Papers presented by Patrick Fridenson since 2019

2024 Providence, Rhode Island

"Working for the enemy: French aircraft companies under the German occupation"

Patrick Fridenson, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales


100% of French aeronautical production from July 1940 to August 1944 went to Nazi Germany : 4,142 aircraft and 12,456 aircraft engines. Aeronautical products thus represent half of total arms sales from France to the Third Reich. Moreover, these numbers do not take into account the multiple tasks of repair and maintenance which constituted an essential part of an activity almost exclusively geared towards the satisfaction of German needs. Both state-owned and private firms contributed to execute the German orders, with the exception of two major Jewish business leaders that French authorities imprisoned. A peculiarity of this German hegemony on French companies’ production was the role of the French Air Ministry (where military officers and engineers were very present). Contrary to other branches, it negotiated with German authorities in order to impose state collaboration instead of private arrangements between firms. It argued that such a production was doing business in the public interest (survival of a French air force, survival of a key modern industry) and that it had to supervise it. Regarding aircrafts, this proved to be an illusion, as production was devoted to light transport and liaison planes the technology of which predated the war itself. The only exception was the Air Ministry’s decision to relocate the design offices of five state-owned aircraft manufacturing companies to the Southern city of Cannes. Though remaining under the grip of both the occupants, the Air Ministry and the Wiesbaden armistice commission, this concentration was conducive to innovation, via the design and experimentation of processes and prototypes. The Air Ministry also subsidized the experimentation of a few French rockets in Lyons, which were successfully hidden, but soon to be eclipsed by German V2. However, the German University of Göttingen mobilized French scientists and engineers of the Paris area to develop aerodynamics research for aircraft, some under German scholars’ control. Finally, this paper will survey the various attitudes and practices of business leaders, engineers and workers.

2023 Detroit, MI, United States

"Nationalization as a prelude to reinvention: the Renault experience, 1944-1975"

Patrick Fridenson, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales


State-owned enterprises in postwar France have been generally described as either a continuation of private enterprises (in railways, banks, insurance and even coal), the change in ownership being analysed as mostly a sequel of social or political prewar struggles, or as attempts to face the impoverished world resulting from World War II, later culminating in one type of national champions in the European Common Market. Part of the literature thus sees them as a sort of diminished enterprises, surviving in artificial conditions, practicing a bureaucratic management and immune to profitability. By choosing a nationalized enterprise in a competitive industry: automobiles, I want to stress that there the possibility of reinvention also existed. Of course, it could be partly interpreted as a result of new world conditions: the new hegemony of petroleum and soon of one of its derivatives: plastics, or world trade agreements such as the GATT. However, this paper suggests that this nationalization led to more than a sheer adaptation, but rather to a reinvention of practices and anticipations. Part of them were paradoxically made possible by the financial poverty of the French state, which induced the company to find other financial resources and to export in order to bring foreign currency. But most of these new practices and strategies shaped a new course, focusing on an ideal of democratization of the automobile without a full Fordism. It impacted not only the choice of products, but also induced changes in mechanization and automation, marketing and advertising, human resource management, accounting, factory location, and finally research and development. These new practices, initially advocated by top engineers, in turn called for other types of managers, coming from other professions. The company gradually abandoned its prewar vertical integration and its prewar cult of high custom barriers, becoming a champion of the Coal and Steel Community. It tended to become much more multinational, notably in Latin America. As well, it adopted a new culture in terms of architecture and art.