Jean-Antoine Chaptal, a trained chemist, former French Minister of the Interior who went on to become the President of the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale (French Society for the Promotion of National Industry), had great influence on Napoleon, the 1st sugar beet Decree, dated 21 March 1811, through which the Emperor ordered 32,000 hectares of sugar beet to be planted.
When Napoleon's advisor took him to visit the sugar mill in Passy, Napoleon immediately understood that what he could see would provide him with a strategic advantage in his economic struggle against England as well as in terms of food resources. On 15 January, he decided that 100,000 hectares should be planted. A decision that also included grants for students who intended to work in the sugar production profession as well as 500 permits for the construction of new sugar mills and a range of incentive tax measures.
It was the day that Napoleon made beet sugar "a new source of wealth for France". When visiting the Passy sugar mill, the Emperor honoured the botanist Benjamin Delessert and signed the symbolic birth certificate for an agri-industrial sector that would be strategic for the country. 200 years later, France held the strong position as world leader in beet sugar production.
A special day: "We must go and see this. Let's go!" Saying this, the Emperor, who was replying to an invitation from Count Chaptal, departed on the morning of 2 January 1812 for the village of Passy to visit the beet sugar plant established by Mr Benjamin Delessert. Here, he took great interest in discovering the cylinders that grated the beet, the copper cauldrons used for cooking and for concentrating the sugar, and the conical-shaped moulds which slowly let sugar drip through their bottom tips to create loaves. "A great revolution for French trade is consummated", stated the Moniteur Universel (French newspaper) the following day.
Benjamin Delessert presented these sugar loaves that had been produced on site to the Emperor, the result of several years of relentless research, undertaken with his chief engineer, Jean-Baptiste Quéruel. In 1801, Benjamin Delessert had transformed a former cotton mill into a cane sugar mill. However, due to the combined effect of the continental blockade and the proclamation of independence by the French colony of Santo Domingo, raw cane sugar provisioning had petered out. France, and more broadly Europe, were now living under the threat of scarcity of one of the resources of basic foodstuffs.
Innovation based on old discoveries: To provide his industrial facilities with a new market and to participate in the necessary efforts towards the independence of France's sugar industry, Delessert and Quéruel focused on pioneering work, in particular that of Franz Carl Achard (1753-1821), who created the first beet sugar production plant, in Silesia, in 1801. They succeeded in creating a process, which could be used on an industrial scale, combined with a decisive technological development: crystallize sugar to obtain a dry matter that could be easily broken in pieces, rather than producing a cooked mass that was sometimes malleable, as it was soaked in syrup, and sometimes extremely hard and difficult to use. A Bulletin des Arts et Métiers (Civil Engineering and Trade Journal), in 1812, declared how important this innovation was and confirmed that the Quéruel-Delessert team was the first to have discovered how to "seed sugar".
The start of industrialization: Although many initiatives had been implemented before, in France and throughout Europe, to develop beet sugar extraction techniques, this package of measures marked the start of the age of industrial production for the country. Likewise, the Emperor's visit to Benjamin Delessert remains a symbolic date, to this day, engraved in the history of France's sugar industry.
* Le Grand livre du sucre, A.Perrier-Robert, MP Bernardin, Published by Solar, 1999
In practice, it would take until the 1830s for the French beet sugar sector to really begin to grow. But it is clear that, on 2 January 1812, the Emperor had got it right. Understanding that science had just created new-found wealth for France, he paved the way for a local resource, where farmers and industrialists worked closely together. Over the decades, France would become the world's leading beet sugar producer and would Europe's top sugar producer. Two hundred years on from its "imperial baptism", France's sugar sector strongly maintains these positions.