Bretons - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence polyculture was the economic basis for the majority of Bretons living in the interior regions, and fishing and algae gathering for the coastal folk, until the early decades of the twentieth century. Since the two world wars, especially World War II, agriculture has modernized greatly, which has had two important results: first, it has meant the loss of countless small farms and the migration of farming families to the cities; but second, it has also increased the efficiency of agricultural production to the point that Brittany now ranks as the leading agricultural region of France, exporting such products as chicken, pork, fresh and canned vegetables, potatoes, milk, and butter. Fish and crustaceans are also an important economic and culinary resource, as well as a major attraction to tourists. Bretons, too, who in earlier epochs partook but little of marine products, have come to appreciate their own "fruits of the sea." The traditional diet consisted of potatoes, bread, buckwheat crepes, porridge, salt pork, eggs, cider, and milk; relatively little meat or fish was consumed until after World War II. Brittany experienced rapid industrialization after 1960, coming to it later but more intensively than other regions of France. Industries associated with agriculture—canneries, dairies, animal feed producers, slaughterhouses and packing plants, agricultural machinery manufacturers—constitute the largest industrial sector; however, other types of significant industrial activity include mining (of granite, slate, and kaolin), construction (including boats and ships), telecommunications, automobiles, and public works. In spite of considerable industrial growth since over the past thirty years, not all industries have prospered continuously (e.g., naval construction has markedly declined since 1975), and unemployment rates rose as high as 11 percent in parts of Brittany in the 1980s. A boom in tourism, on the other hand, has spawned a sizable hostelry industry; recent decades have also witnessed a sharp increase in the "secondary residence" building business. Finally, certain Parisian and multinational companies engaged in light industry requiring a sizable labor force have been attracted to Brittany because of the lower salaries accepted by a largely young, nonunionized, female workforce of rural origin.

Industrial Arts. Woodworking is a traditional Breton craft that has much declined in the wave of machine-turned furniture, yet is still practiced by skilled artisans. Pottery making continues as an important artisanal craft of considerable commercial value.

Trade. The 1970s brought to Brittany the first supermarket chains, which now flourish throughout the region. Another development has been that of the "commercial centers" where, in addition to food, it is possible to purchase almost any consumer good that can be carted out of the store. These are located on the outskirts of cities such as Rennes, Brest, Quimper, and Lorient, and they draw customers from urban and rural environs alike. Such giant enterprises have threatened, though not entirely eliminated, the family-run specialty shops that used to be the norm. In addition, the tradition of weekly or biweekly open-air markets has remained robust in medium-sized towns.

Division of Labor. In its days as a rural, strongly Catholic society, male-female division of labor was much as in other premodern agricultural societies, with women having the primary responsibility for food preparation, washing, rearing children, weaving, sewing, etc., while men did the majority of the heavy farmwork and took care of the farm machinery and equipment. With the advent of farm mechanization and the "desertification" of the farm—especially by women—this pattern is no longer so straightforward. Probably a majority of adult women work in the paid labor force at some time in their lives and manage households that have been enhanced with up-to-date services and utilities. Many women have moved into professional and technical spheres of employment. Nevertheless, shopping, cooking, and child rearing are much more likely to be done by women than by men, while mechanical and heavy industrial work are still within the male province.

Land Tenure. In the Middle Ages, the domaine congéable was developed in Brittany whereby land was held by one owner, while the buildings, orchards, tools, livestock, etc. were owned by the occupant. This system gradually was replaced by private (individual or family) ownership of the complete farm. The fragmentation of holdings through the partible inheritance system (also a problem elsewhere in France) has over the generations reduced many fields to such small dimensions that they are unworkable in this age of mechanized agriculture. Many families therefore have sold their parcels to larger, wealthier farmers or to agribusinesses. Yet private ownership of a house and plot of land (for a garden) remains a goal for many Bretons.

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