One of the defining characteristics of the French Third Republic (1870-1940) is a lengthy transition from purposefully weak parliamentary groups to organized parties. Much of the comparative literature explaining political development in 19th century Europe focuses on changes in electoral geography – namely franchise expansion or industrialization – but France was distinctly missing such “bottom up” electoral pressures. Yet an agricultural crisis in France provides a natural experiment by which to study how changes in electoral geography spur local competition. I use an instrumental variable research design to exploit an exogenous shock to local population, in the form of the phylloxera wine blight in the 1860s, to study how urbanization increased electoral competition and mobilization via political associations. Exposure to the wine blight increased the population of the chief town, and its population growth rate years later. As a result, I find that urbanizing departments were more likely to have competitive races and elect more middle class deputies; they were also more likely to see the formation of the first ever political associations. However, this paper also provides insight into the ‘dark side’ of social capital, by finding evidence to suggest that without the presence of competing groups, these associations (and thus local competition) had the potential to be captured by notables.
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