Scholars have argued for the importance of industrial accidents and urban precarity in laying the groundwork for the European welfare state in nineteenth-century France. Given the central role that farming played in French economic, political, and cultural life, however, agricultural insurance was among the first and most frequently debated aspects of nineteenth-century attempts to apply insurance to the “social question.” This article explores what François Ewald has termed the “insurantial imaginary” of agricultural insurance by examining debates about which threats could or should be insured and who should insure them. Despite widespread consensus on the virtues of expanding insurance into the countryside, there remained huge areas of disagreement: What counted as an insurable risk in agriculture? How should that risk be assessed? And whose responsibility was it to insure such risks—that of private individuals or the French state? This article argues that the repeated failures of the various proposals designed to protect peasants against the vagaries of nature had as much to do with practical impediments as they did with ideas about the “naturalness” of certain dangers. This perception of the “natural” would inform the construction of the French welfare state.

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