Obituary: Rene Sedillot

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RENE SEDILLOT spent his professional life in newspapers.

Immediately after he had completed his education, most of which took place in Paris (although he was born in Orleans), he started to work for the financial press. A graduate of the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques and the Law Faculty, in 1928 he joined L'Information Boursiere.

This was a particularly interesting time for the press which covered the various movements and functions of investments. Speculation was rife, as when a whole group of financial newspapers fell under the control of the mysterious Marthe Hanau, when the notorious Stavisky bribed many financial journals to ensure support for his schemes, or when certain groups established a monopoly for the supply of matches in France.

Sedillot was particularly concerned with maintaining the independence of L'Information Boursiere when he became the secretary of the editorial board. He also became prominent in the union of journalists working in the economic and financial press, who were naturally concerned with the very special conditions that frequently prevailed. They wanted to know if the owner or editor of their paper had been bribed by some speculator to print a certain piece of information, as they wanted to know whether a publication for which they were working had been created only to fulfil a certain purpose for a particular financial venture, in which case it would only last for a few months.

Sedillot continued this work until events brought an end to his paper in 1940. In 1945 he became the editor of a new weekly publication, La Vie francaise, which later changed its name to La Vie financiere. It published accounts of the meetings held by companies which were listed on the French Bourse (stock exchange) and was an essential investment for the French investor. Sedillot became the director of the publication and after his retirement in 1977 he became an official adviser.

Thus he had a long and distinguished career in the newspaper business. Yet if one asked Sedillot what was his profession, or if he were asked to describe himself, he would state that he was a historian. He published more than 25 books in all. They invariably concentrated on economic history and they were all of an encyclopaedic nature.

His history of colonisation (published in 1958) began with references to early migrations and invasions before considering the Egyptians, the Cretans and the Carthaginians, and then moving on through time some 600 pages to the post-war de-colonisations of the 1950s.

This concentration on facts was what one would expect from someone whose daily preoccupation was with the statistics of stock exchanges. It is true that Sedillot liked to produce facts in his newspaper (in 1985 for example one can read that the Elysee employed 684 people, cost the French nation 38,000 francs a day and consumed more port than beef). It is also true that he liked to discover facts about subjects which everyone knew in a dispersed, fragmented sort of way. Thus he wrote about the history of black markets and about the history of inflation. One of his earliest and most successful books was translated into English. This was A Bird's Eye View of World History (1951).

But often his books set out to illustrate a particular point of view, often one that had been lost sight of by eminent historians who concerned themselves with higher things. The most famous of such writings was Sedillot's book on the cost of the French Revolution, published on the eve of the bicentenary celebrations, Le Cout de la Revolution Francaise (1987).

Here the author set out to estimate the double-bill of the Revolution and the Empire. There is the demographic picture, with 600,000 (he claimed) dying in the Civil War in Vendee alone. By the end of the Revolution there are perhaps a million dead, with another million to die in the Napoleonic wars, and Sedillot sets out to be more precise about these figures.

In successive chapters he turns to agriculture, industry, trade, finance and social life. In these years of upheaval, he finds the prosperous France of the 18th century, the rival of Great Britain, in a sad decline.

There were historians who disapproved of this book. They claimed that it consisted of a series of drawers, opened one after the other, to display facts, without any attempt at linking them together in some narrative. But Sedillot's presentation seemed to many to contain a much-needed appraisal of the appalling nature of the Revolution. It was awarded both the Independent Intellectuals prize and the Renaissance prize for books on the economy.

Sedillot's books earned him the honour of being five times laureate of the Academie Francaise.

Rene Sedillot, historian and journalist: born Orleans, France 2 November 1906; married (one son, one daughter); died Paris 21 October 1999.