Papers presented by Patrick Fridenson since 2019

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.