Antoine Beyer, lecturer at the Paris-Sorbonne University and associate researcher at IFSTTAR, presents an overview of the history of French waterways from a geographical and historical perspective.

The article, published in the journal of the French Ministries of the Environment, Energy and the Sea in 2016, uses Fernand Braudel’s prism of the long term to analyse the structural continuities and evolutions of France’s waterways, highlighting the multiple historical legacies that give the network its heterogeneous character.

French waterways

French waterways?

Here is a brief summary of the subjects covered in this geo-historical article on French waterways.

Periods and Territorial Models

Antoine Beyer identifies 6 major historical periods corresponding to different territorial models for the management and use of French waterways:

phases in the development of waterways in France, Antoine Beyer
Figure 2: Major phases in the development of inland waterways in France (extract)

The unitary logic of river basins (until the 17th century)

  • River basins played a crucial role in the economic exchanges of pre-modern France, structuring regional communities of interest without forming political entities. Navigation practices varied greatly from region to region, influencing urban geography and trade.

The interconnection of basins and the project to build territorial unity (17th and 18th centuries)

  • With the advent of connecting canals and water divides, waterways began to transcend local boundaries. Ambitious projects such as the Briare Canal and the Canal du Midi symbolise this period of territorial integration, encouraged by state centralisation and technical and legal advances.

Networking and the emergence of the national market (First 19th century)

  • The Restoration period and the Becquey plan of 1820 marked a turning point, with the systematisation of major public works aimed at creating a network of waterways integrated into the national market. The State became directly involved in financing and managing the infrastructure after private initiatives had failed.

Structural competition from the railways (1850 – 1950)

  • The advent of the railways in the mid-19th century turned river transport on its head. Fierce competition with the railways, which offered faster and more ubiquitous transport, temporarily marginalised inland navigation. However, public policies such as the Freycinet plan of 1877 sought to redress the balance by modernising river infrastructures.

An unfinished network (1950 – 2000)

  • After the Second World War, river developments were designed to be regional rather than national in scope, often linked to maritime and industrial outlets. Ambitious projects were partially completed, but the network was still marked by a degree of incompleteness and undersized or obsolete infrastructure.

The European recovery (1960 – 2030)

  • Since the 1970s, waterways have been in relative decline, exacerbated by economic change and the rise of other modes of transport. However, recent initiatives, notably the creation of Voies Navigables de France (VNF) in 1991 and European projects such as the Seine-Nord Canal, aim to revitalise river transport and integrate it into a trans-European network.

Geographical and technical aspects

Antoine Beyer emphasises the importance of infrastructure in shaping territorial and economic structures. The various phases in the development of waterways were accompanied by technical innovations and varied public policies, reflecting the economic and political priorities of each period.

  • River basins and interface capitals
    Each major river basin has interface capitals, such as Bordeaux/Toulouse, Marseille/Lyon and Rouen/Paris, which play a central role in trade and logistics.
  • Cartography and planning
    Attempts at systematic cartography in the 18th century, notably by Philippe Buache, illustrate the growing importance of the geography of river basins in the organisation of the territory.

Beyer’s analysis enables us to understand the evolution of French waterways as a succession of distinct territorial systems, each characterised by a specific combination of technical potential, political horizon and economic reality. This historical perspective highlights the continuities and ruptures in the development of river infrastructures, providing an in-depth understanding of the current and future challenges facing river transport in France.

Milestones in the history of French waterways

Along the Rhône