Shoot Out in the O.K. Corral: Revisiting the Méline Tariff in an Age of Global Trade War

This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.

“Global trade is not a gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” declared French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, after the United States threatened to impose tariffs on the European Union, Mexico, and Canada in May 2018.[1] Though United States President Donald Trump defended the trade policies as essential to American national interest and a victory for American voters, European officials, including Le Maire, prophesized a fruitless battle that would inflict harm and economic loss on all sides. Despite such gloomy projections, officials in the targeted regions responded with swift retaliatory action aimed at US goods, including agricultural products such as pork, orange juice, cranberries, peanut butter, and bourbon, as well as Harley Davidson motorcycles and jeans. The listed consumables are all products of regions that supported Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, and where Republican candidates would be up for reelection in 2018. Though the US and EU have begun to negotiate a détente, the final outcomes of this global “shoot-out” have yet to be determined.

As the first volleys in the current global trade war have shown, trade policies are always about far more than economic concerns and the cost of a single good, whether steel, whisky, or pork. Tariffs are tools of international diplomacy. They are also political mechanisms that prioritize the interests of certain producers and consumers within nations and economic regions. In an anxious age of rising nationalism, protectionist measures are necessarily connected to debates about national identity. Tariff policies reinforce external borders as well as consolidate internal boundaries—formal and informal—that condition inclusion and exclusion within states. In the present day, core industries like the automotive sector and producers such as large-scale farmers receive the lion’s share of attention from politicians and the press, thereby consolidating a hegemonic vision of the economic actors who matter in today’s global economy. Looking closely at the industries and workers whose interests are sidelined or absent from tariff discussions, in contrast, reveals the other side off this process. Above all, it shows the complex ways that tariffs limit economic and social rights and help to reinforce forms of political marginalization, especially among those working on the peripheries of the economy in flexible or secondary labor forces.

The agricultural wage laborers who provide the backbreaking work of picking apples, slaughtering pigs, and processing peanut butter are among those who have received scant attention in this latest trade war. In many ways this lack of notice is not surprising. Agricultural workers are frequently overlooked in discussions of agricultural production, which tend to prioritize small farmers and mechanized agro-industry. Dependent on global foodways and international commodity chains for employment and sustenance, agricultural workers are particularly susceptible to economic fluctuations. Most experience economic precariousness as a matter of fact. Moreover, agricultural laborers tend to work on the fringes of the formal labor sector, enduring poorly regulated and often hazardous work conditions as well as low pay. That many agricultural workers in the United States and the European Union are economic migrants means they receive little political support and protection even in the best of times. These agricultural workers will be the unspoken collateral damage in the current trade war no matter how it ends.

Analyzing how trade policies contribute to the precariousness of secondary labor forces such as agricultural workers, I suggest, can offer important insights into the ways that tariffs act as political tools. Above all, such an examination can reveal how tariffs contribute to the institutionalization and naturalization of certain types of economic inequality that, in turn, justify forms of political exclusion. Given the continued fluctuations of the current trade war, an example from an earlier moment of globalization, may be instructive for reflecting on the present moment. The case study offered here is from France, currently one of the European Union’s leading agricultural producers. In the late nineteenth century, French politicians, industrialists, and farmers claimed that the United States (among other nations) was unfairly profiting from France’s good will and relatively free markets. The Third Republic soon addressed the inequity by imposing high tariffs and restrictions on the import of many foreign goods into France. This set of trade policies, more commonly known as the Méline Tariff, is remembered today as an economic and political turning point for the Third Republic.[2] Rarely recounted, however, are ways that the tariff intensified the political and economic marginalization of agricultural workers, including colonial citizens working in the sugar industries in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Revisiting this history may offer insights into the present, namely how global trade wars define national boundaries at the local level, as well as contribute to the intensification of exclusionary nationalism.


Revisiting the Méline Tariff

Like the current tariff policies advanced by the United States, the Méline Tariff developed in a moment of deep anxiety about globalization, economic instability, and national integrity. Global economic crisis contributed significantly to these concerns. In 1873, the United States and most of Europe descended into the “great depression” of the nineteenth century.[3] France did not experience the recession initially, but by the mid-1880s its effects became abundantly clear. Soon politicians and officials began searching for ways to counter the crisis and protect important economic sectors. Finally, in 1892, the government adopted a new, comprehensive trade policy: the Méline Tariff.

The Méline Tariff, it should be noted, marked a reversal of sorts of French economic policy. At the beginning of the Third Republic, few French industrialists or agriculturalists supported protective measures even though the volume of foreign goods flowing into the country increased steadily over the nineteenth century. With the great depression, however, France’s primary trade partners, particularly the United States, imposed stiff tariffs on French goods and agricultural products while enjoying relatively open access to France’s markets. This perceived attack prompted key agriculturalists and industrialists in France to lobby the government for protective measures that would even the playing field. Farmers of grain, cotton, and beets asked for restrictions on foreign agricultural goods, especially American wheat.  Likewise, industrialists pushed for tariffs on manufactured goods and iron producers lobbied the state to keep out cheap steel from Germany, Eastern Europe, and the United States. Iron and wheat producers eventually united into a politically formidable alliance. Their efforts resulted in the Méline Tariff.[4]

Historians have devoted considerable attention to the Méline Tariff and, above all, its role in stabilizing a politically fractious early Third Republic. This celebratory account, however, tends to downplay the deleterious effects of the legislation on underrepresented segments of the French economy, especially those residing in the colonies. As a form of imperial economic policy, the Méline tariff integrated all the French colonies—even “old” Caribbean colonies that hitherto enjoyed a measure economic autonomy—into the French market and economic zone.[5] Deputy Eugene Étienne, an ardent colonialist who led the campaign to extend the legislation to the colonies, did so on the basis that “it is just and proper that this [colonial] domain be reserved as a market for French products.”[6] In this new era, all French colonies were to accept the tariffs and trade policies imposed by metropolitan France even if they resulted is severe economic disadvantages for the local population. As such, the Méline tariff reinforced the secondary status of colonial products, producers, and above all workers.

The detrimental effects of this legislation were especially clear on the island of Guadeloupe, a former slave colony still dependent on sugar production.[7] In Guadeloupe, the Méline Tariff overturned a policy of free trade that had helped to sustain the island’s main industry.[8]  As such, the legislation threatened the fortunes and status of sugar elites—a small core of white créoles who owned the island’s vast cane fields and sugar factories. Hardest hit, however, were the agricultural workers who labored in these cane fields and factories. Most Guadeloupean workers were descendants of enslaved people who had been emancipated in 1848. At the time, Guadeloupe’s freed slaves had been granted French citizenship and promised the total assimilation of the island into the nation as a department.[9] In 1892, though, the promise of full assimilation had not yet been achieved. As result, Guadeloupean workers of color enjoyed French citizenship, but their status within the nation was precarious and subject to arbitrary restrictions. For them, the Méline tariff, which prioritized the interests of sugar elites over those of workers, was to be economically and politically devastating.


Defending Madras and Cod, Defining Difference

The deleterious effects of the Méline tariff on Guadeloupean workers unfolded over several years. The full history is too complicated to recount here, but an early set of discussions in the conseil général (general council) of Guadeloupe about the tariff provides some sense of the larger structures at play. In 1892, the metropolitan government invited council members, of which sugar elites constituted the majority, to request minor tariff exemptions that would ease the hardships caused by the new trade policy. Though the metropolitan administration refused to accord any concessions to colonial sugar industry, striving to place colonial cane sugar on equal footing with metropolitan-produced beet sugar, it did allow Guadeloupean producers a 50 percent reduction on duties paid by secondary crops, namely coffee, cocoa, and vanilla.[10] In addition, the Republic allowed the conseil général to request tariff reductions and exemptions for essential imports. These exemptions were vital in export-focused Guadeloupe, where few subsistence crops were grown. Guadeloupean elites and workers alike depended on the global economy for basic goods; in the preceding decades the United States and British colonies had supplied most of these needs. The new tariff imposed heavy duties on nearly everything that Guadeloupeans imported—from basic staples like rice and cod to luxury goods like wine and mahogany. The policy thereby affected everyone, but had the most extreme effects on sugar workers who lived hand to mouth even in good times.

Sugar elites used the opening provided by the tariff to reinforce existing social and economic inequalities on the island and to emphasize the supposed cultural gulf that existed between colonial workers and “French” employers. Elites generally drew attention to the distinctive consumption habits of the island’s black working class, who overwhelmingly consumed cheap food and textiles imported from abroad. In calling out these consumptive habits, elites naturalized consumptive and cultural differences and tacitly linked them to racial differences. They did so while eliding the social and economic conditions that structured these forms of consumption. In so doing, white elites solidified their own status within the nation as fully French while simultaneously reinforcing the working population’s colonial status.

The 1892 discussions followed a general pattern. Above all, council members asked the state for exemptions on staple items consumed and used by the popular classes, who one councilor, D.I. Mathivet argued, “already suffer a lot from extreme price increases.”[11] Towards this goal, the council compiled two lists. The first included essential products like cod, sea salt, salted butter, hardtack, and cottonseed oil, which had previously been sourced from the United States or the British Empire. The same goods could be acquired from France but at prohibitive cost. The second contained other consumer goods, like cloth and wine, for which there were French and foreign equivalents. These products were distinguishable by cost as well as quality.

In justifying exemptions for the first list of goods, council members consistently invoked the economic status of Guadeloupean workers. Cod, for example, was described as “working-class food,” hardtack as a product “consumed only by the poor,” and cottonseed oil “the people’s oil.” Yet as the discussion around cloth demonstrated, cost was not the only issue that concerned councilors. They also considered taste. Mathivet, for one, argued that French textiles were “superior in taste and quality but inaccessible to most.” Other council members countered that the brightly colored madras and vandapolam fabrics produced in British India were, in fact, more essential to the working class, since they were “completely” in accordance with “local tastes and needs.”[12]

Indeed, in discussing items like cloth, council members rarely missed the opportunity to contrast working-class consumption habits with their own, more elite and presumably French tastes. In responding to duties imposed on foreign textiles, for example, one member questioned whether the colony “already so miserable, could support such a surcharge for the sole satisfaction of the Rouennais?” We must,” he argued, “protest these duties in the name of the people… it is not possible to make the miserable, who wear only zinga (an imported cloth), to support such exorbitant taxes.”[13] Elites, who were likely to purchase French fabrics for their own use, would compensate for these lost sales. Sugar factory owner Ernest Souques offered a similar argument regarding the French metallurgical industry.  The colony did its patriotic duty, he argued, because “all of our machines, all our manufacturing equipment, come from France.” He therefore saw no reason to sacrifice the colony’s working poor to this well-supported industry. “Galvanized cloth imported from abroad is indispensible for roofing of the houses of the poor,” he stated, “It is not us who created this situation, but the cheapness of this kind of covering.” For this reason he rejected the proposed tariff, arguing that “all products with a working-class consumer base should be free from duties; it will allow them to live more easily, and in this miserable land all situations must be taken into account.”[14] In contrast, council members unhesitatingly accepted tariffs on foreign wines, arguing that, “our wines come from France. Our French tastes prefer them. We would not think of refusing French wines, which were so recently afflicted [by phylloxera], the little protection that we could give them.”[15] It went without saying that Guadeloupean workers were not expected to purchase wine, French or otherwise.

As a whole, the discussions about tariff exemptions for the Méline Tariff in the conseil général of Guadeloupe revealed the ways that economic elites in an earlier period of protectionism positioned their own interests in relation to those of their agricultural workforce. Though white colonial elites claimed to speak on behalf of needy employees, their arguments also solidified their social status and economic interests within the nation at the expense of the island’s black worker-citizens. White elites routinely noted their own consumption habits (and lack of a need for exemptions for them), thereby reinforcing their status as French citizens. At the same time, elites drew attention to the distinctive consumption habits of the black working class, marking them as different and not-quite French, thereby undermining claims for the full assimilation for workers of color. Most importantly, Guadeloupean sugar elites used claims about cultural difference to advance their own economic agenda. The standardization of local needs undertaken by the conseil général in these discussions reinforced a relatively poor living standard among the colony’s agricultural workers. This, in turn, allowed employers to maintain low wages. As such, the discussions over the Méline Tariff enabled local elites to articulate and solidify conceptions of cultural difference that justified and reinforced deeper social and economic inequalities and the exploitative structures that drove them.

Though the metropolitan government accorded some of the exemptions requested by the conseil général, the concessions ultimately did little to soften the overall effect of the Méline Tariff in Guadeloupe. On the island, the cost of living rose dramatically for most workers. At the same time, sugar elites decreased wages, arguing that labor costs were the only way they could keep the sugar industry afloat in the new economic order. When Guadeloupean sugar workers eventually attempted to use their rights as citizens to mobilize and strike against these economic conditions, sugar elites invoked the idea that colonial sugar was a “nationally important” industry. These claims helped them to win official help in dismantling worker unions and outlawing strikes. The Méline Tariff thus provided Guadeloupean sugar elites a powerful set of political, economic, and discursive tools to institutionalize new forms of economic precariousness, forms of labor discipline, and political marginalization.



Guadeloupean worker-citizens ranked among the collateral damage of an earlier trade war that arose out of a moment of anxiety about globalization and economic dependency on international markets. Yet, I would argue, the worst effects of the Méline Tariff were not accidental, but the deliberate actions of sugar elites and colonial officials who used the language of national importance and cultural affinity to advance an economic and political agenda that undermined the rights of colonial workers of color and consolidated their status as a low-paid workforce. There are, to be sure, important differences between this earlier historical moment and the current one. Still, I think, the Guadeloupean example can be instructive for thinking about the complex ways that tariff policies contribute to and reinforce economic inequalities within and across borders. This perspective is particularly important in a moment when immigration based on economic need is under attack in the United States and Europe. In the current debates, claims about cultural difference including habits and tastes born of poverty are used to deny many migrants permanent entry that might carry political rights. At the same time key economic sectors, including American and European agriculture, remain dependent on migrant labor to perform basic jobs. Lacking legal rights and formal status, these low-paid and largely invisible workers ensure the annual harvest and affordable food prices in the United States and the European Union that, in turn, justify low wages for all workers. It is thus worth thinking broadly about the potential economic and political consequences of this current trade war whose bullets are likely to stray far beyond the confines of the O.K. Corral.


Elizabeth Heath is associate professor of history at Baruch College-The City of New York. She is currently working on a new project entitled Everyday Colonialism, Everyday Capitalism: Commodities of Empire and the Making of Modern French Self, 1750-1950, which explores the role of empire in the rise of modern French capitalism.

Photo: French minister of economy, Bruno Le Maire talks to media as he arrives in Eurogroup finance ministers meeting at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium on May 24, 2018 | Shutterstock



[1] “White House to Impose Metal Tariffs on E.U., Canada, and Mexico,” New York Times, May 31, 2018.

[2] The tariff was named after Jules Méline, the Prime Minister of France at the time. He had previously been the Minister of Agriculture (1883-1885).

[3] Except, most notably, England. See Peter Gourevitch, Politics in Hard Times: Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1986.

[4] See Eugene Golob, The Méline Tariff: French Agriculture and Nationalist Economic Policy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944 and Herman Lebovics, The Alliance of Iron and Wheat in the Third French Republic, 1890-1914: Origins of the New Conservatism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988

[5] The “old” colonies, or vieilles colonies, were those colonies that France retained from the first wave of imperialism in the early modern period. They included, among others, the sugar colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion.

[6] Arthur Girault, Principes de colonisation et de législation coloniale, t. 3. Notions économiques, deuxième partie les colonies françaises depuis 1815. 5th Edition. Paris: Libraire du Receuil Sirey, 1930, 7; Arthur Girault, The Colonial Tariff Policy of France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916, 84; Lebovics, Alliance of Iron and Wheat, chapter six. On debates on tariff assimilation and colonial assimilation, see Stuart Persell, The French Colonial Lobby. Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1983.

[7] On the longer history of Guadeloupe see Henri Bangou, La Guadeloupe. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1987.

[8] During the Second Empire, Napoleon III promoted a liberal trade policy that allowed the colonies—or at least the “old” colonies—broad control over foreign trade, duties, and wharfage fees. The Méline tariff eliminated these privileges.

[9] For a fuller account see Elizabeth Heath, Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France: Global Economic Crisis and the Racialization of French Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[10] Crops that could not be produced in France, and thus posed no threat to metropolitan producers  Girault, Principes, 9-10 and 16 and Conseil général, session extraordinaire. Extrait du procès-verbal (1892), 18.

[11] Conseil général, session extraordinaire. Extrait du procès-verbal (1892), 76.

[12] Conseil général, session extraordinaire. Extrait du procès-verbal (1892), 77.

[13] Conseil général, session extraordinaire. Extrait du procès-verbal (1892), 45.

[14] Conseil général, session extraordinaire. Extrait du procès-verbal (1892), 45.

[15] Conseil général, session extraordinaire. Extrait du procès-verbal (1892), 47.


Published on September 5, 2018.


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