The revival of tradition in France’s forests

March 6, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Credit: Encyclopédie méthodique de la marine. From 1669 forward, the French state suppressed customary and communal forest uses in favor of military and industrial interests. This image, taken from the 1797 marine encyclopedia, highlights the most sought after natural curves for naval timber.

After three centuries of forest policy that put the interests of the state above locals, the French are realizing that a more inclusive policy is better for both people and forests.

The dispatch arrived in haste at the prefect’s office in June 1843. “Sergeant Ruty, state forest officer in the Forêt de Chaux, has been found dead—a victim of murder.”1 For months, tensions had been rising in this heavily wooded region of eastern France, in the Franche-Comté. A lawsuit brought by two dozen communities demanding the reinstatement of their ancient use rights in Chaux Forest had recently failed, and skirmishes with guards, the hated enforcers of French forest law, had multiplied. Along with two previous murder attempts—one in the form of a booby-trapped gun tied to a snared songbird—the area had also been the scene of a string of suspicious forest fires, dozens of incidents of tree girdling, and the torching of a guards’ barracks. The latter was suspected to be the work of a former mayor.2

Such violence was once commonplace in France’s forests. In 1843 alone, in addition to the murder in the Forêt de Chaux, killings of forest guards also took place in the Ariège, Ardèche, Meuse, Lorraine, and the forest of Versailles. This trend would continue almost through the end of the century, with one or more assassinations in the line of duty occurring every year from 1840 forward.3

At stake in the conflict was the issue of who, as one group of villagers put it, would be “masters of their woods.”4 For more than three centuries, from the promulgation of its landmark Forest Ordinance of 1669 forward, the French state sought to suppress customary and communal forest uses in favor of military and industrial interests. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the architect of the 1669 ordinance and Louis XIV’s minister of finances, had framed the restrictions as imperative for the future of the realm: “France perira faute de bois!” (France will perish for want of wood!), he warned, lest its looming timber shortages put it at an economic and strategic disadvantage relative to its maritime rivals.5 Hoping to ensure present and future supplies of naval timber, the crown curtailed longstanding practices like woodland grazing, and ordered the conversion of coppices—scrubby, high-density thickets grown for fuel and craftwood—to haute futaie (high timber trees).6 Especially prized were elm, which was used for ships’ keels; fir, for deck planks; and above all oaks, which comprised the crucial “ribs” of ships’ hulls. In keeping with oaks’ slow growth, the ordinance mandated that haute futaie could only be felled in one-hundred year rotations. While forge owners and iron manufacturers were able to overturn some of the ordinance’s restrictions on coppices, arguing that they limited charcoal production and inhibited the manufacture of artillery, rural inhabitants, particularly the poorest peasantry, were less fortunate. Though critical to their survival, their broad array of forest uses, from raking up leaves for stable litter and gathering wind-blown branches for firewood, to growing stakes for vines and harvesting communal timber, was not only banned but also decried as a threat to national security.7

These draconian constraints, which prefigured the restrictions that colonial and postcolonial authorities the world over would place on woodland custom from the late nineteenth century forward, spawned resentment and occasional revolt among rural communities. During the French Revolution (1789–1799), anger over the forests indelibly shaped local ideas of liberty and oppression and gave way to a brief and chaotic 10-year reprieve from administrative oversight, as revolutionary republicans in Paris delegated woodland authority to municipalities and individuals. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the ordinance’s restrictions were back in force and a new, even more punitive and exclusionary law was underway: the Forest Code of 1827. It was with the Forest Code’s uncompromising stance on customary and communal usage that villagers like those surrounding Chaux Forest took particular umbrage.

Image Removed

Photo credit: biranbig/Flickr. France in recent years has started to reintroduce and support forest practices not in use since the mid-17th century. Pictured here are the forests of Fontainebleau, about 40 miles outside of Paris.

Combining rigorous policing of France’s state and communal forests with more efficient modes of extraction and the self-assured certainties of scientific forestry, an emergent area of expertise in the nineteenth century, the code expanded on earlier prohibitions and instated new ones, especially against customs associated with the rural poor.8 The practice of pasturing goats, known as “the poor man’s cow,” amidst the forest understory was particularly condemned. “There is nothing more devastating, more harmful to the forests,” remarked one observer in 1806.9 “A troop of goats scattered within them does one hundred times more damage than the axe.” Blaming the degraded state of the nation’s forests on silvopastoralism and a long list of other communal and collective woodland uses, rather than the intense fragmentation and clearing of “wastes” for cultivation that had followed the Revolution’s land-redistribution schemes from 1790 forward, the code mandated that all use rights and other access claims that could not be substantiated through written documentation would be terminated.10 These rights, which dated as far back as the tenth century, had originally been established by medieval landlords to attract tenants to clear and plant their land. In exchange for rent and labor obligations, tenants received liberal access to collective resources like forests and streams. Yet even in cases where these arrangements had been formally confirmed, the ancient capitularies or charters in which they were recorded were frequently missing—burned up in fires, lost, or tucked away in forgotten places. In this way, the code’s demand for written proof stripped many villages of their woodland rights.11 Claims that were validated were subjected to further reduction, through a process known as cantonnement, in which rights-holders were granted possession of a fraction of a forest in return for being barred from the rest.

As with the 1669 ordinance, the creators of the 1827 Code forestier characterized the project as critical to the nation’s well-being. “We are not afraid to say that the most urgent law for the France of today, for the France of the future, is a forest code,” declared one lawmaker.12 “All the needs of life are linked to this conservation,” added another, “agriculture, architecture, nearly all the industries seek in it essentials and resources which nothing could replace.”13

The code’s authors were right to be concerned. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, France’s forest cover was at its lowest extent, before or since. Without readily accessible coalfields such as existed in England, France remained reliant on wood as its main source of energy and materiel until well into the 1850s. Population growth and rising consumer and industrial demand rendered conservation measures essential. Yet the “needs of life” that the policy makers emphasized were conceived of in extremely limited terms. Focused almost exclusively on naval timber and, later, industrial and urban fuelwood, they not only discounted the forest’s multivalent contributions to the peasant economy, but also ignored its essential ecological functions, the diversity of benefits referred to today as ecosystem services.14 Even as they succeeded in protecting timber trees and afforesting areas denuded by pasturage, the narrowly focused silvicultural mandates of the 1669 ordinance and 1827 code reduced biodiversity, increased trees’ susceptibility to disease through monocultural plantations and uniform felling cycles, and disenfranchised local stakeholders. By transferring forest oversight from the level of the community to the Eaux et Forêts (the Water and Forest Administration), the laws unwittingly engendered subterfuge, conflict, and abuse among inhabitants who had formerly, albeit sometimes grudgingly, contained their extractions within the bounds of custom. Deprived of access to resources that heretofore had been communally governed, the sweeping restrictions of 1669 ordinance and its more forceful successor, the 1827 code, alienated rural inhabitants and gave rise to an every-man-for-himself mentality that, in the long run, caused greater damage than the practices it sought to restrict.

By the 1840s, squeezed by the Forest Code on one side and demographic pressure on the other, woodland villagers lashed out at the most visible sources of their misery. They harassed forest guards, harvested timber out of season and sold it for individual profit, and lit forest fires to distract from their defiance. Those who did not participate in these acts directly turned a blind eye or stayed mum when questioned. As inhabitants’ frustrations intensified, attacks on guards increased. The spring and summer of 1843 marked an exceptional acceleration in the violence. That May, the guard squad of the municipal woods of Doucier, in the department of the Jura, fended off 15 masked attackers. In early June, the field and forest guard of St. Julien was ambushed and nearly lost his life. Two weeks later, four assailants chased, disarmed, and wounded the cantonnement guard of the city of Dole. Finally, on June 23, Sergeant Ruty, a state officer who had been threatened with assassination previously, was found dead in Chaux Forest, killed by a single blow to the head. A day laborer from the village of La Grande Loye, on the southern edge of the woods, was arrested for the crime.15

Image Removed

Credit: City of Besançon. A brochure advertising a daylong festive escort of goats, once condemned in forestland, from the city of Besançon to their upland summer pasture. The poster provides the route and promises attendees drink, picnic lunch, songs, entertainment, and botanical presentations at the end of the route.

This pattern of behavior—disenfranchisement, deprivation, desperation, and violence in response to constraints on customary use and access rights—was not limited to the forests of the Franche-Comté, nor even France as a whole, in the nineteenth century. Rather, it was and still is characteristic of natural resource struggles the world over. As the political scientist Elinor Ostrom and other political ecologists and sociologists have shown, successful long- and short-term management of common-pool resources is contingent on the collective participation and shared responsibility of stakeholders.16,17 In my own work, a longue durée study of the struggles over woodland policy in France from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, I explore how the conflicts were shaped not only by material realities but, more powerfully, by competing political, economic, and ideological outlooks between those who would conceive of forests largely in terms of wood and fuel, and those who relied upon its broader benefits, from leaves and fodder to haute futaie.18

It is all the more ironic, then, in light of its long history of legislative suppression of customary practices and peasants’ violent response, that in recent years the French government has begun actively encouraging the very practices it once reviled, arguing that they are vital to restoring biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and maintaining the forest’s abundant other contributions, both measurable and multitudinous. All over France and indeed all over Europe, traditional silvopastoralism, jardinage (selective system timber felling), and coppicing are being revived for their ecological value as well as their economic potential. In Britain and Switzerland, for example, coppicing for bird and butterfly conservation is expanding, limited only by the procedure’s intense labor demands and the variable market for smallwood.19-21

Likewise, in Besançon, capital of the department of the Doubs and the largest city in the Franche-Comté, goats have been employed in a concerted campaign of socio-ecological enhancement—maintaining and restoring open spaces for biodiversity and human enjoyment—since 2007. Once denounced as a “vagabond race [that] errs everywhere,” these famously voracious bleating beasts now enjoy the endorsement of state environmental agencies and official praise for their efficacy.22,23

Along with silvopastoralism, other traditional activities like charcoal and tar making have also been endorsed and revived. In 2008 the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forest in Europe identified these formerly disparaged practices as key strategies in the economic development and sustainable management of European forests in areas where “fully mechanized timber production” is not possible.24 In this way, goats, shepherds, coppicers, and charcoal burners have come to be rehabilitated both as indispensable agents of ecological repair and as vital contributors to the rural economy.

Interestingly, though based on a vastly different vision of the forest and its benefits, the impetus behind these recent, multi-usage eco-initiatives and the hortatory language used to present them is remarkably similar to the anxious, implicitly apocalyptic rationales of the 1669 ordinance and 1827 Code forestier. The most obvious recent example is the sweepingly ambitious policy project known as Grenelle Environment, a roundtable of state forestry agencies, national and regional environmental offices, nongovernmental environmental organizations, agricultural interests, municipal officials, and scientists commissioned in 2007. The title is a nod to France’s Grenelle meetings of 1968, which brought together workers and students and launched sweeping socioeconomic initiatives. Devoted to “improving” the nation’s environment as a whole, Grenelle Environment’s five-year plan and consequent legislation are focused, like France’s landmark forest laws, on assuring and enhancing the national interest through conservation. Rather than proscribing peasant practices and expanding state power over the unruly, however, the aims of the new legislation, in the words of its sloganeers, are “Forests for conservation, ligneous independence, and biodiversity” and “Produce more wood, while better preserving biodiversity!”25 In this conceptualization, protecting France’s forests is not only a way of achieving timber independence and weaning the nation off of ill-gotten tropical hardwoods (a goal Jean-Baptiste Colbert would have approved), but also a means of promoting sustainable rural economic development and creating carbon sinks to stave off climate change.26

All of these efforts, presented as conservation and biodiversity strategies, economic advocacy, and cost-saving simplifications, emphasize, in the words of a 2009 European Union Green Infrastructure workshop, “the need for healthy ecosystems, not just to halt the loss of biodiversity but also to derive benefits from the valuable services that ecosystems can provide us.”27,28 At the same time, the advocates of the initiatives recognize that their implementation must be inclusive or face the same resistance and resentment that stymied earlier policies. As a member of France’s Ministry of Ecology noted, “At the local level the question will be how to integrate divergent interests in local land-use plans. . . . This is essential because the proposals have to be accepted by local partners if they are to stand any chance of success on the practical level.”29 Two and a half centuries ago, decision making regarding the forest was worked out at the level of the community, founded on custom and the recognition that communal engagement was imperative to effective enforcement. By underscoring the importance of such inclusivity today, the French state has, in essence, affirmed the virtues of custom, collectivity, and cooperation, values that for centuries sustained the viability of the countryside. Governments in other countries, as well as advocates of conservation and environmental protection elsewhere, would do well to consider France’s hard-won historical experience in this regard: after centuries of struggle, the merits of customary usage in maintaining healthy forests and communities are clear, as is the necessity of inclusivity in the exploitation and stewardship of common-pool resources.

Image Removed

The first page from the Forest Ordinance of 1669, taken from a 1670 edition.

The case of the Forêt de Chaux is again illustrative. Still very much a timber-producing woodland today, Chaux has nonetheless been refigured by the enterprising inhabitants ringing its perimeter as an ecotourist destination and “mountain bikers’ paradise,” as one marketing pitch proclaims.30 In addition to annual festivals that celebrate the forest livelihoods of olden times, like woodworking and pit sawing, there are walking tours commemorating the bygone, bloody battles between the forest administration and Chaux Forest’s oppressed and enraged customary users.31,32 These events take place in the communal cantonnements, the more than two dozen forest parcels on the edges of Chaux Forest that villages gained ownership of after a century of tenacious insistence on the legitimacy of their use rights. Reconstituted as peculiar and sensational lore for tourists’ attention, the triumphs and even the traumas of the past—Sergeant Ruty’s death among them—have not been in vain.

These twenty-first-century developments in French forest policy represent a profoundly ironic turn, one whose significance is not lost on its advocates. As President Jacques Chirac noted in a speech in April 2002, “The rural world is today the victim of the policy of land management conducted in latter years, a policy that ignores ruralité for want of understanding its reality.”33 Although this acknowledgement came too late for the Francs-Comtois who repeatedly struggled to defend their ancient firewood, timber, and grazing rights, it nonetheless signals that policy makers have reappraised the one-dimensional, centralized, exclusionary concept of conservation that guided French woodland management from the 1669 ordinance forward. Pushed by a new political-ecological front that emphasizes quality of life over quantity of profit, local endurance over global extraction, and a consideration of forests’ economic value in its many guises, the French state is increasingly acknowledging the value of customary usage as a model of ecologically sound, sustainable resource management that integrates stakeholders in all their variety. To be sure, the idea of woodland customs—coppicing, woodland pasturage, charcoal burning, and more—is easier to discuss than achieve. These days, the inhabitants of villages that once took up arms over the suppression of their forest rights are more likely to pursue sylvan strolls than take up goat herding or participate in the annual firewood allocation. Where traditional practices are implemented, it is generally the work of a conservation group or an individual contracted by the municipality, state, or département. Nonetheless, in the persistence of their claims and the present-day reconsideration of their forebears’ livelihoods, the descendants of the peasantry may, in a modest way, claim that they are the masters of their woods after all.


  1. Archives départementales du Jura (hereafter A.D. Jura) M 28, St. Ouen, Conservateur des forêts, à Thomas, Préfet, 30 June 1843.
  2. A.D. Jura M 25, M 26, and M 27, March 1840–July 1842
  3. Les Eaux et Forêts du 12e au 20e siècle, Histoire de l’administration française 494 (Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris, 1987),.
  4. Archives nationales (hereafter AN) BB30 359 Rapport du procureur général près la Cour d’appel de Besançon, April 1848.
  5. Quoted in French Forest Ordinance of 1669 (Brown, JC, trans) 12 (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1883).
  6. Édit portant règlement général pour les Eaux et Forêts, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 31 août 1669. Edict 571; reprinted in François-André Isambert et al., eds., Receuil général des anciennces lois françaises, depuis l’an 420 jusqu’à la Révolution de 1789. 29 vols (Paris, Belin-Leprieur, 1821-1833), 18: 219-311.
  7. AN Q1 416, Procès-verbaux de la forêt de Chaux, 6 September 1738.
  8. Code forestier, 31 juillet 1827, in Recueil chronologique des réglemens forestiers Vol. 3 (Baudrillart, J-J & Herbin de Halle, PP, eds) 37 (Paris: Arthus Bertrand / Mme Huzard, 1821–35).
  9. Marc, JA. Quelques vues qui pourront servira à la solution de cette question: Quels sont les moyens d’augmenter la production de Bois, et de diminuer leur consommation sans nuire à l’Agriculture ni aux Arts? In Mémoires de la Société d’agriculture, sciences, commerce et arts du département de la Haute-Saône 37 (L’Imprimérie de la Prefecture, Vesoul, 1806).
  10. Code forestier, Art. 61, in J.B. Duvergier, ed., Collection complète des lois [. . .] (Paris: Chez A. Guyot et Scribe, 1834-38) 27: 200.
  11. Pierre Goujon, “Législation et droits d’usage en France dans la premiere moitié du XIXe siècle.” In La Coutume et la lois: Etudes d’un conflit, ed. Claude Journès et al. (Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1986), 15-25.
  12. Ardant, I-P. Projet de code rural et de code forestier 2ème partie, 4 (Testu, Paris, 1819).
  13. Vicomte de Martignac, 29 Dec. 1826, in Archives parlementaires 2ème série, Vol. 49 (Mavidal, J & Laurent, E, eds), 87.
  14. Costanza, R et al. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253–260 (1997).
  15. A.D. Jura M 28 June–July 1843.
  16. Ostrom, E, Allen, J, DuVander, J & Kubiszewski, I. Institutions for managing ecosystem services. Solutions 2, 44–49 (2012).
  17. Gibson, C, McKean, M & Ostrom, E, eds. People and Forests: Communities, Institutions, and Governance (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2000).
  18. Matteson, K. “Masters of their woods”: Conservation, community and conflict in Revolutionary France, 1669–1848 (PhD diss., Yale University, 2008).
  19. Biodiversité en forêt. Canton de Vaud [online] (July 4, 2012).
  20. United Kingdom Forestry Commission. Endangered butterflies at South Lakes landmark boosted by Forestry Commission grant [online] (June 18, 2010).
  21. Booker, J & Tittensor, R. Coppicing for nature conservation: The practical reality. In Ecology and Management of Coppice Woodlands (Buckley, GP, ed) 299–305 (Chapman & Hall, London, 1992).
  22. Regional Conservatory of Natural Areas of Franche Comté (CREN FC). Trame Verte et Bleue en Franche-Comté. Comprendre et Agir pour la Biodiversité (November 2009).
  23. Ville de Besançon. A Besançon, un troupeau de chèvres débrousaille les collines afin de les entretenir et de valoriser leurs intérêts écologiques [online].
  24. Agnoletti, M et al. The introduction of historical and cultural values in the sustainable management of European forests. Document produced for the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forest in Europe (MCPFE). Global Environment 2, 182 (2008).
  25. Office National des Forêts, “Gestion durable des forêts domaniales, produire plus de bois tout en préservant mieux la biodiversity.” Published May 2012. [online].
  26. LOI n° 2009-967 du 3 août 2009 de programmation relative à la mise en œuvre du Grenelle de l’environnement [online].;jsessionid=7B01B9406030F9FD1E46C89…
  27. Ministère de l’Écologie, du Développement durable et de l’Énergie, «La forêt et le changement climatique» 14 décembre 2009 (mis à jour le 10 mars 2011) [online].
  28. Kerstin Sundseth and Aleksandra Sylwester, eds. Towards a Green Infrastructure for Europe: Proceedings of European Commission workshop 25–26 March 2009: Integrating Natura 2000 Sites into the Wider Countryside” [online].
  29. Christian Barthod. Trame verte et bleue TVB. [online].
  30. C’est unique et c’est en Franche-Comté. Découvertes à la carte (Comité régional du tourisme de Franche-Comté, Besançon, 2006).
  31. See, for example, the “Fourg Autrefois” festival, organized by the Accueil Association Gens de Fourg, July 2011 [online].…
  32. “Fête Ruralissimo 2012” organized by the Maison du patrimoine Jurassien.
  33. Discours de M. Jacques Chirac à Ussel sur le développement des territoires ruraux (campagne électorale pour l’élection présidentielle), Ussel, Corrèze, le samedi 13 avril 2002. (Archives de la Présidence de M. Jacques Chirac, 1995–2007).

Tags: forestry management, policy