to the economic function electricity revenues had for the municipal budget: Electricity was run not as a "social" utility, not even by the socialist administrations, but as an economic source of surplus for the city treasury. And because of this fiscal hegemony, the specific logic of investing in equipment for the purpose of enabling lower cost-prices by lowering power rates to create new demand was not adopted by the council. Thus the development of consumption proceeded at a considerably slower pace than in France in general. Fernandez characterises this as a specific "path," a "smooth transition to modernity," which however found its limits in the 1950s, when the model of national provision became overwhelming and also seemed to convey the sense of modernity and progress no longer associated with municipal ownership.
Fernandez's book is a fascinating study of urban electrification, which has its special merits not by the typicality but rather by the exceptionality of the case of Bordeaux. It will be a contribution to urban history as well as to economic history or history of technology. He convincingly shows the important role of politics in shaping the context and conditions of electrification, understood as diffusion of a technology and its adoption in the general public. But this emphasis on politics is balanced by his awareness of the specific technical as well as economic logic of electric utilities. And in analysing the crucial points, he always aims to show how and to which degree the actors were aware of these conditions of their actions.
The book is well documented with tables, charts and maps, although on some charts the different sections of the pie are not reproduced clearly (p. 250). The long-term approach of the study is very powerful, since it puts Fernandez in position to observe structural changes and decisive nodes of action. Perhaps one would have liked to read a bit more about the consumer side, especially about the very slow and unsatisfactory development of industrial demand. For a non-francophone reader, the somewhat stylish and elegant prose is occasionally irritating. Fernandez does not always approach his aims and develop his theses in a straightforward fashion but rather takes care to use cultivated and sometimes overly abstract terms and phrases. But he really studies decision-processes in detail, scrutinizes contracts and legal arrangements, showing that decisions were prepared in discourses. This is, in short, not just a discourse history of electrification, and that is one of its major merits.
Commissioned and edited for H-Urban by Pierre-Yves Saunier, CNRS, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Dieter Schott. Review of Fernandez, Alexandre, Economie et Politique de l'ElectricitÖ© Ö Bordeaux (1887-1956).
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