his paper presents some preliminary results of our research project investigating the largest French firms and their directors, from the 1840s to the 2000s (the empirical research design is presented in Part III, below). This topic had of course already given birth to dozens of fine monographs and biographies. There was still however a lack of a strong synthesis that would integrate insights from economic history and economic sociology, as well as from studies on the careers of elite actors and the governance of firms. Prior to our study, no effort had been made to systematically document the very list of the largest firms, with their main characteristics, for even a few landmark dates in the history of capitalism, let alone to list the directors of these firms and to investigate their lives. As a result, general ideas about French capitalism are still mostly based on monographs – or, at worst, on preconceptions about the French political culture. We argue that a more systematic, quantified description of large firms and their directors is necessary to question such preconceptions and to better define the enduring idiosyncrasies – if they exist at all – of French capitalism. This is not a purely descriptive task that would only hold interest for navel-gazing French scholars. On the contrary, we argue that the French case has long held a significant rhetorical role in social sciences as the unquestioned epitome of State capitalism (and of “strong State” generally), whether it is discussed as an interesting variant among others or as a strange vestige of things past.
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