In his book, The French Oil Industry and Corpes de Mines in Africa, Douglas Yates speaks to an interesting and important trend taking place in Africa. The French oil industry has long been strong and prosperous in Africa, but Yates takes a hard look at how it got to be that way. With the French being such a powerhouse in that area, it figures that there are stories of its beginning and there are even more stories about the ingenuity that helped the French take hold. Yates is well equipped to conduct a study of this nature, given his background.
As a political scientist at a prestigious university in France, Yates is fully immersed in French culture. He has the background knowledge of French politics and that gives him an opportunity to explore some of the ways in which the French have interacted with Africans over the years. Additionally, he spent many years studying the oil industry in Gabon, even helping to pen two books on the subject. This understanding of both oil and the government of France allows the author a unique perspective, though it is quite obviously a one-sided perspective.
The work takes a look at the oil situation from the viewpoint of the French and that tends to leave out some of the stories that might have been much more negative about the undertakings of the French. Still, the author has the understanding to shed light on the topic, and he does that well through the course of the work, often leaning on his own experiences to fill in gaps where they exist. This work is an interesting one for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with its structure and the way evidence is presented.
The book is set up much like a typical biography, with the one difference being that it tells the story of an entire industry and an entire nation. The author paints the picture of the French oil industry in Africa as a living, breathing idea that has been modified over the course of history. This work, then, becomes its biography. He starts at the very beginning, laying the framework for the reader to understand. In doing this, the author gives the reader a better way to recognize how things like TOTAL came about many years later.
The author tells the story of the industry’s development, noting the fact that oil in France has not always been such a sophisticated, technological industry. Instead, it was something that started with modest, meager beginnings. The individuals who first began drilling for oil did so in the Middle East and the firms were mostly family-oriented. Things have changed a great deal over the course of time, and that is something that the author makes mention of on a number of occasions. Though it may have started out very slowly, the French oil industry developed into something of a technological powerhouse.
The author takes the time to answer the most important historical questions of who, what, when, where, and why? Though these things form the basis for the early part of the work, the rest of the book digs much deeper into “how”? He sets out to explain how this family-oriented business grew into a national powerhouse, and he charts the reasons why this might have been the case at the time. In this book, Yates primarily traces the rise and development of “state” engineers, who were much different from the oil men of old.
These state-trained engineers were more like machines, and their level of knowledge was something that could not be ignored by those who knew the oil industry. In tracing the development of these individuals, the author also traces the state’s involvement. This is where the book truly succeeds, offering a deep, complex view of how the oil industry was developed and how it impacted the development of French policy. Though the story primarily focuses on the individuals in play, the author does much to make sure that French interests are well represented, outlining the ways in which French leaders relied upon the oil industry in Africa.
He focuses on the ways in which these people came to be educated, noting especially their training at the Ecole Polytechnique. This is where the framework for the French oil dynasty was developed and established. In way, this work is one that reflects larger market trends, noting that the domination and cultivation of an industry starts at the most basic levels. In order to take control of the oil industry, the French administration understood that it needed skilled people who had experience in the field.
The French government arranged for these individuals to get training at their most developed institute, and that allowed France as a whole to develop new oil techniques and refine their capabilities. Industry then had a chance to grow and the French had a chance to be competitive in the expanding field of oil in Africa. Their processes were constantly monitored and improvements were made when it was deemed necessary. Overall, the French became more efficient as a direct result of these efforts, leaving them in complete control of an industry with much competition at that time in African history.
The author starts with how these engineers are trained, but he traces their story much farther than that. They became a much more important entity than just some oil-minded engineers. In addition, they were the Corps de Mines, an elite administrative force within France, pushing forward the oil efforts throughout North and Central Africa. In this, the book combines many different aspects of political and historical study. It looks hard at the pure history of the matter, asking the important questions of who did it and where did they do it?
It is also a corporate study, though, providing a critique on an entire industry, and one that was growing by leaps and bounds. Finally, the author’s roots in political science come out in this book, as the reader can clearly tell he is taking an interest in the political organization of the Corps de Mines. This is an important, elite unit that is charged with moving an entire country’s effort forward. They are given new levels of control, which could have been a disaster if not for the unique way in which the Corps operated. This is what is truly at the heart of the story.
The author speaks to the interest challenges faced by these individuals, and he focuses even more on how they handled those challenges. Remarking on interesting dialogue between Corps members and recalling stories of decision-making processes, he paints the perfect picture of what France was looking for with its widespread involvement in the oil industry. This is why the work is a highly interesting, highly entertaining viewpoint on the changing nature of society at large. Few things remain the same, and the French were smart enough to be on the cutting edge of an industry at the exact time it was needed.
The author seems somewhat impressed by this, and his work is comprehensive enough to encapsulate all of the necessary dialogue. In coming to his conclusions about the domination of groups like TOTAL and ELF, the author takes on an interesting viewpoint. One of the things that makes this work such a good one is that it happens from a personal perspective of the men involved. Though Yates certainly has the credentials to do some opining on the subject, he holds off from that. He seems to have a keen understanding of what is at the heart of the story, and he lets those characters do the majority of the talking.
What he does is develop a viewpoint of the collective individuals who made up the “state engineer” unit in France at the time. By collecting their stories, the author is better able to represent their viewpoints to people who are trying to understand. This brings the reader a look at the oil industry from the inside, which is what this truly attempts to do. The author is successful in that, and it adds something more personal to a large, complicated industry. Most people know the oil industry as a monster, but he paints it as just the result of hard work and smart planning by many people in the French government and beyond.
While this viewpoint is beneficial in many ways, it does provide a bit of an unbalanced look, which is a weakness of the work. Though the viewpoint from the French perspective is a huge part of what makes this book meaningful, it does leave the book open to certain criticisms about balance. The oil industry in Africa was one that impacted a host of different peoples all throughout the African continent. Their stories on what took place during those times would likely have been much different in nature, and the author only leans on the French views of what took place to build a view of history.
If the work sought to be a true historical viewpoint, then it would need a bit more balance. Still, the fact that it acts primarily as a business profile and a political commentary makes the French viewpoint a good and meaningful choice for the author to use. One thing that makes this book successful is the use a number of different sources by the author. Not only does he use many sources; he uses many different types of source material. This provides a balanced work that takes on both empirical data, as well as anecdotal evidence to paint a complete picture.
All too often, authors fall into the trap of just using stories from witnesses and second hand information. This author wants something more than that, which is why he puts out the amount of research that he does. The author’s special access to a number of French sources helps him accomplish his goals, as his work at the American University in Paris provides this. Not only does he use the public libraries there, but he also has access to private collections, meaning that he can pour through mounds of data prior to writing the book. The author adds to the knowledge base of this subject by conducing actual interviews with the oilmen involved.
This helps to paint the picture of what the organizational structure might have been like, and it helps the work on a number of different levels. It adds legitimacy to the work by presenting information in a complete manner. On top of that, the author actually goes to the scene of many of the things he is writing about. By visiting the locations, both in Africa and around France, he is able to gain a better understanding of what took place through the development of time. Overall, this creates a book that is thoroughly researched and especially well rounded.
As a professor, it figures that the author would be especially thorough with his work, and that has come to fruition throughout. Without the source material, this book would have been lacking. With it, readers are able to gain a clear understanding of what took and why it took place. The oil industry leaders give their opinions on why things might have changed the way they did, and they give their honest takes on why the French government wanted to get into the oil industry so much. As things began to grow and opportunities became more apparent, the French government knew that it was time to do something.
They did so, and the author gets to the people who made that possible in France and in Africa. He presents this to the reader in a format that is quite easy to read and understand, tracing things chronologically and leaning on evidence when all else fails. Everything that he writes is backed up by this data, which makes this work especially meaningful from an academic standpoint. Overall, this is a book that is worth the read for any person who seeks to learn more about French history or the development of the global oil industry.
It is meaningful because it fills a large hole in the knowledge base about how and why the French developed their own approach to procuring oil. The French were interesting and innovative in their approach, and this is something that can be applied to a number of different fields. In this, one can see the value of Yates’s study. His unique position and his perspectives were equally important in shaping the story, and the author did an excellent job of removing himself except when absolutely necessary.
He was able to help the reader understand certain things at times by adding his own expertise, but he mostly let the interesting story speak for itself. The author set out to explain how a phenomenon came to be, and he set out to provide background information on a fascinating event in business history. The book accomplished those goals in grand fashion, providing something that was both informative and interesting for those reading. This is often a major challenge for historical and political writers, but the author is able to provide this type of work with ease.
In the end, a greater understanding of the French oilmen’s involvement in Africa is gained, and readers leave with a sense of fulfillment. Because this work is multi-faceted, it also presents the business side of the coin, noting how business people can take advantage of growing markets by using new, inventive techniques. Africa, at the time of the French oil development, was a gold mine for oil opportunity. The French were not afraid of some of the challenges that might have stood in the way of their goals, and they were dedicated to implementing a sophisticated approach.
They prepared well for the opportunities at hand, and many of the state-based and private companies were rewarded with healthy stakes in a booming business. The book is one that should most certainly be included in future class discussions, based upon both its academic value and the interesting nature of the read. This is something that could promote interest in further reading about the oil industry, just based upon the fascinating nature of the interactions between different oil engineers and the complicated nature of the French government’s role in the development of the African oil industry.