So much beauty out there

January 3, 2009

Gender, Race and Employment

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:10 pm

Index

Before the war, a substantial number of women and foreigners had paid employment in the French economy. Foreign workers were almost exclusively European, and were largely considered as just a slightly cheaper, slightly inferior, alternative to French male manual labour. The value of non-white labour was considered negligible, on the rare occasions that it was considered at all. By contrast, women were extensively utilised but this employment was restricted to certain sectors, considered suited to their unique abilities.

 

The two primary areas of female employment before the war were domestic service and textile and clothes production. The war saw women having to take on a wide range of other jobs, often ones that would have been inconceivable for them in peacetime. In general, women were felt to have dealt adequately with these jobs and they were often praised for their efforts in keeping the economy going throughout the war. However, the prevailing ideas of how women could and should be employed remained strongly in place, despite the challenge created by different female working practices. These ideas included: a belief that women workers should always be below male workers in the hierarchy of any place of employment; that women’s skills largely came naturally to them while men could be trained in a variety of skills; and that women’s work outside the home was always likely to be better, the closer it came to replicating the work they did inside the home. When women were considered to have excelled in any area of employment during the war, then that work would be defined as one in keeping with traditional female skills. Where this was not possible, it was usually argued that women had made a brave effort to act as an adequate stop-gap while men were unavailable, but that in the long-term they would be unable to carry out work for which they were unsuited and that they would return to their traditional roles. 

Laura Downs’s study of the metallurgy industry is instructive. Comparing the British and French war experience, she concludes that there was a very similar response. The war brought about an industrial reorganisation, the development of new techniques, and changes in the work force; introducing a new, sexual division into the workplace. However, although hierarchies were restructured, tasks were still assigned on the basis of male/female difference. 

Il en résulta une inégalité structurale, considérée à la fois comme inévitable et économiquement rationnelle, inscrite dans le marbre des différences “naturelles” et exprimée dans le langage des qualifications, désormais sexué.

In both countries, employers tried to define three areas accessible to women. Unskilled work, where women worked alongside young boys; semi-skilled work on a machine or an assembly line, where the majority of work was undertaken by women; and finally skilled work. The first two were uncontroversial; it was only skilled work that saw male opposition and “la capacité (et le droit) des femmes à accomplir ce travail était vivement discuté.” The opposition of male workers was only aroused when employment in relatively highly paid or high status work was at stake. The debate remained muted by the limited number of skilled female workers around. 

The aptitude showed by the female workforce at the repetitive, but often intricate work of assembly or in the operation of machinery was easily assimilated into prevailing images of womanhood. In 1918, G. Rageot wrote in La Française dans la guerre 

Les machines qu’elles dirigent travaillent comme celles des hommes, mais d’un rythme plus régulier, semble-t-il plus continu, à cause de la douceur de leur mouvements et de leur vigilance. Il reste de la ménagère dans la tournesse d’obus et les femmes font de la métallurgie comme du tricot. 

There was much wishful thinking in this analogy, but nevertheless it correlates closely with the divisions made within the factory. During “… la guerre, des ouvriers des deux sexes étaient parfois retirés des postes répétitifs et promus dans l’atelier d’outillage, pour un travail polyvalent.” After the war the division between repetitive work (feminine) and multi skilled work (masculine) was affirmed. 

De fait, dans le débat sur les qualifications qui s’installe après 1916, la distinction entre polyvalence et savoir-faire répétitif était devenue un fossé infranchissable: les qualités ‘intrinsèques’ exigées par l’une sont tenues pour incompatibles avec celles que demande l’autre.

 Downs gives several examples of how roles in the workforce were assigned on the basis of perceived gender roles “L’agitation permanente de l’homme – précisément les qualités qui faisaient de certains hommes de bons mécaniciens qualifiés – faisaient obstacle à la capacité des moins qualifiés à exécuter convenablement les travaux répétitifs.” Thus employers preferred women for unskilled tasks.[5] Pierre Hamp, an inspecteur de travail believed that the view of employers could be summed up thus: 

Elle vérifie bien ce qui a toujours la même forme, où il suffit d’une répétition du regard, non d’une recherche. C’est la maille du crochet et de dentelle. Mais il ne faut pas demander à la femme un vigilance impromptue; elle parallélise, elle compare, elle n’invente pas.

 A gear making plant in Laon reported on the advantages that they found in employing women, who were “especially appreciated for their passivity and their dexterity in executing small motions”. They noted also that when there were pauses in work, it was not unusual to see the women knitting, demonstrating their continued feminity.Employers also noted the inability of women to deal with breakdowns in machinery. In male unskilled or semi-skilled workers this was simply seen as due to a lack of practical knowledge. In women it was considered a symptom of feminine “passivité”.  Georges Calmès reassured skilled men that

Mechanics who are worthy of the name … who possess a love of craft and a taste for finished work demanding knowledge, intelligence, and some technical capacity – will never see a competitor in the woman lathe operator. That would be absurd.

 The similarity of these judgements to those made in the pre-war period is striking and testifies to both the continuity and the adaptability of patriarchal discourse towards working women. In an essay that won a prize from the Académie Française in 1905, Le Mensonge du féminisme, Theodore Joran argued “Routine ton nom est femme; progrès, ton sexe est masculin. Five years later Emile Faguet asserted that “L’immense majorité des professions civiles sont des routines que peuvent apprendre en quelques années les plus médiocres cerveaux féminins”. However he considered that women would never have the genius for intellectual activities.

Some ideological adjustments had to be made. A French adage of the 19th century, “A l’homme les bois et les métaux, à la femme la famille et les tissus” would have seemed outdated, and the exigencies of the war did see some blurring of the boundaries. Nevertheless those boundaries were not seriously threatened, and were reasserted with some ease after the armistice. 

A la fin de la guerre, la distinction des types de travail était devenue une distinction ancrée dans les personnes elles-mêmes. Les femmes non qualifiées étaient définies comme “des manœuvres d’une qualité un peu plus délicate”.

Employers applied this distinction by giving unskilled women and men completely different roles in the production process.  Downs stresses that this division was not a calculated plan by employers, but rather an application of their accepted ideas of sexual difference to the transformation of the technologies of the factory. This chapter will show that the durability of this thinking was not unique to the metalworking industry.

Attitudes to foreign labour had some similarities to views of female labour. The level of skills that foreign workers were believed to have varied depending on where they were from, with European workers considered to be much more skilled than non-white workers. What remained constant was that no foreign workers were considered to have the technical skill of French workers. An article in La Bataille Syndicaliste dismissed Kabyle, Chinese and Annamite labour as “inept and mediocre.” The Alliance National pour l’Accroissement de la Population Française was even more dismissive.

After having been flooded during the war with Kabyle street sweepers, Annamese stokers, Negro dockers, and Chinese labourers, whom we had to import because it was the best we could get, we were forced to send the majority of these worthless immigrants back to their faraway homelands. They were more disposed to pillage and thievery than serious labour. The re-establishment of the peace has permitted us to replace these ‘undesirables’ with our usual immigrants, the Italians and the Spaniards.

It was also believed that foreign workers needed to be supervised by, and subservient to, French employees in order to work effectively.

Unlike women, foreign workers were not believed to be better suited to certain tasks than male French workers; they were always considered to be a makeshift substitute for French labour, sometimes competent, sometimes not. While this idea had not prevented European immigrant labour arriving in France before the war, it had contributed to the absence of significant non-white immigration until the war made recourse to colonial labour essential. The other dominant idea about non-European, non-white workers was that their morality and standards of behaviour were dramatically different to the French, and that the workers were not to be trusted not to terrorise the women and children left defenceless by the departure of men to the front.

It was very difficult for any of these ideas to be challenged by the immigrant labour that was brought into France for the duration of the war, as the ideas were so deeply entrenched. Not only did this make these ideas particularly resilient but they also informed the ways in which foreign labour was hired and utilised. Employers proved unwilling to hire foreign, and particularly non-white, labour unless they were given guarantees that they would be working under tight control and surveillance, so the workers were given little chance to demonstrate they could work in any other conditions. This was particularly true for black Africans, who were considered to be warriors, not workers. As Michel argues

l’expérience des soldats-travailleurs noirs fut passagère et d’ailleurs limitée. C’était là en partie une des conséquences des stéréotypes qui voulaient les Noirs à la guerre tandis que les Indochinois étaient jugés plus aptes aux travaux d’usine.

The primary complaints about foreign labour were that it was allowing French men to be sent to the front, that they brought down wages, and that they corrupted French women. These factors interlinked with widely held racial stereotypes. Tyler Stovall argues that the French distinguished sharply between white and non-white foreigners ‑ race was as much the issue as nationality. Colonial workers, North Africans, Annamites and particularly the Chinese were criticised for their lenteur, their physical weakness and sometimes insubordination or dishonesty. After the war, the government set up an order of priority for recruitment: Italians, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks, Portuguese, Spanish, Greeks, Russians, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians. These categories correlate closely individual worth with the war time roles of their states of origin. Italy and Portugal had been allies; Czechoslovakia had demonstrated its preference for the Allied nations against their Austro-Hungarian rulers. Spain and Greece had been neutral, the Russians had been traitorous. At the bottom of the pile were France’s foes, though they were evidently still preferable to non-European labour. 

While European workers were not always considered satisfactory, and were certainly not believed to be as good as French workers, they were still generally considered preferable to non-European immigrants. When mobilisation came, it forced the closure of the mines of Saint-Pierre-Montlimart. This left a number of unemployed foreigners, whom the mayor wished to repatriate. He decided that the non-white foreigners should be compelled to leave en-bloc. “J’ai pu décider tous les Marocains à quitter le pays […] Il ne reste plus que des Italiens et des grecs.” It is interesting to note that the decision was based purely on national origin rather than whichever individuals had proved to be good workers. In the Deux-Sevres it was noted, in February 1916, that the war had prevented Belgium, Poland and Italy from providing their usual flow of workers to the department, “Les rares envois de Kabyles et Espagnols, à notre connaissance, n’ont pas donné satisfaction et ne sauraient être employés que par équipes dans les grandes fermes. Les réfugiés belges, non plus, n’ont pas donné toute la satisfaction désirée.” In this case the report is able to make a distinction between the Belgian migrant labour which was usually acceptable, and the work of Belgian refugees, which wasn’t. When Rosny criticised Spanish artisans for their poor performance in the metalworking industry compared to their French co-workers, he put it down to their coming from areas with little industrial development. When non-white workers failed to meet expectations there was a tendency to attribute it to their innate shortcomings. 

The Congrès de l’Association Nationale d’Expansion économique was made up of a variety of large businesses and can be considered representative of their views. In its journal of June 1917, there was a report on foreign workers in France. It advocated greater control on foreigners entering the country so that undesirables should be weeded out. This increased control would be sufficient to regulate Italians, Belgians and Spaniards crossing the border, but for those recruited from overseas “caractérisé par des habitudes sociales très différentes” there was a need for greater security. It was necessary for them to have a contract with an employer before they would be allowed to work in France.

The report described succinctly the position of the French business class, reluctant to hire overseas labour, but compelled to do so, at least in the short term due to labour shortages. 

Nous nous trouvions en présence de deux préoccupations presque contraires: nous savions qu’il était indispensable, qu’il serait indispensable, après la guerre, de faire appel, dans une certaine mesure impossible à déterminer, à la main-d’œuvre étrangère; nous étions évidemment décidés à empêcher le plus possible cet appel en employant les machines, comme le disait tout à l’heure M. le Président, en substituant le travail mécanique au travail à la main, mais nous savions que, malgré tous ces efforts, il serait indispensable de faire appel à la main-d’œuvre étrangère. 

The article admitted that the use of foreign labour could present a national danger and argued that it must be done in such a way as not to jeopardise the interests of the bosses or the workers.

Statistics

The aggregate number of immigrant workers employed in France during the war suggests near-parity between European and non-European labour. 330,000 workers came from Europe, primarily Spain, along with 300,000 from the rest of the world. According to official records this was broken down into 78,556 Algerians; 48,995 Indochinese; 36,941 Chinese; 35,506 Moroccans; 18,249 Tunisians; 4,546 Malagasy. This totals 222,793, the rest were employed by the French army, already present in France, or migrated on their own.

As Horne’s figures show in Table 1, the use of European labour instead of non-European labour which had been the norm before the war happened again after the war when sufficient European labour became available. The only progress made by non-white labour was an increase in the percentage of North African workers from 1 to 5 percent. This was in spite of the fact that the immediate aftermath of the war saw large scale repatriation of Algerians, often in very poor conditions. According to the 1921 census, there were 13,000 Chinese; 6,500 Algerians; 4,000 Moroccans; 1,500 Tunisians; 175 Indochinese and 37 Madagascans in France; just over 25,000 in total, down from around 300,000 during the war.1

Table 1

Nationality of Foreign Workers in France, 1911-1926 

Nation

1911 (%)

1914-1918 (%)

1926 (%)

Italians

38

3

32

Belgians

25

5

14

Spanish

9

35

13

N. Africans

1

20

5

Germans/Austro-Hungarians

11

15 #

4

Indochinese

7

Chinese

6

Greek

4

Portuguese

3

2

Polish

?2

?

13

Others

16

2

17

The extent to which women increased their share of paid employment also should not be overstated. The total number of women employed in commerce and industry did not return to pre-war levels until 1916 and women never constituted more than 20% of those working in commerce and industry. At its peak at the end of 1917, levels of total female employment were 20% above the pre-war mark (40% of the total employed population as opposed to 32%).  However, there was no lasting increase in the number of women working. In fact the reverse was true; 1946 proving to be the only year between 1921 and 1968 when the percentage of women in the workforce did not fall. Women were also still paid substantially less for equal work, though the gap did close during the war.

Some qualification can be added to these figures by examining the work of Steven Hause and Anne‑Marie Sohn. Sohn argues that women working in factories increased from 1 million in 1906 to 1.22m in 1921 and up to 1.47m in 1926.  She criticises historians who claim that female labour declined after the war, asserting that the “disparity between the historian’s characterization (and even their use of statistics) and the reality is striking.”  Hause’s figures for women in the workforce are expressed in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2

Female participation in the French Workforce, 1906-1926

French Workforce

Agricultural Workforce

Industrial Workforce

Year

Total

(millions)

Women

(millions)

% of Total

Men

(millions)

Women

(millions)

% of Total

Men

(millions)

Women

(millions)

% of Total

1906

20.7

7.7

37.2

5.5

3.3

37.5

4.0

2.1

34.4

1911

20.9

7.7

36.8

5.4

3.2

37.2

 

 

 

1921

21.7

8.6

39.6

5.0

4.0

44.4

4.3

2.0

31.7

1926

21.4

7.8

36.4

4.7

3.4

42.0

5.0

2.0

28.6

Table 3

Female participation in the French Workforce by percentage, 1906-1926

Year

% of Total Workforce

% of Agricultural Workforce

% of Industrial Workforce

1906

34.4

42.9

27.3

1911

 

41.6

 

1921

31.7

46.5

23.3

1926

28.6

43.6

28.6

These figures show a leap in both the female participation in the workforce as a whole and in agriculture in particular between 1911 and 1921, both of which dropped back by 1926. Women’s participation in industry was fairly static in absolute terms, but dropped steadily in percentage terms. By 1926 women constituted 28.6% of industrial workers, compared to 34.4% in 1906.

Jean-Louis Robert argues that “Within two years of the Armistice, the return of enlisted men to work brought the proportion of women among the factory back to roughly the 1914 level.”  The absolute figures are misleading though, as they imply that this was the case in all branches of industry. In reality there were marked diversities, an examination of which suggests that the war was less of a turning point.

 According to Clemenceau’s secretary, only half a million women entered the industrial work force during the war. As women working in munitions factories increased from 15,000 in 1915 to 684,000 in 1917, it can be seen that this represented a major redistribution of female employment, rather than a wholesale influx of women into the industrial workplace. Indeed, F. Mathieu, a member of the Toulouse chamber of commerce, gave a report on the main d’œuvre féminine in which he complained that the high wages offered in the munitions plant in Toulouse were leading women to abandon jobs elsewhere in industry “nous pouvons être assurés que la main d’œuvre féminine, déjà très rare, va faire totalement défaut à l’industrie, dans un temps très rapproché.” The chamber unanimously accepted his report.

 La Bataille took the line that the war had just opened the eyes of the middle classes to working women, something that was nothing new for the working class. A cartoon addressed “A ceux qui faisaient les romans mondains” featured a working woman telling a writer “Tiens! vous délaissez les mondaines et alors vous découvrez qu’il y a d’autres femmes intéressantes: les ouvrières.” For La Bataille what was new was the increased possibility of abuse of the female workforce.

 La femme au magasin, au bureau, à l’atelier, ça n’est pas la chose nouvelle. Ce qui est nouveau, ce sont les conditions dans lesquelles l’afflux s’est fait de la main d’œuvre féminine. Cet afflux a donné lieu à de nombreux et criants abus qu’il convient de réfréner, de supprimer.

 The absolute decline in women working in industry was primarily brought about by the decline of the “conventional” 19th century female worker in the textile and clothing trades, which was accelerated by the conflict. Instead women were moving into the commercial services sector, a trend which began before the war and continued through it, and afterwards. For instance in banking and insurance in 1906 only 5.5% of the employees were female, rising to 28% in 1921 and then 31% ten years later. 

The Limits of Change

That the movement of women into the male world of manufacturing was only seen as a temporary expedient was made clear by the minister, Louis Loucheur, who on 13 November 1918 congratulated “women working in factories and state‑operated facilities for National Defence”. He told them:

In response to an appeal from the French Republic, you forsook your traditional pursuits in order to manufacture armaments for the war effort. The victory to which you have contributed so much is now assured; there is no more need to manufacture explosives. […] Now you can best serve the country by returning to your former pursuits, busying yourself with peacetime activities.

Employers heeded his words. Between the 1st of November and the 31st of December 1918, Rennes arsenal laid off 4556 people, of whom 96% were women. A syndicalist response was made by Bedel, who sought only for women to be retained in employment over the winter.

D’après lui, le Ministre et le Directeur de la Poudrerie n’invitent nullement les ouvrières à quitter cet établissement, ils les exhortent simplement à chercher du travail d’un autre côté et seules doivent partir, à son avis, celles qui ont atteint ce résultat. […] Tout doit donc être mis en oeuvre pour procurer du travail à toutes les ouvrières. […] Il a demandé … le maintien des ouvrières, à leur divers emplois, jusqu’à la fin Avril, c’est à dire jusqu’à la fin de la mauvaise saison.

 Moreover, it was clear from Loucheur’s appeal that his remarks had a broader application than simply the munitions industry. Firstly because the statement was aimed solely at women, and not at the male workforce for whom there was presumably no more need to manufacture explosives either; and more significantly because it called for them to return to their traditional pursuits. It was not envisaged that they would apply their newly acquired skills anywhere else in the French manufacturing industry. The comment even denied women the agency involved in making their own decision to manufacture arms; they had only acted in response to an appeal from the Republic.

Indeed the use of women as an stopgap workforce itself represented a continuity of conventional employment practice, before, during and after the war. Women’s work was nearly always seen as a makeshift substitute for male labour, and women were usually the first to be fired in any change of economic circumstances.  

Of course Loucheur had acknowledged the female contribution to the war effort, and many other men echoed him. The deputy Magniez declared in 1918

 La guerre a mis en pleine lumière l’immense valeur de la coopération féminine à la vie nationale! (…) Les femmes se sont presque toutes mobilisées aux champs, dans les usines, dans les ambulances, dans les administrations! Elles ont prouvé qu’elles pouvaient être, dans presque tous les domaines nos précieuses collaboratrices; ne les traitons pas en esclaves!

Paul Smith notes that a number of prominent feminists were appointed to key official bodies in the wake of war, while Jo Burr Margadant has argued that the war saw a sizeable improvement in the status of institutrices 

Not only did women work in organizations with departmental and national affiliations; they assumed a role as leaders in a national endeavor. In so doing, they gained a qualitatively new and different public image in their own communities that placed them in the ranks of the notables.

Given this development, it is important to stress that women were not held to have shown themselves the equal of men as workers. To the men in power during and after the war, women had proven themselves no more than an adequate stopgap in most areas of employment. In a minority of jobs they were perceived as having qualities that made them better employees than men, but these qualities were easily adapted into the prevailing image of the woman worker. For this reason the war proved to have little impact on female status in the workplace. What changes did result in the pattern of female employment were primarily due to structural changes in the economy, rather than male attitudes to women’s work. 

french-women-workingThis may seem surprising given the perception that female working practices had been completely transformed during the war. Yet this transformation can be exaggerated. A huge number of women still worked in traditional areas such as nursing or charity.  Even the munitionettes, that hugely popular image, were in a minority at work. In the arsenal at Rennes in June 1917, nearly two thirds of the workforce was male. In establishments working towards weapons production in Lyon in 1917, there were 192 factories employing 70716 workers. Of these 54931 (77.68%) were men and only 15785 were women. 48 factories employed no women at all, and in only 23 were women in a majority. Of the 1,580,000 people employed in the French defence industries nationwide, only 362,879 were women – less than a quarter.  In 1916, it was noted that in Central administration “où les conditions de travail sont essentiellement favorables à la main-d’oeuvre féminine,” that they only formed a third of the work force. It was felt that this proportion should rise to at least half.

Furthermore, women were not working alongside men as equals; instead the work could be rigorously segregated. As Downs argues 

Employers therefore tried to separate women from men wherever possible, and women sometimes worked in shops, or areas within a shop, where all the production workers were female. The only men to be seen were those who set and regulated the machinery, and of course, the foremen and shop chiefs. In such cases, the “natural” rule of male over female underwrote the authority structure on the factory floor

In response to a number of thefts in the Poudrerie at Toulouse, attributed to female workers, it was decided to appoint some female supervisors to watch over property. But, so as not to undermine the authority of the bosses, these women were not allowed to take action themselves, they merely reported to their superiors.

Similarly, colonial labourers in France had their lives closely regulated by the Colonial Labor Organization Service, which assigned employers, housing, transportation, and food in an attempt to replicate the structures of colonial labour on French soil. In May 1918, colonial workers were put under military discipline. 

Often the government’s desire to free French men to go to the front by employing women or foreigners was hindered by considerable reluctance amongst employers to hire them. In some industries women were offered work without much hesitation, but in the munitions industry where the antagonism towards them shown by industrialists meant they were used as a last resort, the state was forced to intervene to encourage female work in munitions plants.  A report in May 1916 on attempts to replace men with women in war factories noted that significant progress had been made, and though certain companies in Bordeaux and Toulouse had claimed “Il n’y a jamais eu de femmes, donc on ne peut pas en employer”, these objections were overcome eventually. An under secretary in the war ministry, René Besnard in January 1917 gave an instruction on the replacement of secretaries and orderlies eligible for military service, with women. He directed that this should happen everywhere, with the only exceptions being 

secrétaires réellement irremplaçable en raison de leurs connaissances techniques ou professionnelles que généralement les femmes ne possèdent pas, et non a des secrétaires dont le départ n’aurait d’autre conséquence que d’apporter une certaine gêne dans le service.

He concluded 

Les militaires employés à l’Administration Centrale seront les premiers à comprendre qu’ils doivent être utilisés suivant leurs aptitudes et leur état physique dans les seuls emplois qui ne peuvent être confiés à des femmes. 

soldiers-working-on-leave

Soldiers on leave, working in the fields

 

In general, the first preoccupation of almost everyone concerned with the workforce was the possibility of utilising underemployed soldiers, or permissionaires. While the committee in the Rennes region was typical in requesting soldiers and prisoners of war throughout, the Toulouse suggested soldiers, foreigners (notably Spanish) and then prisoners. In March 1916, the Ministry of War’s delegate on the economic action committee of the Limoges region noted that “Le Directeur de la Mayenne me dit que sur une demande de 2000 hommes faite a l’autorité militaire lundi dernier il n’a pu en obtenir que 70. Dans la Sarthe c’est la même situation.” Thus again the two preferred options for extra labour were the army, and prisoners of war. 

 

The way in which the use of colonial labour was envisaged differed greatly from that of French workers. Because colonial labourers were not trusted to work without supervision or to integrate into local communities; it was felt to be necessary to employ them in large teams under direct supervision rather than allocating them to individual farms. For example, it was argued that Algerians had more problems working in factories in the big cities, compared to departments such as the Aveyron, Hautes-Alpes, and Basse-Alpes where there were large numbers of homogenous Algerian communities and less industrialisation. The need for large teams was considered by the Comité consultatif d’action économique in the Rennes region as a reason for doubting the efficacity of hiring colonial labour. 

La propriété y est très morcelée et les hommes seraient souvent employés par unité ou par petits groupes de 2 ou 3 dans les fermes. Dans ces conditions, la différence de mœurs et de langage risque de constituer un gros obstacle.

It would be necessary to create in each commune, or group of communes a barracks to house the workers, despatching them daily to the farms. The reference to differences in “mœurs” indicates the fears the committee had over the threat that colonial workers presented to the domestic population, particularly the women.  During the committees  discussions this was made explicit, and it was claimed that “dans beaucoup d’endroits, les femmes sont restées seules et n’accepteront pas volontiers la présence chez elles de travailleurs étrangers.” It was noted that Kabyle workers had been used successfully in the Eure and Loiret, but that was felt to be due to large farms employing large teams. 

M. d’Orlye, the Directeur intérimaire des services agricole for the Haute Savoie had similar concerns for his region 

Nous avons établi par l’expérience de 1915 que l’équipe travaillant s’ensemble ne donne pas un travail pratique dans nos propriétés très morcelées, de superficies restreintes, il a été reconnu qu’elle rendait plus de services par travail d’une, deux ou trois unités réparties à tour de rôle aux exploitations. Le soldat dont la qualité donne toute sécurité peut vivre quelques jours à la vie de famille privée de son chef. En sera-t-il de même de l’ouvrier kabyle étranger à nos mœurs, à nos usages? 

The sub-committee responded that it understood the difficulties, but nevertheless wanted the director to continue his investigations on the subject. His views seemed to be in tune with the rest of the department, the impression given in surveys on the possibility of employing foreign workers was that they were strongly adverse to employing either colonial or foreign workers. The phrases used by d’Orlye also reveal what was often hidden under euphemisms such as differences in mores or customs. In the scenario envisaged by d’Orlye, Kabyle workers couldn’t be trusted not to take advantage of a household deprived of the head of the family, by sexually abusing the female(s) of the house. 

These concerns were replicated in Anjou, wherethe prefect wrote in 1916 that it would be “impossible d’obtenir des femmes demeurées seules dans leurs fermes qu’elles consentent à introduire chez elle des Annamites ou des Kabyles”. The Conseil général tried again in April 1917 but “l’enquête effectuée auprès des maires a abouti à un refus unanime”. Some colonial labour was finally accepted in the summer of 1918, but it was kept away from the Angevin population. 

There was considerable regional variation between departments as to whether immigrant labour was desirable. An analysis of the Besançon region’s workforce on the subject of colonial and foreign labour noted: “Les populations de nos régions très particularistes semblent éprouver quelque méfiance à l’égard de ces étrangers, ignorant les services qu’ils pourront rendre et redoutant les déboires qu’ils ont éprouvés du côté des réfugiés et des évacués de la Belgique et du Nord de la France.” The sub-commitee of the Correze noted tersely that foreign workers were hardly used in the department and rarely asked for. Two weeks later, the committee argued “Sans exclure la main d’œuvre étrangère ou coloniale dont l’appoint peut être appréciable dans certaines régions, il serait risqué de trop compter sur celle à la suite des mécomptes de l’an dernier.” If the authorities in the Correze rejected foreign labour, the committee in the Maine-et-Loire didn’t even consider the possibility, reporting in February 1916 on the lack of male workers “… il n’y a aucun remède général à cet état de chose, si ce n’est d’employer autant que possible la main d’œuvre féminine, car les hommes doivent rester à l’armée jusqu’au bout.”  Around the same time, the Petite Gironde examined the problems of shortages in the agricultural workforce. They concluded that soldiers on leave and prisoners of war were not sufficient, and that what was needed was mutual assistance. Two weeks later, the author followed up with another article responding to numerous suggestions by his readership, once again foreign labour was not mentioned. When one of his colleagues also addressed the issue a few days later, labour was ignored in favour of advocacy of greatly increased investment in agricultural machinery. M. Martin presented a report to the Committee for Economic Action for the Marseille region on the industrial and commercial situation. Following a discussion, the committee made resolutions calling for “la répartition du blé entre les minoteries, la livraison de charbons aux usines a gaz, l’enseignement technique des mutilés, l’interdiction de sortie des fourrages. Il a demandé que les pommes de terre ne soient pas taxées.” Once again, issues relating to the employment of women and foreigners were not at the top of the agenda. 

By contrast, the Comite Consultatif d’action économique of the Limoges region noted that “l’importation de la main d’œuvre espagnole soit favorisée en Dordogne” while in the Toulouse region, a report on foreign labour showed some enthusiasm for immigrant labour. M. Ducasse asserted that the Spanish main d’œuvre had been unfairly denigrated, and that Spanish employees in the Midi, were excellent workers, if carefully chosen. M. Couzinet agreed, recalling that at the start of the war farmers in the Aude and the Hérault had demanded the immediate return of Spanish workers that the authorities had repatriated. M. Labie believed that France was becoming a country of immigration, and thus it was necessary to replicate the immigration controls of Argentina and Brazil to assure that immigrants are fit and healthy. No one spoke against immigrant labour, on the assumption that it came from Spain. Couzinet did also seek other avenues of immigrant labour. In February 1916, he wrote to the Ministry of war, in response to a query on foreign labour. He repeated his compliments for Spanish workers, but also stated that he wished to recruit some Kabyle workers, and was frustrated by being prevented from doing so by a government interdiction against Kabyles leaving Africa. 

If the employers in Toulouse were generally positive about immigrant labour, the local newspaper did not necessarily share their position. In La Dépêche, Rosny argued that there was a certain amount of animosity to foreigners amongst French workers and that “[l]es Kabyles sont le plus souvent méprisés”. He suggested that they could be well employed however, if only in work that no Frenchmen wanted to do. “[I]ls peuvent rendre de sérieux services dans les rudes besognes de forge, de chaufferie, de déchargements d’ordures, dans tout ce que les autres ne veulent pas faire.” Immigrant labour from Asia was also hampered by the negative opinion held by the French towards them. Rosny did argue that “Asiatiques” were adroit, unassuming, and were quick to learn new jobs. Unfortunately, they were disliked by the local population, particularly by “the revolutionaries” who suspected them as potential agents of government subversion. Too often they were the subject of hostile comments. Due to this Rosny argued that they could only be effective if they were grouped together. 

Rosny concluded that 

Au, total, et bien entendu avec des très honorables exceptions, le travail étranger n’est pas convenablement employé et il est mal accueilli. J’ai entendu plus d’une fois des ouvriers dire ‘Qu’est-ce que ces gens viennent faire chez nous?’ Ou bien: ‘ils feraient mieux de rester chez eux!’ 

Rosny claimed regret at having to say these things, but felt he had to. He urged the French workers to accept the inevitability of having foreign workers helping out (with rigorous measures taken to ensure that no French worker lost his job to one, of course) in a time of need. 

By the start of the next year the local Comité Consultatif d’action économique had modified its thinking somewhat. A report in February 1917 advised that foreign workers only be able to stay while they had certificate giving proof of employment. The colonial workforce was dealt with in a separate section, which focused on how best to use it despite the flaws of those who constituted it. 

The Indochinese were not able to offer much to rural work in the departement, largely because they lacked experience at the types of agriculture used in the region. particularly given that they were working in teams of 20 or 30. It was suggested that the Indochinese could be used in the state factories or replace the Réserve de l’armée territoriale, who could then work in the fields, a suggestion that was repeated two months later.

Often non-European workers were not even considered for employment. A discussion in the Chamber of Deputies, in March, 1916, saw Paul Laffont, from the Ariège, claim “On a essayé la main d’œuvre espagnole qui a donné des mécomptes et celle des réfugiés qui n’étaient pas préparés à cette besogne. La seule main d’œuvre utile est la main d’œuvre militaire qu’il faut mieux réglementer et accorder aux petit cultivateurs plus rapidement.” No-one disagreed. A report by Mathieu declared that it was impossible to get sufficient industrial labour from Spain, Italy or Switzerland, giving reasons why in each case. “Nous sommes donc obligés de nous suffire et de ne compter que sur nos seules ressources.” In 1916, a report from the Orne suggested just two remedies to the problem of diminishing food supplies: supplementing the insufficient workforce with members of the military, or else prisoners of war; or better utilisation of motorised transport to reduce the delays in transportation. To get more women working or to import foreign labour was not on their agenda.

National/Regional Division

 By contrast with the regional committees, at a national level there was a greater willingness to employ foreigners. The minutes of the meetings of the interministerial conference on the workforce reveal that they were consistently keen to find new ways to employ women and foreigners. The lengths to which they were prepared to go are indicated by one example, that in July 1917 they were investigating the possibility of hiring Italians who were currently unemployed in South America. 

This is not to say that the members of this conference had a much higher opinion of the value of colonial labour. In a meeting in May 1917, M. Coste declared that the use of Algerians in the mines had not been encouraging. M. Weil also noted the lack of success of this workforce. Henry Berenger, the President of the committee responded that as the mining had to be done it was necessary to make every effort to accomodate them. Later in the discussion, the subject of Annamites working as nurses came up. It was stated that two Annamite nurses were needed to replace a French one. This prompted a similar response from a M. Sevin that given the impracticality of employing a French workforce, then local hospital employers had to make use of anyone available. The committee’s attempts to bolster the workforce with foreigners was entirely down to a lack of a feasible alternative. 

This willingness of the central authorities to make the best of the difficulties with colonial labour was not always shared by those who actually had to work with them. The conference noted that using North African in mines in 1915-1916 had not been satisfactory due to the unreliablity and incompetence of the workers. They believed the problem could be resolved if only those who had worked in French mines before the war were hired, and the state housed them in order to avoid contact with the locals. These proposals were rebuffed by employers in the mines of the Pas-de-Calais, primarily because of their disquiet over the ructions that the employment of North Africans would cause amongst the local population. The regional miners union also declared its opposition, on moral and sanitary grounds, claiming that they feared for working families, missing the head of the household, living next to North Africans, and also they were worried about the “contamination possible de la population locale.” 

In a report accepted by the committee of economic action in the Cher, M. Amichau detailed the objections of workers organisations to inconveniences resulting from the presence of exotic workers amongst them. “A l’atelier, au restaurant, en voyage, dans la rue, parfois dans la maison, nos enfants, nos femmes et nous-mêmes, seront en contact avec eux, quelles que soient les mesures prises.” In this description, simply being forced into contact with non-white workers was enough to arouse disgust. Amichau did note that the better off classes were more sheltered from this “promiscuité” and did often benefit from a supplemental workforce that could be exploited. 

In a discussion on foreign labour in the Nantes region, M. Brichaux, the Mayor of St-Nazaire complained that 2-300 Moroccans hired by a factory there had abruptly disappeared, but not before they had caused “grands ennuis dans la ville au point de vue de l’ordre publique.” Blanchard, manager of the Maison du Marin was also not in favour of hiring colonial workers, as they might be of dubious morality. Benoit, President of the Union des Syndicats and also presiding over the session summed up by saying that he couldn’t pretend to advocate the utilisation of the colonial workforce, but it was necessary to inform potential employees of the positives and negatives associated with them.

Sometimes colonial workers were requested. The Haute-Vienne sub-committee in 1917 asked for a contingent of Tunisian agricultural workers, considering that this “experiment” would provide an opportunity for other employers to learn how to manage this particular workforce. However, this request was rejected by the Ministry of Colonies and the question was postponed until 1918. A request in 1916 for Arab/Kabyle workers had also been rejected. 

Elsewhere however, the response was largely negative. In the Nantes region it was reported that the rural population wouldn’t easily accept foreign workers, including refugees. The prefect of the Tarn and Garonne claimed to have been informed that foreign workers wouldn’t be utilisable in his department. The committee in the Cher decided not to call on a foreign workforce except as a last resort. 

A report from the Tours region in February 1916 detailed in Table 4 reveals the extent to which there was a reluctance to employ foreigners there, detailing the number of agricultural workers that it was believed were required, and the number of foreign or colonial workers that would be accepted.

Table 4

Requests for Foreign Agricultural Workers, 9th Economic Region, 1916. 

Department      Agricultural Workers Required Foreigners Requested
Indre-et-Loire  2,500 peak, 1,000 off-peak 0
Maine-et-Loire 1,500, plus 400 extra in March 0
Vienne 4,000 March to November 300 Arabs
Indre 5-600 0
Deux-Sevres 300 0

 The same report also noted that commerce in the region was equally indisposed towards employing imported workers. 

Even where these committees were more positive about employing foreigners, they did so with serious reservations. The consultative committee for the Montpellier region realised that a contribution could be made by foreign workers, but they thought it was essential that colonial workers be subject to a careful experimental study to determine what measures were required to safeguard the tranquility and customs of the community, their families and public health. Even a very positive report from the Orléans region about Kabyle labour in the Loiret, stating they had largely given satisfaction, that they were courageous, sober and very peacable qualified this in the next sentence by claiming they had a productivity of approximately ¾ of the average worker. 

The regions near the borders did tend to be rather more accepting of immigrant workers, perhaps because they had a tradition of employing them. According to the interministerial conference on the workforce, the 8000 foreigners in the French mines were largely made up of Belgians in the North, Spanish around Toulouse and Italians in Marseille and Grenoble. This can be illustrated with this table of coal mining regions employing over 2000 employees, which shows that the border areas, and particularly the ones in the South, had a much higher proportion of foreigners working there. It’s also interesting to note that women were classified together with the children. 

Table 5

Foreign and Women workers in the French mines, 1917.  

 

Workers

Foreigners

%

Women/Children

%

Calais

14950

801

5.35

2482

16.60

Boulogne

45741

1153

2.52

8610

18.82

Chalon sur Saone

12985

169

1.30

1685

12.98

Clermont

9772

222

2.27

1106

11.31

Grenoble

2272

313

13.78

239

10.52

Marseille

2523

792

31.39

448

17.76

St Etienne

16354

1755

10.73

2075

12.69

Toulouse

13160

1852

14.07

2245

17.06

When discussing potential immigrants, those in the border regions naturally leaned towards those they had prewar experience of. So Morel, vice-president of the Lyon Chamber of Commerce, urged that, for the duration of France’s period of dearth in workers, they should call upon the assistance of the Swiss and the Italians. Similarly, as noted earlier, in the Dordogne and Haute-Garonne they favoured Spanish immigrants.

Chinese Workers in the Maritime Ports (case study)

Official documentation on the Chinese workers hired for the ports in North-Western France, illustrates the way in which foreign workers could be employed. It displays the deep shortages of manpower that were afflicting the ports, and the willingness of the central authorities to remedy that through use of non-European workers, often despite considerable resistance from local authorities, employers and workers. 

The state sought to ensure that they were not mistreated either by their employers or by French workers by requiring employers to meet certain conditions. One of these was “They must be treated with benevolence, and care must be taken that they are not subject to any bullying from the other workers.” The government also sought to ensure that Chinese workers were given the same holidays as French workers, and were not made to work proportionately more night shifts.

When Nantes was requesting Chinese workers for its port, Chargueraud, the Chef du Service Central d’Exploitation des Ports Maritimes wrote them a letter describing the conditions for employing “exotique” labourers. He concluded “J’attache la plus grande importance à faire assurer l’emploi de ces travailleurs exotiques dans de bonnes conditions en raison de développement qu’est appelée à prendre l’utilisation de cette main d’œuvre dans les ports.” A month later, Chargueraud again urged employers to show good will towards the Chinese in case a post-war manpower crisis required the conservation of them for a while after the peace. 

Given the exotic nature of the Chinese contingents, the government also found it necessary to offer instructions to employers on how best to utilise the Chinese workers. It sought to encourage employers as to the varied qualities of the Northern Chinese, describing them as supple, intelligent, patient, meticulous, adroit and hardy. It was also argued that they could adapt comfortably to the French climate, a frequent doubt raised about non-European workers. The instructions also offered a variety of warnings as to potential problems. They declared that the Chinese had a lot of pride and self-esteem, and thus employers were advised not to humiliate them in front of their comrades. They also argued that Asiatics in general, and the Chinese in particular, were not believed to have the French sense of exactitude. Furthermore, the Chinese had to be segregated from the Indochinese due to “well-known” antipathy between their races. Later on, the authorities were forced to instruct the ports to keep Northern and Southern Chinese apart in order to avoid incidents which, it was argued were common between those of different origins.3 

Initially there was great demand for Chinese labour because of undermanning in the dockyards. At the same time as Saint-Nazaire requested its first contingent of Chinese workers, Nantes was seeking to increase the number of Chinese working there, by another 50. At Cherbourg in December 1917 non-specialised civil workers were non-existent, and prisoners of war were insufficient, so an offer of Chinese workers was accepted enthusiastically. The central authorities believed Cherbourg was a propitous location for the Chinese as the absence of civil dockers would avoid conflict. 

As the reference to the potential conflict with civil dockers implies, this welcome was not always unqualified. While in the Charente-Inférieure new workers were welcomed by Meunier, the Chief Engineer, he expressed some caution on behalf of employers as to how the proposed Chinese/Siamese workforce should be employed. He claimed that  “the entrepreneurs, after the unfortunate experiences that they had in 1915 with the Kabyles, refuse to take charge of individual workers. They demand that they are utilised like prisoners of war.” 

The request for additional workers in Nantes suggested that it had, initially at least managed the successful employment of the Chinese, but this was not replicated in Saint-Nazaire though and in February 1918 the engineer in charge of the maritime ports, de Joly, sent a request that the Chinese workers there be transferred to Nantes. The immediate reason for de Joly’s request was that the Chinese were refusing to unload coal, on the grounds that they had been engaged as unskilled labour not as dockers. A letter from the Association des Employeurs de Main d’Œuvre du Port de Saint-Nazaire had stated that in their opinion the Chinese workers did not have sufficient experience to work unloading ships and particularly not in the unloading of coal. Despite their ineffectiveness at working with coal, the authorities at Saint-Nazaire did note some postive attributes amongst the Chinese, “ils portent par example avec adresse des mannes sur la tête et par un système de va et vient judicieux arrivent, grâce à leur célérité dans les movements et à leur rapidité d’allure, à faire du bon travail de portage.” 

Nevertheless, employers regularly complained about the cost of the Chinese relative to their productivity, and the Saint-Nazaire port authorities wanted all Chinese workers to leave the port.Their argument was summed up by de Joly, who claimed that despite every attempt to utilise them, they had never managed anything more that insignificant output as well as an overt unwillingness to work with coal. De Joly suggested that they would be better employed at Nantes, where the greater range of work meant that the Chinese could be utilised in tasks more suited to their aptitudes. He also said that it was essential to reinforce “le cadre blanc” in Nantes with two supervisors and a (male) nurse. While de Joly didn’t specify why these reinforcements were necessary, it can be speculated that it may have been to counter an unwillingness to work amongst the Chinese. 

Kauffman, the Chef d’Exploitation at the Nantes port was asked if they wanted the return of the Chinese workers from St-Nazaire. He noted that the authorities in Nantes shared some of the views expressed in St-Nazaire. “La répulsion naturelle des chinois pour tout ce qui est manutention mécanique a été réconnue à Nantes comme à Saint-Nazaire.” Nevertheless, Kauffman wasn’t opposed to their return as it would mean he could dispense with the services of Moroccan workers who had been utterly unsatisfactory and so de Joly’s request was carried out. 

6 months later, Kauffman was bemoaning the performance of the Chinese in Nantes, pointing out although the authorities tried to keep them in employment by giving them priority, they couldn’t persuade employers to hire them for certain tasks – working with coal, steel or heavy loads. Kauffman sought to dismiss 10% of the workforce as totally useless. 

These complaints display several common criticisms of foreign workers: that they often lacked motivation; that they were unable to undertake certain tasks; they required white supervision to work effectively and that these faults derived from their race. This last point was considered crucial when camps were being designed to house prospective Chinese workers in 1917 where it was argued that their location must be chosen in a way that makes surveillance easy. In particular, they needed to be kept apart from the prisoner of war camps, in order to avoid any communication between the Germans and the Chinese. 

This was not to prevent the captured enemy being a bad influence, but the reverse, as the boss of Génie, M. Cadier, made clear in a letter of complaint to the authorities. Cadier’s letter also made similar criticisms to those of de Joly about the poor production achieved by the Chinese, as well as the need for surveillance and discipline to combat their laziness. 

Vous avez mis 60 chinois à la disposition pour les travaux de terrassement du Camp des Travailleurs de l’ouvrage des Fédérés. Ces chinois montrent une paresse excessive au travail et comme il est impossible aux Surveillante du Génie de se faire comprendre, et que ce surveillant n’a d’autre part aucune action disciplinaire sur ces travailleurs, il en résulte que le rendement fourni est dérisoire. Je viens vous demander, en conséquence, de bien vouloir mettre à ma disposition, si possible, un surveillant interprète ayant un pouvoir disciplinaire effectif sur les chinois. Faute de ce surveillant, je serais obligé de ne plus utiliser les travailleurs chinois, étant donné le très faible rendement de leur travail et le mauvais exemple qu’ils donnent aux prisonniers employés sur le même chanter. 

Another port that expressed grave dissatisfaction with its Chinese workers was Rouen. Again, a primary objection was the belief amongst employers that they were incapable of working with coal. It was also alleged that the Chinese hid their laziness behind their inability to speak French. Relations with the local community were also poor, and as early as October 1917, the authorities in Rouen placed a guard over the Chinese during meals to prevent them from going into town. By September, the hostility was such that a proposal to build a shelter to protect the Chinese camp in the town from German arial bombardment was rejected on the grounds that it would provoke a public outcry. 

In general, it was felt that the Chinese workers in Rouen had caused innumerable problems due to their low productivity. There had been a minimum of 2 letters a day complaining about that. The authorities argued that they had tried all sorts of means to counter this; they had improved their food and lodgings, provided umbrellas. They had even set up a school to educate 20 Chinese to speak French produced little result, with only 2 displaying both goodwill and aptitude. There was an underlying hostility between the French employers and workers and the Chinese, which had manifested itself more than once. 

The chief engineer at the port, Detoeuf, believed that the reasons for this hostility were firstly that the Chinese had little aptitude for heavy work and little taste for outdoor work; secondly that there were limited sanctions available to employers to force the Chinese to work and thirdly the poor relations between the Chinese, confined in their camp, and isloated from the French workers who considered the Chinese “comme une sorte de sauvage.” As the Chinese couldn’t be kept totally isolated from the French – because they needed to work with specialist workers – Detoeuf argued that it was essential that hostility between them had to be reduced. He believed this was unlikely and suggested the withdrawal of the current Chinese workforce in its entirety, leaving only the supervisors and interpreters to work with their replacements. 

Further grave incidents between the civil and Chinese workforce over the next months saw another request for the entire contingent to be removed, though the manpower crisis was such that a new contingent was requested. 

In order to try and encourage local employers to utilise the Chinese, the Office National de la Navigation sought to reduce taxes on employers in Rouen who hired Chinese. This proved unsuccessful, as an examination of the correspondence between the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and the Chef du Service des Travailleurs Coloniaux shows. The Ministry proposed reducing in half the Chinese contingent, excluding those “least apt at working”. This suggestion was rejected as unfair on whoever would have to take on those 500, inept, indisciplined workers. The Ministry responded by acknowledging the difficulties in finding alternative employment for “les incapables ou les fortes têtes”, but nevertheless insisted it was vital that the were eliminated from Rouen. In December, the port authorities argued it was still more important to remove the 500 Chinese as more and more port operatives refused to employ Chinese at all. 

L’Intendance Transit, refuse de les employer dans les magasins de las station […] La Compagne de Transit Jules ROY, renvoie au camp systematiquement les corvées qui lui sont attribuées […] Les Affreteurs Réunis, les Docks de ROUEN ont toujours refusé la main d’œuvre chinoise. La Maison HAREL & CAPELLE n’accepte d’en employer que très rarement; depuis l’echaufforée de Février dernier où son Chef de manutention faillit être victime de la fureur des célestes.4 

That the problems with Chinese workers included violence as well as low productivity was also noted in a report by Hupner, one of the engineers at the port. After mentioning the derisory productivity of the Chinese and the hostility they aroused amongst the civil workforce, he claimed that a murder committed by Chinese from an English camp had caused the local press to comment on “the disquiet of the population about contact with exotic workers”. He argued that all these factors made it very difficult to administer the port, and argued that unless the very worst offenders were immediately withdrawn, it would soon become impossible for any Chinese workforce to operate in Rouen, even a hand-picked one. 

These complaints were replicated across the country. In Cherbourg, they censured the Chinese for their lack of productivity, their attitude, their lack of zeal, patience and their heavy-handedness, while some port operators there displayed a “répugnance invincible” towards the Chinese workforce. 

At Le Havre, the Société en participation des travaux du Port du Havre, bemoaned that 

Nous ne pouvons employer des Chinois pour ces travaux de règlements et d’empierrement, ces ouvriers sont trop faibles et inaptes à ce travail pour lequel il faut des hommes robustes et travailleurs; nous avons pu nous en rendre compte après des essais infructeux avec nos travailleurs Chinois. 

Authorities noted that there had been some regrettable incidents in the Besançon region where soldiers on leave had been incited by sections of the civil population to shoot at Chinese workers. 

There was less and less demand for new contingents, the chief engineer for the Finistère ports reported that it was the opinion of the authorities there that employing Chinese workers would do little to help them and that they’d struggle to find any employers willing to utilise them. Chargueraud wrote in a letter that it was sometimes impossible to allocate groups of less than 100 Chinese. 

The complaints about the Chinese made regular reference to violence between them and the French. Sometimes there were more detailed accounts of the fights, which offer some insight to the roots of the hostility. One such report was by Clavel, the chief engineer for the Gironde ports. A soldier named Gezequel made a comment to a Chinese worker who responded with a punch. Gezequel complained, and the imprisonment of the Chinaman was ordered. He objected loudly, and was supported by his comrades, who were armed with batons. Clavel noted that the North Chinese, all former soldiers and thus “relatively disciplined” always maintained a cohesive unity. After several warnings through an interpreter, calm was restored and the offending Chinaman was taken to prison and his transfer to Marseille requested. No further repurcussions had resulted or were expected. 

A more serious incident ocurred in Rouen in January 1918. A report was made by Lieutenant Tourret, who alleged the responsibility lay with the Chinese. According to the Tourret report, a Chinese worker wanted to sleep during work, four soldiers there tried to force him back to his work. One soldier jostled him, to which the Chinaman responded by kicking him in the thigh. The othe soldiers hastened to defend their comrade, while two Chinese came to aid their compatriot. One of the soldiers fled and was unsuccessfully pursued. Then the Chinaman who had initially been involved returned and attacked another soldier, hitherto univolved. This soldier and a foreman who sought to help him were forced to take refuge with the customs police. However, the situation continued to escalate, with around 20 Chinese now armed themselves with batons and iron bars. The civil populace did the same to defend the soldier and foreman. In an attempt to control the situation, the customs police fired a couple of revolver shots at the crowd. By now the Chinese contingent had grown to 70 people and they launched an assault on the police station, breaking the windows, capturing the soldier and threatening to throw him into the Seine. The Naval police intervened, saving the soldier and using guns and bayonets to disperse the rioters who took refuge in their camp. There were no fatalities, but both sides sustained some injuries. 

During his inquiry, Tourret reported that he had encountered a hostile attitude from the civil population who disliked not just the Chinese workers, but even their European supervisors, to the extent that he himself had been insulted by a civilian who argued that those who commanded Chinese workers were no better than them. 

Commenting on the situation, Detoeuf noted that the next day the Chinese refused to work, claiming that they were afraid of their French colleagues. Simultaneously several employers reported that their workers, concerned for their safety, were refusing to work with or near the Chinese. It was suggested the employers were doing nothing to counter this mood as they saw an opportunity to remove the Chinese workforce and replace it with an alternative one. 

Not everyone blamed the Chinese for the difficulties that arose, with regional and national authorities being more inclined to share the blame than the adminsitrators and employers of the ports. The controleur régional des Travailleurs Coloniaux de la 11éme Région, Grenes, blamed animosity from dockers, and unwillingness by the employers to pay more than five-eighths of the wage going to French workers. Reporting on the situation in the port of Brest, M. Grenes suggested that: 

1) Il règne une certaine animosité contre les travailleurs coloniaux [Chinese] parmi le personnel employé au déchargement ou au chargement des navires au Port de Commerce.

2) Il résulte de la correspondance du Capitaine Chef du groupment chinois, qu’il n’a pas été possible d’établir dans toutes les conditions désirables voulues, un essai de travail au tonnage en vue d’obtenir un meilleur rendement des chinois.

3) Malgré les % formels de Monsieur le Ministre de la Guerre les travailleurs coloniaux ne jouissent pas de la même solde à beaucoup près, que les ouvriers français de même catégorie employés sur les mêmes chantiers. 

When Rouen demanded the removal of 210 Chinese workers their request was granted, but the Service de l’Organisation des travailleurs coloniaux en France commented that if the Chinese workers hadn’t given satisfaction, that was largely due to the hostility of dockers and employers who had treated them roughly. 

By contrast, the Chef du Transport Maritime, Dupuy, as quoted in the introduction blamed the workers; who were not just untrained and lacking enough interpreters but also had more fundamental defects. Dupuy suggested that the Chinese should only be used for light and repetetive work. Most of them weren’t strong enough for the heavy work required in the ports and they’d be better employed in the factories where the work was always the same and surveillance was easy. 

The Gironde ports also saw a dispute between central and local authorities. When the ports were criticised by the state for the standard of the accomodation they offered to the Chinese, the ports administrator, Clavel, responded by criticising their indiscipline and their weak productivity. Given this information, the War ministry recommended that the employment of the Chinese be transferred to the Service de l’Organisation des travailleurs coloniaux en France. 

Despite these problems, Chinese workers continued to be utilised in the French ports for the duration of the war, testifying to the shortages of workers that existed. Even as late as October 1918, the Port de la Pallice envisaged constructing a camp for Chinese workers that would initially house 500 men, but with the potential to increase capacity to 800. This did not mean that the workforce was welcome though, and as soon as the war finished the various ports made clear their resistance to further employment of non-white labour. 

A letter from the President of the Association des Employeurs de Main d’Œuvre dans les Ports de France to the Minister of Public Works and Transport declared that the “unanimous” opinion of the employers was that they had little desire to maintain an Asiatic workforce in France. “Son manque de résistance, sa paresse et sa inexactitude” were the major factors in a poor rate of productivity. By contrast, Kabyles and Moroccans had been appreciated in several ports, but even then, there were “grave misgivings” about employing significant numbers of these workers without a process of state selection. 

An assessment of the relative worth of Chinese workers compared to other foreign workers employed in the maritime ports is possible as on the 30th of November 1918, the Chef du Services Central d’Exploitation des Ports Maritimes asked the various ports to compare the productivity of various foreigners. 

At Calais, the chief of production, Rigal argued that the individual value of Algerians and Indochinese was for all work clearly inferior to that of the French, though it was heavily dependent on the skills of foremen and team leaders. Their productivity was clearly better when they were used in commercial warehouses than when working for the state. On average, Rigal believed that 3 Arabs did the work of 2 Frenchmen. At the port of St Louis du Rhône they considered the Italians work to be almost as good as the French, while the Kabyles were worth 80% and the Chinese 50-60% of native workers. 

In Brest, they declared they had never wanted to employ Algerians who couldn’t deal with heavy loads and had low productivity. They believed that it took 2-3 Algerians to do the work of a Frenchman. However, in the munitions factories had performed better thanks to their “suppleness”. The Chinese were believed to be capable of regular, if not heavy work. In the ports of Loiret and the Morbihan, they preferred Chinese and Madagascan labour to Kabyle and Indochinese. They didn’t compare either to French workers. 

In St-Nazaire, Kabyles used by private industry had given good results, while as attested to above the performance of the Chinese was held to be deplorable. They argued that they had not employed enough foreigners for useful evaluation. By contrast, in Cherbourg the Chinese were held to be better than the Kabyles as long as they were not badly supervised, but still only offered 45% of the value of a domestic worker, while prisoners of war were worth 75%. In Rouen too, prisoners of war were felt to offer 75% of the worth of French labour, while the Chinese were worth only half. For the Cherbourg authorities the problems with foreign workers were mainly ascribed to climate, and they recommended that workers be hired from Northern Spain where they’d be used to the conditions. Colonial and Chinese workers could be sent to the South of France. 

In Rochefort & Tonnay-Charente they were not keen on employing foreigners after an unsuccessful attempt to utilise Spaniards (who had left in search of better pay) and only one factory in Rochefort had employed colonial workers, these were Moroccans who had proved satisfactory, offering ¾ of the productivity of a Frenchman. The Tonnay-Charente didn’t want to employ foreigners, feeling it unnecessary. In La Rochelle, they claimed that Europeans were much better workers, with the Italians particularly impressive. The Spanish worked well, as long as they were well supervised, the Belgians and the Poles also. Overall their productivity was comparable to the French. As for non-white labour, Moroccans, Kabyles and Algerians were all felt to be mediocre. The Cantonese were unsatisfactory, though those from North China were better. The Senegalese labour was very poor and colonial labour as a whole only equated to 30-40% of French labour. Neither St-Valery nor Fécamp had employed foreign labour either, with the latter emphasing that it had no desire to do so. There were also no foreigers used in the ports of the Côtes-du-Nord or at Nice. 

The authorities of the port in Dieppe claimed that the Belgians and Italians they had employed were both useful. They hadn’t utilised colonial workers, so they couldn’t comment directly, though they did mention that the British in the area who had employed Chinese labourers were very unhappy with them. Only Spanish and Portuguese had been utilised at Bayonne, where they were rated as 70% effectiveness. At St-Malo there had also been limited use of foreign workers, the handful of Tunisians they’d used were slightly less useful than the German prisoners who themselves offered two-thirds of the utility of the French. 

In Nantes, they rated the Belgians as the best, followed by the Italians. The Spanish offered reasonable output, but were difficult employees. The Greeks were largely passable, with some very good workers, the Algerians passable, but often weak and indolent. The Chinese were also believed to be weak and difficult to discipline. For all the non-European contingents it was considered impossible to assign them work with coal or dirty products. In Marseille, they felt the Italians were the best, the Spanish were good, but for their temperaments and were thus worth only 67% of French workers. The Kabyle labourers had some strengths, but on the whole colonial labour was very mediocre, and should only be called upon as a last resort. 

In the Gironde, they simply expressed their preferences in percentage terms, with the French and the Belgians acquiring 100%, the Spanish, the Italians and the Kabyles/Moroccans all got 90%. The Portuguese were also reasonably well regarded, with 75%. Less appreciated were the Senegalese at 50, the Chinese at 40 and the Indochinese at 30. The port of Cette gave similar ratings to those of the Gironde for the Italians, Spanish and the Senegalese, but were very negative about the Moroccans, who were given only 30% and described as naturally “maladroit” and “gauche.” This table averages all the measurable ratings given to the various nationalities. 

Table 6

Average rating of foreign contingents in French ports.

French

100

Belgians

100

Italians

80

Spanish

76.25

Portuguese

72.50

German PoW

72.33

North Africans

60.25

Greeks

50

Senegalese

47.5

Chinese

44

Indo-Chinese

30

Apart from the low score for the Greeks, based solely upon the unimpressive performance of their contingent in Nantes, the hierarchy of European over non-European labour is unchallenged. Of the foreign labour, the North African workers score considerably higher than the Senegalese, with the Chinese and the Indochinese last. That ratings that equated the work of one Frenchman with that of 2 or even 3 colonial workers was taken seriously can be gathered from other sources. For instance, a M. de Poorter requested 20 French mobilised miners for his operation. When this was turned down, he requested 40 foreign miners, with a preference for PoWs. M. Mathey, in charge of the management of rivers and forests claimed that it was obvious to him that Asiatic or African labour could not be equated with European. From what he had heard about Algerian labour, it was roughly a quarter inferior to European labour. The original draft had said “a fifth” but this had been corrected, indicating that this was not simply a random figure. 

Asked how they wanted to replace prisoners of war at the end of the conflict, employers in Rouen declared their preference for Belgians, then Spanish, Bosnians, Italians and Poles. Chinese and colonial workers not envisaged as it was felt that they could not deal with the rainy climate. For the authorities in Nantes they wanted Belgians, Russians and Poles and the exclusion of colonial workers. Caen’s order of preference was Belgians, Spanish, Italians, Kabyles, Algerians, Moroccans and lastly Senegalese. Indo-Chinese and Chinese workers were considered unable to cope with either the work or the climate. The report added that Kabyles and Chinese should be kept separate in order to avoid the constant brawls between them. Given that the Société Normande de Métallurgie employed Chinese workers it seemed best if Caen was only allocated European workers. Other ports were more forthright. In St-Nazaire, it was reported that neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the Association of Employers wanted at any price to employ colonial or foreign labour. In the minutes of the meeting where this was decided, the employers declared they’d rather suspend operations than hire foreigners, if French labour proved insufficient.  Honfleur declared that they hoped to do without foreign workers and no-one would accept “exotiques” workers. Similarly, Brest declared itself unanimously and resolutely opposed to the introduction of a colonial workforce. In St-Malo, Trouville and the ports of the Côtes du Nord, foreigners were not required. Only the port of Granville broke the trend, declaring their preference for Moroccans. 

One of the reasons why the ports may have displayed a general preference for North Africans (and even sub-Saharan Africans who generally had a poor reputation as workers) over Chinese and Indochinese workers may have been the nature of the work in the docks. It was considered to be very arduous, physical work which the relatively robust North Africans could manage, but that the Chinese and Indochinese could not, given that they were traditionally seen as being frailer, if perhaps more skilful. 

Consistency of Attitudes

Foreign labour was usually utilised during the war in a similar fashion to its use before the conflict. They worked in groups, under French supervision, doing unskilled or semi-skilled work. There was little opportunity to overcome pre-war prejudices. When these workers were praised it was usually not for the quality of their work but for their docile behaviour, and often in phrases that echoed pre-war assessments. For example a very positive article on Algerian and Kabyle immigrant workers in France printed in January 1914 lauded them as sober, reliable and well-behaved. In a 1917 report from the Prefect of the Saône-et-Loire on the Tunisian agricultural workforce it was claimed “ce sont des hommes doux, sobres, d’un naturel paisible et d’un maniement facile, à condition qu’on les traite avec justice.” Admittedly “[i]ls ne sont pas tous sans doute au courant des procédés de culture européens” but their use had given excellent results. 

Female labour also failed to have much impact on male attitudes towards women’s capabilities. The law of July 3, 1915 did give paternal authority to married woman for the duration of the hostilities, if it was impossible for the husband to be contacted to give his approval. However, this was done out of necessity, and hardly hints at a significant change in attitudes. In any case, the soldiers at the front continued to offer instruction to those back home. As Baconnier, Minet and Soler note: 

Dans la majorité des cas, leur intervention se limite à des conseils, mais parfois ils exercent un véritable contrôle de ce qui est fait en leur absence, demandent des comptes rendus, envoient des ordres et gèrent directement comme par le passé les affaires familiales malgré les difficultés dues à la situation. 

They conclude that 

les hommes acceptent mal de voir les femmes empiéter sur leur domaine. Et de loin, ils essaient de conserver le contrôle des affaires en les traitant en mineures incapables et irresponsables.5 

While it was practically impossible for the work of women to be controlled by soldiers hundreds of miles away, that many sought to do so is indicative of the resilience of ideas of female incapacity with regard to operating in certain areas.The presence of many women amongst the strikers of 1917 came as a surprise to the authorities and syndicalists alike.  When there was discontent amongst the female personnel at the Dolle-Chaurey factory, due to low wages compared to other factories, the police attributed it to malign male influence: “il semble que cet état d’esprit soit la conséquence évidente de la propagande faite recemment par les ouvriers mobilisés …” When the police reported on similar complaints amongst male workers their claims were usually examined closely to see if they were justified.  In Anjou, the perception that some men were profiting from the family allocation without working prompted action from the state: “C’est au point que le préfet inquiet invite les maires à rechercher les réfugiés adultes hommes qui touchent l’allocation et qui refusent le travail.”  It was clearly not considered a significant problem for women to claim the allocation while refusing to work. 

The wider scope of employment available to women during the war did not end the division between “men’s work” and “women’s work”. Certain areas of employment could move from one category to the other as the qualities and aptitudes that they were believed to require changed, but possession of those aptitudes was held to arise from traditional gendered stereotypes. Significant sections of the French economy had already begun a modernisation process in the years before the war, and the efforts to maximise productivity during the conflict often hastened this. This modernisation  often involved a move away from skilled artisanal work towards unskilled and semi-skilled factory work. In the context of this modernisation, debates over female labour during the war are inseparable from the debates over skill that preceded and postdated the war. 

(Dubious) statistical breakdown of male work during war

The very concept of skilled work was a gendered concept with women’s working qualities being broadly perceived as corresponding with unskilled or semi-skilled work, while (French) men had the capacity for skilled work. This coexisted with a discourse that sought to understand female labour outside the home as an extension of womens homemaking skills. 

For La Dépêche female abilities included an ability to do simple, repetetive work and to be calm under pressure, but not work that was complicated or physically demanding. It described the factory work that women were believed to be capable of as primarily work that was purely mechanical “qui consistent en mouvement toujours les mêmes et indéfiniment répétés.” They could also be given work that was more varied but not more complicated work, with less mechanisation involved. 

Enfin au dernier se placeraient des travaux qui exigent, non pas plus force et d’adresse, mais plus de sang-froid et de décision calme: le type est en action électrique ou hydraulique qui, de haut d’une passerelle, par le simple pression d’un bouton, met on branle les blocs de fer rouge destinés à passer entre les cylindres d’un laminoir.

Even this seemingly simple task was held to cause problems for women. “Il paraît que la puissance même du mécanisme qu’elles commandent trouble en effare la plupart des femmes à qui on les confie.” However, with a short apprenticeship, they were able to get over their fear. 

La Petite Gironde advocated women entering areas of the economy which they had not before. Yet their suggestion was informed by traditional ideas of feminine characteristics. 

La main d’œuvre féminine – et plutôt que main d’œuvre, il faudrait dire la capacité de travail à tous les degrés – devra être employée après la guerre beaucoup plus qu’elle ne l’était avant […] L’industrie hôtelière, et surtout l’industrie hôtelière de tourisme, est une de celles qui peuvent offrir à l’élément féminin français un champ d’action particulièrement en rapport avec des aptitudes générales. 

Because, of course, she had natural homemaking abilities. 

Another article on women in the hotel industry also called for women to take jobs in the hotels in order to prevent those jobs having to go to foreigners. 

L’industrie hôtelière manque de main d’œuvre… à l’heure où, précisément, viennent les jours où il la lui faudra plus nombreuse qu’hier. Car un immense flot d’étrangers est tout prêt à couvrir la France aux premiers signes d’une paix victorieuse que chaque jour passé approche. Nos hôteliers sont unanimement résolus à ne plus employer qu’un personnel exclusivement français, à condition que ce personnel ne fasse pas défaut. Mais tant d’hommes sont disparus déjà que la femme trouvera dans l’hôtellerie un plus grand nombre d’emplois où elle pourra s’utiliser, 

Even those women who were employed by the army were portrayed in traditionally feminine terms. Le Petit Journal described women working in ancillary services for the military as “doing the housekeeping of France.” An article by a respected doctor, Adolphe Pinard, offers another example. He was arguing that all pregnant women and women who had just given birth should be removed from factories. He claimed that these women were not needed for munitions work because there were sufficiently few women having children at that moment to allow them to be effectively replaced by men. “Ils se spécialiseront aussi vite que les femmes dans la production des munitions.” Meanwhile “La femme, elle, n’a qu’une aptitude naturelle pour laquelle elle a été créée: la production de l’enfant. Ne détruisons pas cette œuvre de la nature. Favorisons-la.” This is revealing, in that it shows that munitions work was seen so much as women’s work that Pinard had to state that men would be as capable as women at it. It also showed that his idea as to the basic and primary function of women had not been changed. 

The belief in women’s ability to make munitions effectively was widespread, but it was strictly specific to munitions, as Léonard Rosenthal noted in Le Temps, “La nécessité de la fabrication des munitions a permis à des milliers de femmes de gagner largement leur vie dans les travaux de manoeuvre.” When the industrialist wanted to make other things than shells “… il cherchera des artisans, et non des manoeuvres; à ce moment, la femme sera amenée à reprendre son ancien métier.”6 

A comparison of the job advertisements that appeared in La Dépêche in the summers of 1913 and 1918 shows the limits of change.  

Table 7

Percentage of employment advertisements aimed at women in La Dépêche.  

Year

Jobs for women

Service

Clothing

Sales

Others

1913

32.02

57.97

26.08

4.35

11.59

1918

33.33

53.49

27.90

2.33

16.28

Most significant is the lack of change in the percentage of jobs advertised, aimed at women. The type of jobs being offered to women was still largely the same, dominated by service jobs (which includes chambermaiding, cooking, ironing and laundry as well as domestic service) and work producing clothes and shoes. The slight increase in employment opportunities in the latter category at the expense of the former may be due to changing patterns of employment, or to the financial hardship of the war reducing the demand for service jobs, but it doesn’t suggest any change in what types of work were suited for women. The next most prevalent offer of employment was as saleswomen or shop assistants, but this was much less common than jobs in service or textiles. Moreover, this type of employment was still much more likely to be advertised towards men. 

In making the distinction between skilled and unskilled work, and placing women as unskilled, the French often paired women with immigrant labour. Reporting on the needs of the railways, where there was serious undermanning, Claveille, the Undersecretary of State for Transport argued that foreigners were in general not very useful as a workforce, being easily corrupted and prone to absenteeism. Colonial workers could only be used as unskilled labour and were incapable of being trained. As for women, Claveille argued that by 1st April 1917 the French network employment of women was probably at its maximum. He argued that they would have filled the easy jobs first and the only jobs that remained demanded a physical effort that was beyond most women, or an acclimitisation that would take too long. 

This was characteristic of French employment discourse and practice, which tended to restrict both women and colonial men to unskilled and repetetive labour, with the latter tending to be given work only in large groups. 

In the armament factories in Lyon, there were 7550 foreigners employed, representing 10.68% of the total employees. Of the 192 factories, 155 employed foreigners. The nationalities of these foreigners are recorded in Tables 8 and 9. As can be seen from the tables, the largest number of foreigners were from Spain, though the number of factories employing Italians was significantly higher. The figures also display the different ways in which white and non-white workers were hired. European workers were generally employed as individuals or small groups, while African or Asian workers tended to be employed in much bigger contingents. 

Table 8

Nationality of workers in national defence industries in Lyon, June 1917.  

Recorded nationality         

Number of workers employed

% of foreign workers

Number of factories employed in

Spanish                       

2237

29.63

76

Italians

1562

20.69

121

Africans

647

8.57

1

Swiss

578

7.66

73

Algerians

454

6.01

14

Chinese

398

5.27

5

Greeks

356

4.72

11

Belgians

264

3.50

34

Alsatians

189

2.50

33

Moroccans

177

2.34

4

Kabyles

165

2.19

9

Arabs

122

1.62

2

Serbs

69

0.91

8

Egyptians

55

0.73

3

British (anglais)

53

0.70

7

Russians

39

0.55

12

Tunisians

33

0.44

3

Cypriots

30

0.40

1

Indochinese (tonkinois)

30

0.40

1

Luxembourgeois

22

0.29

7

Armenians

18

0.24

4

Senegalese

12

0.16

2

Rest7

40

0.53

27

Table 9

Size of foreign contingents in national defence industries in Lyon, June 1917.  

Nationality

Number of workers

Number of

contingents

Size of contingent

1-2

3-9

10-29

30-99

100+

Spanish           

2237

76

39

24

5

4

4

Italians

1562

121

43

44

27

5

2

Africans

647

1

0

0

0

0

1

Swiss

578

73

35

29

7

1

1

Algerians

454

14

5

5

2

1

1

Chinese

398

5

0

1

0

2

2

Greeks

356

11

4

0

1

5

1

Belgians

264

34

19

12

0

3

0

Alsatians

189

33

15

14

3

1

0

Moroccans

177

4

1

0

0

3

0

Kabyles

165

9

6

1

1

0

1

Arabs

122

2

1

0

0

0

1

Serbs

69

8

0

5

3

0

0

Egyptians

55

3

2

0

0

1

0

British

53

7

5

0

1

1

0

Russians

39

12

9

1

2

0

0

Tunisians

33

3

2

0

0

1

0

Cypriots

30

1

0

0

0

1

0

Indochinese

30

1

0

0

0

1

0

Luxembourgeois

22

7

5

1

1

0

0

Armenians

18

4

3

0

1

0

0

Senegalese

12

2

1

0

1

0

0

Rest

40

31

25

3

0

0

0

Total

7550

458

219

140

55

30

14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Europe (including Russia and Armenia)

5435

401

190

131

51

16

8

Africa and the Middle East

1673

39

19

6

4

6

4

Asia

434

9

2

2

0

3

2

Americas

14

9

8

1

0

0

0

 The tables above don’t indicate which nationalities where employed in skilled, or unskilled work, but the figures from the Ministry of the Marine’s employees from 1 June 1917 are more revealing. One of the most striking things is that the Chinese are classified alongside colonial workers, rather than with the foreign workers, so clearly racial origin was considered fundamental in the compiling of these figures. The French and Belgians, including military personnel, are mainly employed in skilled work, with foreigners largely in unskilled positions, a distinction even clearer for colonial workers. Women are entirely in non-professional employment.

Table 10

Nationalities of workers employed by the Ministry of the Marine, June 1917.  

Workers

Professionals

%

Labourers

%

Total

Military

9902

79.66

2529

20.34

12431

French and Belgian

24669

80.38

6021

19.62

30690

Foreign

39

42.39

53

57.61

92

Colonial and Chinese

827

22.68

2820

77.32

3647

Prisoners of War

517

17.29

2473

82.71

2990

Women

0

0.00

14967

100.00

14967

The system of classifying the Chinese workers alongside colonial workers rather than with other foreign workers was not universally employed, as shown in these figures for employment on the railway network, also from June 1917. The figures do present the same theme of French workers being employed in skilled positions at a much higher percentage than colonial workers or women. 

Table 11

Nationality of workers on the French railway network, June 1917. 

Workers                                  

Skilled

%

Unskilled

%

French men                             

5296

29.99

12351

70.01

Foreigners (including Chinese)

1485

27.61

3894

72.39

Colonial Workers

94

5.58

1591

94.42

Prisoners of War

2066

28.85

5494

71.15

Women

425

2.66

15564

97.34

The predominance of unskilled jobs amongst women is also evident from the salary tariffs as set by the Ministry of Armament, applying to the munitions factories. 

In Nantes, there were 4 categories of workers. A limited range of unskilled occupations were divided amongst: women, with a pay scale from 0.40 to 0.50 francs per hour; young workers aged from sixteen to eighteen, whose pay scale ranged from 0.30-0.35; and non-professional men, paid between 0.45 and 0.55 francs. There was also a long and diverse list of professional jobs whose pay scale ranged from 0.55-0.90 francs, where there was no distinction by age or sex. Similarly in St Etienne and Roanne, the division was made between professional salaries, which were uniform, and non-professional ones, divided by age and sex.

A report by Olivier Bascou, the Prefect of the Gironde, detailing minimum salaries in the wood industry is also revealing, explicitly separating female labour from skilled labour and assessing the former as significantly less valuable. 

Table 12

Minimum Salaries in the Gironde Wood Industry, June 1917 

Occupation Francs per hour
Menusiers

0.80

Charpentiers-Menuisiers

0.80

Charpentiers

0.90

Toupilleurs-Mouluriers

0.80

Toupilleurs débutants

0.75

Ouvriers débutants

0.65

Manœuvres spécialisés

0.70

Manœuvres sans spécialité

0.60

Femmes

0.50

An advert from “Le service ouvrier du ministère de l’Armement” in Lyon, called for workers for a variety of (male) professional jobs – masons, carpenters, joiners, builders and so on, before concluding with “femmes pour travaux diverse d’usinage”. Showing a similar distinction between specialised male work and generic female work, a police report listed the occupations of workers affiliated to the CGT at the Fremaux factory in Lyon. The 21 men were divided into 9 different occupations, most of them specialised, while all but one of the 12 women were described as “spécialisée”. The sole exception was a simple “manœuvre”. 

When the committee of economic action in the Nantes region discussed demobilisation, the commitee suggested that the order in which demobilisation should occur be determined by employment. In descending order, these were: “Chefs d’exploitation, propriétaires exploitant eux-mêmes, ingenieurs agricoles, ouvriers agricoles, chefs d’industries, techniciens et spécialistes, ouvriers.” While the committee didn’t discuss the rationale for this sequence, it can be reasonably assumed that it corellated with how satisfactorily these tasks were being carried out by the interim workforce. In which case, it is noticeable that as well as the unsurprising significance given to agriculture in Brittany, it also privileges skilled workers over unskilled, suggesting that the perceived inadequacies of the interim workforce were seen as more related to skill than brute strength. 

Often employment of women seemed to be undertaken as much for social reasons as on job suitability. Women were required to demonstrate either their suitability in terms of morality, or else their having suffered as a result of the war. Gallieni, in December 1915, on the selection of auxiliary women to be employed in Central administration, stated that they should be chosen primarily amongst wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of soldiers killed or wounded, and amongst those in charge of families. The candidates had to be French, and “présenter toutes garanties au point de vue de la moralité”. Women who wished to work as telephone operators for the Postes Téléphones et Télégraphes service after the war had to produce a certificate attesting to their good character, signed by the mayor or police commissioner of their home town. This requirement did not exist for men. In 1916 a directive from J Thierry, an under secretary in the ministry of war, declared that in order to help unemployed women and other women deprived of a livelihood by the war, “les travaux de confections faciles (chemises, caleçons, etuis-musettes, etc.) ont été réservées aux associations charitables”. At a meeting of syndicalists in Toulouse in January 1918 there were complaints about the hiring of young women to work in the creche, in the belief that employment there should have been reserved for older women or mothers of families. During the war, the Hotchkiss factory in Lyon had employed 3000 workers, 800 of them women. Following the armistice the factory had fired 550 of the women, retaining 250 chosen on the basis that their family situation was “plus particulièrement digne à intérêt.” The link between women and the war wounded was also apparent here as the sacked women received an indemnity ranging from 180-300 francs. 1200 men were also fired, without indemnity, except for those wounded in the war. “Toutefois les ouvriers mutilés de guerre seront assimilés aux femmes.” 

The Popular Debate

Marie-Monique Huss has examined the postcards that were sent extensively throughout the war. She argues that while the press extolled the advances of women at work, their move into areas previously reserved for men, “et parfois même l’emergence d’une nouvelle image de la femme”; was not reflected in the representations in postcards, which remained traditional. Women were “représentées en train de prendre soin de leur famille et de faire tourner le pays, sans les hommes. Avec de titre comme  L’autre Front, ou L’autre Devoir, ces cartes apportent leur contribution à la mobilisation féminine, contrepartie du celle des hommes.” 

There was also a notable difference between how working women were depicted. Those knitting or performing other traditional tasks were portrayed seriously, while illustrations of nurses were almost always respectful, and sometimes reverential.  By contrast, women working in the arms factories were treated irreverently, with the patronising diminutives munitionette or obusette, and they were the subjects of humorous or erotic images. This was unlike Britain, where women producing weapons were depicted as respected and valued contributors to the war effort. 

Canons is a pun, with a second meaning of "hot chicks" (approx!)

Canons is a pun, with a second meaning of "hot chicks" (approx!)

Advertisements overwhelmingly continued to portray women in traditional roles. Cartoons promoting Phoscao, a product supposed to ease stomach ailments, consistently depicted women as nurses or maids aiding or serving male soldiers throughout 1916. An advertisement for Globéol pills depicted a male physician offering a sickly woman some pills, indicating that they would give her the radiant health of a young woman picking flowers outside. Another depicted an elderly male farmer sowing a crop of the pills and achieving a harvest of healthy young women. When the makers of Tonitrine wanted to display its fortifying powers it depicted male miners, workers or soldiers; women were shown as nuns or nurses. 

The articles in newspapers also did not display a widespread acceptance of women’s working practices changing. La Bataille, in an article on women working in a factory, argued that “Ces femmes font toutes sortes de travaux; la plupart de ces travaux ne sont pas en rapport avec la force féminine […] qu’importe, il faut qu’elles les accomplissent tout de même.” If they couldn’t or wouldn’t carry out these tasks, despite them not being suitable for women’s strength, La Bataille argued they would be sacked. Godechot describes the reaction of the newspapers in the south: 

Puis ce sont les P.T.T., l’enseignement, les banques, les journaux et la pouderie qui embauchent des femmes. Les journaux conservateurs, et mêmes La Dépêche s’en alarment. Seul le Midi socialiste approuve ces initiatives et s’élève contre les ‘insinuations abominables et les injures infectes des journaux bourgeois’. 

This reaction was not at the start of the war, but in January 1917.

Godechot notes that by April 1918 La Dépêche had come round to accept “les droites politiques et sociaux […] de la femme ne pourront plus être niés” Yet this seeming acceptance that women had proven themselves is a non sequitur. By working in various fields previously closed to them, women had not earned the right to carry on working in them; instead they had earned political and social rights. To La Dépêche, women had not proved themselves as capable workers in every area, but they had shown that they were prepared to suffer for the country, thus deserving political reward. The readers of L’Ouest-Éclair made a similar argument when the paper held a debate on female suffrage. Various people suggested that “Pour prix de ses peines, de ses souffrances et de ses larmes, la femme serait admise à élire les conseillers municipaux, […] peut-être même les députés.”8 The newspaper itself seemed to be taking that line when (in the context of whether women should be granted the vote) it recounted the contribution of women during the war. 

mamans sublimes, vivant dans les pires angoisses, la plupart douloureusement frappées en plein cœur; femmes héroïques, cachant souvent à leur enfant, les larmes que causa la mort du père; ou, tout simplement, cultivatrices laborieuses dirigeant, seules, la ferme pendant que le mari se bat; ouvrières courageuses faisant […] ‘deux journées dans une’ afin de nourrir la petite famille; jeunes filles, oubliant les distractions permises à des cerveaux de vingt ans, pour se consacrer à une tâche aride, modeste et sans gloire, qui permet à la maman de grossir les recettes du maigre budget familial…” 

Once again this shows the assumption that those who had suffered during the war should be favoured over those seen to have exploited it. That the same criterion was applied to foreign labour is illustrated by the response of the director of the Atelier de Fabrication in Toulouse to a complaint about foreign workers from a delegation of about 150 women workers, led by M. Valette. He argued 

qu’il allait prendre des dispositions pour congédier, dès qu’il le pourra, les sujets portugais, espagnols ou des autres nations; pour les Annamites et les Malgaches, il demandera qu’ils soient rendus disponibles quand les nécessités du service le permettront. Quant aux Serbes et aux Belges qui sont des éprouvés de la guerre, il a déclaré ne pouvoir y toucher.

Particularly in jobs involving the taking of responsibility it was often felt that women were overstretching themselves. Gustave Lanson, the most respected literary scholar of the time, believed that the taking over of lycée teaching by women and elderly men had led to a significant decline in the quality of secondary teaching, making it necessary for the Sorbonne to bring in introductory courses. According to Henri Spont, the women who had become the first lawyers and doctors were admired because they “avait eu le courage de renoncer aux amusements frivoles de son sexe pour plonger ses jolis yeux dans de vieux grimoire et qui préférait à la poudre la poussière des bibliothèques.” Nevertheless, their true goal was to get married. He added that while some exceptional women might succeed in professional roles, many others would fail to match their unrealistic ambitions. 

Pour quelques virtuoses qui, douées d’une intelligence virile et exemptes de préjugés, pouvaient, au prix d’efforts et de concessions pénibles, réussir à s’imposer dans un monde où les bonnes places sont occupées par les hommes, combien d’autres, victimes de leur illusions, succomberont sur la route trop longue, trop dure.

Even those female virtuosos blessed with an intelligence that was “virile”, and hence presumably similar to male intelligence, could only suceed at great personal cost. In an extreme example of women failing to cope with the situation, Yves Pourcher has described the case of a female baker named Ryom in the maison de santé des Capucins. “C’est une malheureuse femme qui se trouvant seule à la tête de son commerce depuis le départ de son mari pour Salonique a perdu complètement la raison. Elle s’arrache les cheveux et s’accuse d’avoir tué tous ses enfants.” In this report it seems to be implied that being left in charge, rather than her husband’s departure to the front, was the cause of her insanity. 

On a rare occasion, an advert (for Pilules Pink) showed women undertaking strenuous labour, bringing in the harvest. The text warned “Puisque los nobles travaux de la terre incombent aujourd’hui aux femmes […] il importe de les mettre en garde contre les conséquences d’un effort admirable, mais parfois excessif.” Still more daringly, in October 1917 it featured a woman making shells. The actual work of the woman was not obviously masculine; she was simply turning a wheel of a machine. It was feared that even this placed undue demands upon a woman, and that “[l]e courage ne peut indéfinement suppléer les forces défaillantes,” thus it was necessary for women to take extra care of their health. Similarly, another restorative product, Tontrine, was offered to a woman to try and revive her from exhaustion, brought about by having to look after her farm. This message is illustrative of a wide-ranging discourse that argued women were risking their health through the extra or new tasks they were undertaking. On the political left, the Bataille and the Vague both regularly criticised the working conditions that tested women to the limits of their capacities. On the right, Mme. Debrol lauded the work women were doing while the husbands were at the front but noted “Et c’est quelquefois dur! les aguillages, les bousculades du Dimanche, les perpétuelles trépidations! Mais elles sont heureuses de remplir leur place et de faire leur tâche. J. B. Massé, owner of an insurance company commented that many women whose husbands and sons had been mobilised were forced to take work to support their families and that this work was plus ou moins nuisibles à leur santé”

Loisel and Klotz’s study of the British war factories led them to comment on how it had been recognised there that women could not manage to work at exactly the same rate as men. They argued that it was the general rule in England that “la journée de travail est plus chargée pour l’ouvrier que pour l’ouvrière”. Moreover 

Pour les femmes, il semble bien reconnu, par l’ensemble des industriels anglais, que l’ouvrière, tout en pouvant dépenser la même somme d’énergie que l’homme, a cependant plus besoin que lui de pauses au cours de son temps de travail. 

Women’s ability or inability to undertake arduous physical work was regularly linked with their reproductive role. Amar’s book on the physiological organisation of work cautioned 

On doit écarter des travaux durs les enfants qui n’on pas atteint dix-huit ans, et les femmes, car ils manquent de la force nécessaire, vu leur maigre musculature. Ces dernières sont affaiblies par les menstruations […] et la grossesse;

In the first meeting of a parliamentary committee on female work, in May 1916, the chair Paul Strauss, argued that simply recruiting women was not enough, it was also necessary to ensure that they were employed in a way that best corresponded to their aptitudes, their interests and their physical and moral health, in order to safeguard the race and to prepare for the future. While lauding the majority of the brave women workers who offered their devotion to the defence of France,  Paul Vernédal’s medical thesis on the impact of the war on children in Toulouse concluded that factory work was bad for pregnant women. 

An article by L’Echo de Midi on the problem of the workforce provides a good illustration of the impression that women workers were making on male observers. It began positively, “Cet emploi de la main d’œuvre féminine n’a rencontra aucune opposition, et le nombre de femmes employées dans les usines de guerre, déjà très considérable, va croissant tous les jours.”  This was not the whole story, however. 

Mais les femmes, quelle que soit la bonne volonté, ne sont pas capables de suffire à tous les travaux. Leur résistance physique a des limites, aussi bien que celle de ces auxiliaires écartés du service armé en raison justement de leur mauvaise santé ou de leur faiblesse de constitution. 

This physical weakness was considered so pronounced that the paper argued that not just male colonial labour – Annamites, Kabyles, and Moroccans – should be utilised instead but those men too old to have been already mobilised were preferable as they were “plus robustes, malgré leur age”. 

The post-war abandonment of much of their wartime employment by women seems to have been taken as a given by many contemporaries. A report summarising the work of the various committees and sub-committees of economic action illustrated that women were not expected to remain in the workforce when it argued that while the situation of “intérimaires” deserved attention, the majority of these workers were women or the elderly who would, when peace arrived, abandon the factory to return to their husbands and children; or else they were refugees. As for those who had died in the war, or had become too seriously wounded to undertake their pre-war occupation, “la question des intérimaires se posera sans acuité. Elle sera d’autant moins à redouter que la main-d’oeuvre étrangère aura été plus réglementée. Le Soir reported in 1918 the complaints of the deputy, M. Durafour, about an arsenal that had fired a third of its male personnel. Durafour appeared to have little interest in the firing of women. In July 1917, there was an inter-ministerial conference on the employment issue, debating what would happen when peace arrived. M.Grunebaum-Ballin, President of the Commission du placement des marins et de la main d’œuvre maritime, was the principal speaker. He argued that the closing of the munitions factories and the desire of demobilised troops to return to their previous occupations would deprive a certain number of women their jobs. However, he believed that the majority of spouses and mothers would be happy to return to their domestic tasks and the joys of home, and to quit work that was often laborious. He also quoted M. Fuster, professor of the College of France: “Une masse de ces ouvriers d’aujourd’hui, femmes, jeunes gens, vieillards, moins valides, aura été rejetée de l’usine.” Many of them were working only because of the departure of a mobilised soldier, but some of them needed employment. Fuster wondered if these people would compete with returning troops for jobs, but his conclusion as to who would be best suited to the job was clear. 

For the unionists, the situation was similar. Jouhaux argued that, “Nous ne pouvons pas à l’heure actuelle, nous opposer à l’emploi de la main d’œuvre féminine.” Again women’s work is seen as only a stopgap. Luquet, a national CGT leader, made a revealing comment early in 1916 when he said 

After the war, when our own have laid down arms and can once again take up their tools, the women who occupied their posts in the hell of industry will relinquish their places to their male companions. Will it be the same if … female labour is replaced by Asian or African labor? 

This obviously shows that, after the war, women were expected to leave the occupations they had just filled, so much so that it could be taken as a given. Interestingly, it also indicates that employers were considering immigrant labour as a replacement for women during the war, which again questions whether women were really thought to be capable of some of the necessary tasks, even for a short period of time. In June 1917 a police report made a similar point, referring to “women, temporarily transformed into wartime workers”. In a report for the sub-committee of economic action in the Cher, M. Amichau, argued that to prevent men and women competing against each other for jobs after the war it was necessary to employ the principle of equal pay for equal work – which he believed would ensure that industrialists would choose to employ men. 

It must also be stressed that there was no attempt to recruit colonial women. While the most important factor in this was probably a desire to stop immigrants getting too settled, it did create a much higher possibility of sexual relations between immigrants and French women, which, as discussed elsewhere, was seen as a problem.  That this was considered a price worth paying tends to imply that a low value was placed on the labour of colonial women. When immigrants did bring their wives, they often took on traditional roles. An article in Le Matin on 18 August 1916 lauds Greeks working in Bourgogne as perfect workers, and is entirely positive. The women and children who had accompanied them were portrayed laughing and chatting as they undertook their domestic work.

Agriculture

In the agricultural sector, the problem of a lack of manpower had been one that caused great concern even before the war. The loss of huge numbers of men to the front, and the high casualties suffered there only exacerbated this situation. The peasantry were significantly over-represented amongst the infantry, and thus sustained proportionately more casualties than most other sections of society. The response to the shortage of men entailed the hiring of considerable numbers of foreign labour, particularly Portuguese and Spanish, and a much greater role for women. In more than a third of farms, a woman was left at the head of operations. Of course, women working in agriculture was nothing new, but in the farms where a woman did take over the management of the farm they also took over certain tasks previously restricted to men – for instance ploughing and the selling of produce. 

In agriculture there was a consistent message; women had worked heroically to replace men, but had not proved to be entirely adequate. A report on agriculture in the Tours region despaired that since the departure of the last class there were no more people in the countryside and that the old and the young who remained were absolutely insufficient to carry out the intensive farming that was needed in the region. The agricultural workers who remained were mediocre workers, with a feeble output. Not only this, but they made excessive salary demands. In a debate in the chamber on how to avoid land being abandoned, Fernand David claimed “les femmes seront incapables d’expliquer pourquoi leur terre n’est pas cultivée.” L’Ouest-Éclair argued that

 dans la plupart des fermes, ce sont des femmes qui exécutent, en partie, le travail que faisaient précédemment les hommes. L’état général des fermes en souffre et le rendement s’en trouve fortement diminué.

A report on agriculture and mechanisation, by the agronomist Jacques Lesuer, for the Ministry of Agriculture in the winter of 1915-1916 lauded the marvellous patriotism of the French in ensuring that the agricultural situation in 1914-1915 wasn’t as bad as had been feared. He praised everyone for making a marvellous effort, the elderly, women, children and non-mobilised men. Unfortunately he thought it improbable that such an effort could be repeated. Later, the author lauded American machines simple enough that the children and wives of the soldiers could “conserver au sol sa richesse en attendant que les jeunes générations nous donnent de nouveaux hommes qui rendront à l’agriculture les bras que la guerre lui aura fait perdre.” 

our-courageous-womenIn the Indre-et-Loire it was noted that in 1914 women had bravely managed to fill the breach. However, it had been due to an incredible effort and in 1915 the courage of these farmers was beginning to weaken and many of them were overburdened by work beyond their strength. Nearby, in the Maine-et-Loire, at the beginning of 1916, a report made a distinction between farms where a man remained “pour assurer l’utilisation des attelages aux labours, hersages, roulages et transports de toute sorte” and farm where only a woman remained. In the former, 15 day agricultural leaves would suffice, but in those farms of over 15 hectares where a woman was on her own the continual presence of a good worker, able to drive a plough was indispensable.

 

In February 1916, the Deux-Sèvres made a similar distinction. The region had been understaffed even before the war, and things were now critical. On small farms, women and the aged could just about cope.

Quand l’exploitation n’a que 10 à 15 hectares, le travail se fait mal, mais il se fait encore, grâce au courage de la femme et du vieillard, courage et vaillance qui n’ont d’égal que le dévouement de nos soldats.

But even to do the work badly was requiring an overwhelming effort, and it was feared that being forced to maintain this effort would exhaust those who remained. As to alternative sources of labour, Belgians, Italians and Poles weren’t available, Spanish and Kabyles were unsatisfactory, as were Belgian refugees. The committee recommended utilising German prisoners, despite some misgivings. 

By 1917 another report for the Ministry of Agriculture reported a critical situation. 

Pour donner de l’impulsion aux travaux des champs, il faut des hommes. C’est un des gros facteurs de vivification, c’est celui qui touche le plus près à l’autorité militaire […] La culture manque de bras malgré tous les efforts faites jusqu’à ce jour dans le but d’employer des travailleurs coloniaux, des étrangers, des prisonniers de guerre. […] Des ouvriers américains pourraient aussi venir dans nos usines de guerre, libérer des soldats qui remplaceraient au front autant de terriens, mais ceci c’est hypothétique et le temps presse. 

While many of these reports may attest primarily to a situation where the work was too much for the few people left on the farms to undertake, regardless of their sex, other reports highlight specifically doubts over women’s ability to manage. The President of the syndicat agricole d’Yvrac wrote a letter describing how the lack of winegrowers had forced the owners of vineyards to “utiliser tant bien que mal, pour le taille de la vigne, tous les hommes et les jeunes gens, quelque fois même des femmes” and as a result the work was not done. 

soldiers-doing-agricultural-work-women-cannotA report presented to the Comité d’action nationale drew attention to the vulnerability of women trying to run farms on their own. 

Voyez-vous ces malheureuses femmes, restées seules dans les fermes, la plupart isolées, des vieillards dans la même situation, auxquels on propose comme main d’œuvre des vagabonds et des traîneurs!  Mais ces femmes, et avec raison, préfèrent abandonner le ferme plutôt que d’y introduire de tels éléments et elles ont raison. […] Le retour, la présence du mari, de l’homme; il en impose forcément, il peut embaucher des ouvriers, des ouvrières, que sa femme n’osait pas venir. […] Jamais on ne dira assez le courage, l’héroïsme même qu’ont montré grand nombre de femmes restées à la tête d’exploitations agricoles. 

This is by no means a hostile report, indeed it describes as heroic those women who remain in charge of farms, but it does argue that women aren’t capable of doing the hiring and firing of agricultural labourers that might be necessary for the running of the farm. Not only were they too fearful to sack agricultural workers, but the report also described that they lived in fear of the anger and fury of those workers when they were drunk.

The sub-committee of economic action in the Loir-et-Cher complained about the lack of quantity, and sometimes lack of quality in its workforce. A certain number of courageous wives had taken the place of their husbands. “Mais la plupart d’entre elles s’occupent des autres travaux qui leur sont habituellement reserves. Ce personnel, assez mediocre dans la plupart des cas et toujours en nombre insuffisant, ne peut executer qu’une faible partie des travaux les plus necessaries.” Similarly a report on agriculture in the Dordogne reported that the work carried out by women, the elderly, or by children was generally badly done; ploughing was superficial, the weeding insufficient, anticryptogamique treatments too slow, the harvests sometimes compromised. Women were also under the vigilant surveillance of other members of their family, or even husbands at the front. 

M. Lefebvre du Prey opposed granting women the vote on the grounds that though they had rendered immense service to agriculture they could not replace men, while in the factories they needed to be helped by soldiers sent back from the front. In 1919 the Petite Gironde concluded 

Les femmes, les enfants, les vieillards, avec un courage et une ardeur qui ont fait l’admiration de tous, ont multiplé leur efforts […] mais les forces humaines ont des limites qui arrêtent les meilleures volontés; la nature a des droits et des exigences qu’il faut satisfaire. 

A directive from the Prefect of the Aude in January 1917 to the mayors and teachers of the department called for… 

Les heures consacrées à l’enseignement agricole, ainsi qu’aux exercices physiques seront obligatoirement employées à partir de 15 Février à la mise en valeur des terres destinées à la production des cultures les plus simples: pommes de terre, haricots, pois, carottes, choux, salsifis. 

However, the schools for girls were to concentrate on the raising of “lapins, poules, pintades, canards, oies, dindons, L’élevage des porcs devre être développé dans les établissements pourvus d’un internat.” The Bataille praised a similar scheme undertaken by the prefect of Saône-et-Loire. Once again it is noticeable that the role assigned to women focuses on their presumed natural instinct for nurture. 

A poster in La Main d’Œuvre agricole from June 1917 depicted men before they departed to the front and the women who were replacing them. However, the difference in tasks undertaken by the two sexes was stark.  The men were featured sharpening a scythe and forging a sword on an anvil respectively. By contrast, one woman was shown picking grapes by hand while the other was using a machine to make a shell. In agriculture, as in industry, men are seen as skilled craftsmen with the capacity for undertaking heavy manual labour, while women are seen as deft, nimble workers, whose skilful hands can be utilised to compensate for their fragile arms. Overall the war also made little impact on broader trends towards the domination of agriculture by medium-sized family farms or towards rural depopulation caused by low natality and migration towards the towns. 

Working-class Attitudes

For the working-class leadership, women’s work in factories was seen as acceptable as long as they were spared the worst excesses of industrial labour. Working class organisations regularly urged the need to protect women in the factories. In 1918, the syndicat de la métallurgie wanted to “protéger la femme dans nos usines.” Writing about striking women in munitions factories in La Bataille, Jouhaux argued that they accepted women’s labour only as long as employers took account of the  “forces limitées” of women, as well as offering equal pay for equal work. Jouhaux also shared the concern that factory work should not prevent women from fulfilling their social role – that of giving birth.. He complained about the attitude of recalcitrant employers, asking rhetorically “Ne doit-on pas voir dans la femme la mère de famille indispensable à la continuité de la nation?” 

The general tone of comments from men in the labour movement did suggest that they didn’t believe that women were getting enough protection in industry. Merrheim argued that women had “over-extended”  themselves in the factories during the war and needed to be returned to the home. Bardy, the Secretary of the Union des Syndicats de la Gironde said that women in the factories were ruining both their physical and moral health. In November 1917, one of the demands by the Syndicat de la Voiture was of an increase in the length of rest periods for women. 

The Syndicat des Ouvriers et Ouvrières en Métaux de la Seine called for the English week, with Saturdays off, claiming that it would bring about an incontestable improvement in the lives of working women. Firstly because it would allow them to get down to caring for their “neglected” home, secondly for the joy of spending time with the children, and finally to allow them to prepare for the rest they’d earned by a hard week’s work. 

In February 1916, Lyon municipal council adopted the measure of equal pay for equal work for all women who replaced male workers and performed the same task as they had. Jouhaux argued in favour of the measure–it would allow women more rest, essential since their delicate bodies could not work as hard as men without adversely affecting their ability to have children. As well as a genuine concern for women and their ability to work and be homemakers, the concern over women earning equal salaries was founded on a desire not to allow women to undercut male wages and working conditions. This was made explicit by Lecussan, a union activist in the Haute-Garonne, speaking to the co-operative “L’Union des Travailleurs” in Toulouse. According to police reports he addressed sharp criticism to women who had accepted work previously confined to men, without ensuring they got the same rate of pay. For the same reason, when the Congrès de l’Association Nationale d’Expansion économique advised of the necessity of hiring some foreign labour, they recommended that, to allay fears of French workers, these immigrant workers would be paid the same as other workers in the locality with the same tasks and aptitudes. Another report described a syndicalist meeting, in which Valette criticised women workers for putting too much effort into their work. This resulted in the production of too many bullets. 

In March 1918, the union of the Poudrerie in Toulouse had a meeting of about 600 people, both male and female. It declared that women should be paid equally to men on the basis that they were now carrying out all the work previously done by men and that the war had placed them in the position of men as head of the family. This represented the first time that equal wages had been demanded by the union; in all previous demands women had been offered roughly two-thirds of men’s pay. This did not mean that women had proved their full equality with men though. In August, the union continued to demand that women employed in “men’s work” received the sam salary, but simultaneously demanded the cessation of women’s work in certain jobs which they lacked “la force et l’énergie” to perform. It is interesting that the union was arguing that women were already doing jobs beyond their abilities, or at least ones that male workers wanted for themselves. 

In 1918 the Salaire de base unique was also accepted by the union of the Atelier de Fabrication in Toulouse, “sur le principe que les femmes dont les besoins sont identiques à l’homme, bénéficient du même salaires lorsqu’elles font le même travail…”. It is noticeable that this demand is based on women’s needs being identical to men’s, rather than claiming that their value was of equal worth. At the same meeting they were calling for a pension of 1200 francs for men, compared to just 1000 for women. 

For the working classes the questions of female and foreign labour were often addressed together. In March 1917, a speech by Jouhaux to the workers at Le Creusot was reported to the prefect of the Saône-et-Loire. Jouhaux argued that women workers should be supported in the factories, and should be helped to earn an equal wage to make them “une associé et non une rivale.” As for the foreign workforce, he believed that they should continue to be employed under the same conditions as before the war, and that foreign militants should not be deported. 

The official line of working-class organisations was that they were not opposed to foreign workers, on the condition that their entry into the marketplace did not serve to replace French workers, reduce salaries, or harm working conditions. Merrheim visited Lyon to speak to unionists there, claiming he was trying to avoid “une certaine effervescence” against the Italian soldiers working there and to not to create any animosity between workers who didn’t happen to be of the same nationality. However, it was very rare that the presence of foreign workers wasn’t seen as damaging to the interests of the French labour movement. Jouhaux claimed that employers sometimes introduced foreign labour to prevent increases in salaries and argued that “[l]a guerre n’a pas aboli complètement ces practiques condamnables.” The syndicat of the Atelier de Fabrication had a  meeting in March 1918 in which they urged the governemnent “de procéder d’abord au renvoi de la main d’œuvre étrangère avant d’opérer le moindre prélèvement sur la main d’œuvre française.” 

Fears of the use of foreign workers as a tool to lower wages or to counter indigenous labour militancy were often well founded. In March 1918 a Bordeaux port administrator requested 100 colonial workers, explicitly stating that it was to bring down wages in the local labor force. Furthermore, colonial workers were much more likely to be used as strike-breakers, due to their isolation from Trade Unions, an inability to seek work elsewhere, and harsher repercussions if they did strike, plus several other contributory factors. 

When male workers were faced by the twin challenges of female and foreign labour, then they generally supported the women. An assembly of syndicalists in Toulouse expressed its approval over a guarantee that the female workforce would not be replaced by colonial workers. 

L’Assemblée se montre satisfaite des paroles prononcées à la Tribune de la Chambre par le Ministre de l’Armement qui a déclaré que la main d’œuvre féminine devait être maintenue et en aucun cas remplacée par une autre main d’œuvre telle qu’annamite, malgache, etc., et a en outre pris l’engagement formel de ne remplacer aucun ouvrier français par des ouvriers ou soldats des armées alliées. 

This statement is interesting for two reasons. Firstly because it argues against the replacement of any French worker by a foreigner, be they Indochinese, Malagasy or from an allied nation. More importantly though it equates the labour of men from allied nations as comparable to that of French men, while that of colonial workers is comparable to that of French women. 

In September 1918, at Nantes, Merrheim declared that the working classes had to organise in order to achieve the same salaries and bonuses for women as men and also to allow them to categorically refuse the competetion of the foreign workforce. The police noted that this point was very loudly applauded by the sizeable audience of 1100 people, including 350 women. It is notable that Merrheim’s comments here are rather different from the speech he made in Lyon, and it may be that he was changing his argument in order to appeal to a greater hostility to immigrant workers in the North West. 

When French workers, male or female, felt they were being treated unfairly because of foreign workers, then hostility towards foreigners became more explicit. At a meeting of syndicalists in Toulouse in January 1918 it was declared that 

Il fait aussi connaître que s’il est question de chômage c’est dû à l’emploi de la main d’œuvre coloniale. Il n’admet pas que des “nègres” viennent prendre la place des femmes de mobilisés qui ont besoin de gagner leur vie. Il cite qu’à l’atelier de réfection des douilles du Polygone les Malgaches sont employés à des travaux d’emballage de douilles, alors que des femmes sont employés à des travaux pénibles. Le syndicat protestera contre l’emploi de cette main d’œuvre dans les ateliers. 

This statement is revealing for the universalising concept of non-whites as “nègres” as well as the argument that women should not be employed to do arduous work. 

On 4 February there was another meeting of the syndicalists, who were again complaining about foreign workers, in particular the Portuguese on this occasion. It was pointed out that foreign workers led to the “relève des ouvriers mobilisés.” The syndicalist delegate, Valette, responded that it was a point he often brought up with the management. He asserted that the union cannot tolerate unemployment or redundancies as long as there are foreigners in the establishment. This was unanimously approved. The accusation that foreign workers were allowing French soldiers to go to the front was also levelled against Algerians in Lyon. In Rennes, under the slogan “Rendez nous nos poilus”, female workers at an atelier de construction went on strike demanding wage increases and the sending back of the foreign and colonial workforce. Discussing the complaints of dockers in Le Havre and Dunkerque at their unemployment due to usage of prisoners, Belgians and Moroccans, a M. Perrette talked of brawls between the Moroccans and the local population . 

In La Bataille, the “Mouvement Social” section described a variety of disputes over wages and work hours throughout the war. It featured a letter from unionised bakers in Narbonne to their bosses 

Voila quelque temps que notre situation devient inquiète de fait que, sans nullement vous émouvoir, vous nous mettez sur le pavé pour nous remplacer par des ouvriers étrangers.

A un moment, vous dûtes, par suite du manque de main d’œuvre, faire appel à leur concours: mais là n’est pas notre grief puisqu’ils étaient nécessaires.

Mais ce qui est inadmissible aujourd’hui c’est que vous nous éliminez pour le conserver; seraient-ils plus habiles?  Nous ne pouvons le croire, vous les auriez appelés bien avant. Souvenez-vous un instant qu’ils n’ont pas toujours été là, que nous, qui sommes du pays, avons besoin de manger et qu’en nous donnant du travail, vous faites vivre des Français.

Nous voulons bien, de compagnie avec les étrangers, faire notre ouvrage, à condition toutefois qu’il y en ait pour nous d’abord, surtout en ce moment, où la vie est si dure. 

This letter makes clear that acceptance of foreign labour, such as there was, was contingent on it being considered unavoidable. However, it was totally unacceptable to employ it at the expense of French workers. The letter also appeals to national solidarity, as well as asserting the superiority of French workers.

In June 1917 the police reported on a meeting of Ouvrières in the Poudrerie in Toulouse, where relations between the French workforce and the Annamite one were frosty. 

Une autre s’éleva contre le projet de mettre les femmes à la nitration et dit qu’il faudra refuser d’y aller; Eh bien! on y mettra les Annamites, s’écrie une femme. […] Si on met les annamites à la nitration” s’écria un ouvrier qui faisait partie du bureau, nous, bien que nous soyons militaires et n’ayons rien à dire, nous savons ce que nous avons à faire. Je ne le dis pas et pour cause, mais je suppose que vous devez me comprendre. […] L’assemblée proteste contre la présence des annamites surtout lorsque un autre ouvrier lança cette phrase: “souvenez-vous qu’à Paris, pour les dernières grèves, les annamites étaient aux mitrailleuses!” 

A few days later the police reported that the workers did eventually take direct action over the issue. As with many worker’s demonstrations when men did not play the leading role, it was described in dismissive terms by the police, who noted that most of the leading demonstrators were “young kids of 14 and 15 and women, “ouvrières de mœurs légères” working at the Poudrerie.” Again, female immorality is considered to be inextricably linked with a failure to fulfill their wartime role. In a dispute over the employment of Indochinese in the Puy-de-Dôme, at a time when there were French workers unemployed, the dispute became framed in explicitly racial terms. Unionists, led by a M. Claussat complained about the inequity of the situation, but their complaints were rebuffed by the Prefect. Claussat responded “vous vous mettrez à la tête des jaunes si vous le voulez, moi je me mettrai à la tête des blancs.” 

According to Police reports on the unions in Nantes, the main issues in the summer of 1918 were wages and demands for peace. In a rare discussion on the issues of women and foreigners, it was argued that women should not have to work more than 8 hours or at night, as it led to the adandonment of their children and domestic disharmony. In the likely event that the end of the war would lead to a surplus of foreigners, it was declared they should never be employed ahead of the French. These views were replicated around the country.

Foreign and Female Workers in Economic Debates

One issue that demonstrates the consistency of attitudes over both gender and race is the debate over post-war immigration. As was seen earlier, issues of depopulation and race were strongly linked, and this was also crucial to understanding which nationalities were encouraged to immigrate to France and which were not. 

For an industrialist and modernist like Camille Cavallier the economic situation was poor even before the war, as he lamented that an insufficient workforce, enfeebled by alcoholism, syphilis, slum housing and tuberculosis had hindered industrial expansion and the introduction of “travailleurs étrangers inexpérimentés et d’humeur vagabonde” had made little difference. After the armistice these problems were aggravated by the casualties of the war. Cavallier focused on three types of changes needed to provide France with the workforce she needed. Temporary changes included employing women and foreigners, as well as the re-education of the war wounded. Permanent measures were technocratic – promoting taylorism, mechanisation, standardisation and so on. It was also essential to struggle against alcoholism, syphillis, tuberculosis and malthusianism. For Cavallier, the reason that women could only be a temporary solution was that he didn’t think they would be able to produce the children France needed and “travailler efficacement à l’usine.”

Immigration was necessary as a temporary expedient, but “[i]l faudra aller à l’étranger chercher une main d’œuvre qui exigera, pour s’adapter, beaucoup de précautions et des essais persévérants et attentifs.” Cavallier set out the order in which he believed foreign workers should be recruited. First should be those from neighbouring countries, then from other European countries, particularly with high birth rates. After that they should utilise countries overseas having European civilisations before, finally, searching in exotic nations, aiming to avoid as much as possible a melange of races and civilisations.

The need for immigration was widely accepted, both to maintain France’s population levels, stricken by the vast number of war dead, and also to rebuild the French economy. It was hardly welcomed; most people hoped it would be only an interim measure, and French response to domestic unemployment and xenophobic popular sentiment in 1919 and 1921 was to close the borders, reopening them as soon as the crisis had passed. Nevertheless, by and large, as Gary Cross argues, “by the 1920s most French recognized that a regulated flow of foreign workers was essential to French prosperity.” Moreover it was “… agreed that this meant eliminating as much as possible the entry of ‘undesirables’, i.e., colonial and Chinese labor, and securing regular streams of selected European workers.”

As Dewitte notes, this choice for European immigrants ahead of non-European labour showed the importance of racial ideas. For employers

l’ordre social français courant sans doute plus de risques au contact des travailleurs italiens ou polonais, très politisés, mieux organisés, moins malléables que les coloniaux. L’argument ethnique est quant à lui déterminant: des éléments ‘trop distincts du reste de la population’ risquent provoquer un racisme de retour de la part des travailleurs français.

Dewitte acknowledges that the belief that colonial labour was of poor standard and the shortage of manpower in the colonies were also factors in the choice, but they were secondary to concerns over the impact of non-whites in French society.

It wasn’t simply the “otherness” of colonial peoples that rendered them undesirable as immigrants. Elisa Camiscioli has persuasively argued that in the debates over immigration, the immigrants were viewed as essential, not simply to replace the French war dead in the fields and in the factories, but also in the task of repopulating France. France needed single men who could marry a Frenchwoman and spare her from the spectre of celibacy enforced by the slaughter of young Frenchmen on the Western Front, but only if they fitted the correct racial profile.

The most desirable immigrants were seen as the Italians, the Poles and the Spanish as they were considered the easiest to assimilate and they would not alter the racial composition of France too greatly. In addition, it was hoped that they retain the fecundity and commitment to hard work and the family that existed in their home countries. For Jules Amar, what made Italians the best choice for migrant work in France was racial and cultural affinity. Italians were, incontestably, the workers closest to the French in terms of spirit “et la tendance à contracter des habitudes soeurs. […] Par la race, par la force héréditaire d’une culture semblable, ils possèdent des éléments d’affinité qui les cimentent, plus que tout autre peuple, à notre édifice social, sans laisser voir les joints.”

A report by the Commissions départmentales de la Natalité concluded that Italians and Spaniards were the quickest to assimilate, with the Poles not far behind. Armenians, Levantines and central-European Jews however had a “mentality very different from that of the French population” and assimilation would require several generations to occur. As for North Africans, their assimilation was “nearly impossible”. In 1924, the eminent paediatrician and founder member of the French Society of Eugenics, Eugène Apert, called for a total block on the immigration of “des Noirs et des Jaunes, des Blancs de pays non frontaliers, des très jeunes, des malades” making an explicit link between those who were undesirable on racial grounds and those who were sick or too young.

This is not to say that it was considered safe to allow other Europeans to enter France freely. The pronatalist campaigner Albert Troullier argued that

immigration cannot be the primary means of fighting the national danger of depopulation. It is only a temporary remedy, and a perilous one at that. Immigration should only allow us to wait for the re-establishment of French demographic power, without modifying the special characteristics of the race. 

Troullier likened the introduction of immigrants to a blood transfusion. “There exist actual blood types and one cannot, without great danger, mix the blood of different and incompatible groups”. Pierre Mille made a similar argument on a cultural rather than racial basis, arguing that despite the need for more people, immigration could only happen in moderation or it would overwhelm the French way of life. The argument in favour of peace made in La Vague by three of the French delegates who attended the Kienthal conference was also based on the fear that foreigners could ruin the French nation. “La France s’épuise de plus en plus. Elle risque de devenir la proie des étrangers ou de n’être plus qu’une expression géographique.” In his book, L’Avenir de la race, A.-L Galéot raised a similar spectre. Having described the dangers of having a smaller population than other countries, describes a depopulated France: “des campagnes sans paysans, des usines à demi peuplées de techniciens et d’ouvriers étrangers, une finance cosmopolite, un commerce peu à peu envahi par les gens du dehors”. Depopulation didn’t simply involve a diminishing of French power, it involved a diminishing of the French race. Galéot was unusual in fearing the impact of European more than colonial immigration, arguing that he preferred it when French companies hired colonial non-white labour ahead of foreign European labour as it meant that at least their wages stayed within the empire. This did not mean that he had an unusually high opinion of colonial workers, as he later argued that the French race deserved better than numerical decline. “On peut souhaiter celui-ci pour des races inférieures, occupant inutilement la surface du globe, sans bénéfice pour la reste de l’humanité.” 

Those who advocated immigration were torn between fear of the damage that large scale immigration might do to French society, and the French race, yet a depopulated France risked its very existence. These two currents of thought are illustrated by an article by Jean Hennessy in L’Œuvre where he argued that while workers might temporarily enjoy the benefits of a restricted workforce, in the longer term they risked turning France into a European equivalent of Australia or New Zealand countries that Hennessy argued were nearly closed to immigration, but because of that susceptible to invasion from “des prolifiques Asiatiques.” However, at the same time as advocating that workers be educated to except immigration, he argued that it needed to be regulated so that “une seule race ne déforme pas le notre”. 

In the debates over immigration, the example of the United States loomed large. In general the United States was consistently seen as a negative example of racial mixing. One writer who had applauded the contribution of colonial troops was Rosny, but in 1916 writing in L’Illustration,  he argued that, after the Allies had won the war “les Etats-Unis n’échapperont pas à la plus sinistre guerre sociale. Les hommes des trusts seront balayés. La guerre des races suivra, plus sinistre encore.” In offering an advocacy of importing Chinese workers, Laffranque felt impelled to respond to potential criticism that these workers might result in social disturbances, like in the United States. He said this need not happen as long as the Chinese were supervised by men from their own race and obliged to return home when their contracts expired. The idea that races were incapable of coexisting in the United States was surely one that applied to France as well. In 1922, the deputy Auguste Isaac linked fears over depopulation with those of racial mixing, with the United States once again offered as an example to be wary of. 

If the white race restrains [its births], who will guarantee us that the yellow race will follow its example? Who will assure us that the black race will sacrifice the fecundity which, to cite but one example, is a cause of anxiety for whites in the United States.

There were dissenting opinions. Daniel Lesueur’s poem offered a more positive perspective on racial interaction in the United States.

Etats-Unis, creuset formidable des races!

Jeune univers, qui fit fléurir en tes espaces

Une nouvelle humanité

Le Monde en tes sillons lança tant d’énergie

Que ton Peuple naissant, moisson bientôt surgie

Eut pour premier cri: Liberté! 

Lesueur was an exceptional case though.

 Henriette Perrin’s childrens book portrayed the United States as a exotic mix of races, in a largely positive fashion – the book itself was aimed at enthusing French children about their new ally. The book told the story of trip to America by two French schoolchildren, Lise and Jean, and their parents. They visit New York, where they go to a restaurant. “Le service est fait par des nègres, par de vrai nègres, bien noirs, qui ont l’air empressés et assez gentils.” Perrin describes New-York as a great cosmopolitan city, the melting pot of all the races and all the civilisations, with every language and colour of skin. She recounts the astonishment of Lise at encountering a little negro baby wearing a lace hood inside a white pram. Lise was even more astonished when she met some Chinese children, “oui, des vrais enfants chinois, tels qu’on les représente sur les éventails et les potiches.” Despite the generally positive tone, Perrin is clearly emphasising these exotic scenes as something to wonder at rather than imitate. The point is made explicitly when Lise and Jean saw the Chinese children eating rice with their bread “ce qui les amusa beaucoup, mais ne leur donna aucune envie de les imiter.” 

Other writers argued that even if the United States had managed to successfully build a nation, that did not mean that France could follow a similar pattern. Galéot argued that the impact of permanent immigration need not be too damaging to a new country, without a clearly defined national character, like America. Indeed it could even be advantageous if the immigrants were of a “race suffisamment douée”. For an old nation, desiring to conserve their national characteristics, a similar influx of foreigners risked denationalisation. Galéot believed that certain French regions had already been affected by this phenomenon, notably Marseille. Ferri-Pisani argued that the United States had managed to achieve national unity by enforcing strict measures of cultural conformity. He quoted an American career soldier describing how “[u]ne loi rigoreuse nous a habitués dès l’enfance à la soumission anglo-saxonne.” This allowed the Americans to transform all its myriad races into yankees.  That this applied only to the white races of the United States though is illustrated by Ferri-Pisani’s description of New York. He described all the various European peoples in the city as rational peoples, then mentioned that there are also “d’étranges prophètes, aux visages de fakirs, venus tout droit de l’Inde mystérieuse”. 

If anything, encountering American soldiers may have encouraged French suspicion of non-white peoples. The Lyon police reported frequent brawls between American soldiers and Indochinese and Chinese workers. These incidents were only minor, but were escalating. Because the Americans were so well-liked, the police noted, due to their noble bearing as well as their generosity, the French population was now exhibiting contempt for the Chinese and Indochinese. It was advised that the Americans should be kept apart from non-white contingents. 

The extent to which the issue of female and immigrant labour was a priority for the men in power can be exaggerated. In 1917 the Congress of the Association Nationale d’Expansion Économique, a body made up of the industrial and agricultural elite, gave a report containing seven pages of recommendations on how to reconstitute the French economy after the war, which made no mention of women workers at all. For them the lesson that workers had to learn was that “l’amélioration du sort des travailleurs est liée au développment de l’emploi des moyens mécaniques et à l’intensité du rendement du travail.” Similarly, a five-page report on agriculture failed to mention women; again mechanisation was considered the main issue. At the next session, the minister for commerce, Clémentel, spoke about wartime organisation of labour. In a 14-page speech, women were only mentioned briefly, when he noted (without further comment) that the proportion of women in the workplace was higher than before the war. In the deliberations of the departmental sub-committees for economic action in the Le Mans region, they wanted every available soldier who wasn’t fighting to be available to work in the fields at harvest time. In industry they wanted some reforms of regulations; they also wanted more work to be done by prisoners of war. There was no mention of female labour, or request for immigrant labour. When La Bataille addressed the question of the post-war workforce it dealt with Taylorism and the length of the working week; women’s employment issues were not considered as crucial. Amongst the trade unions in the Haute-Garronne, in the immediate aftermath of the war there was a concern for the newly unemployed women. However from then onwards, both women and foreign labour disappeared almost entirely from the agenda, while the debate moved on to class-consciousness and the 8-hour day. On the other side of the political spectrum, Paul Négrier wrote on the economic future of France, advocating the modernisation of French industry. Négrier was an avowed modernist, but in his criticism of old systems of working he revealed that he retained traditional ideas on the organisation of society. For him, the problem with old working practices was that they were not capable of adequately rewarding “un jeune ouvrier travaillant activement et augmentant sa production, avec l’espoir de procurer à sa femme et à ses enfants une plus grande quantité de bien-être.” 

Conclusion

The utilisation of European immigrant labour had been a regular recourse for French employers for a long time preceding the First World War. The war itself temporarily closed off some traditional avenues for obtaining workers, making Italian and Belgian labour harder to acquire, but the basic position of white immigrant labour in France remained similar. Immigrants were considered useful, an adequate substitute for French workers where necessary, but still undesirable and deserving of suspicion. 

The greater demands for foreign workers to cover for mobilised Frenchmen, as well as the lack of availability of European labour led to an experimental large-scale hiring during the war of non-white workers. This experiment was not judged a success, as racial suspicion and incomprehension hindered both the hiring and utilisation of colonial workers. A combination of popular antipathy and low regard for the responsibility and aptitude of non-white workers led to colonial contingents being restricted to working in large teams and living in isolated barracks, which allowed little opportunity for them to prove themselves as workers or to break down prejudices. This low opinion was not restricted to metropolitan France, but extended to the colonies such as West Africa where, as Conklin argues, the French administrators after the war requisitioned forced labour because they “never doubted that Africans were lazy and had to be forced to work”.

Female labour was neither a new phenomenon during the war nor a new concern. In January 1914, E. Thomas wrote that 

Par comparaison avec les chiffres d’il y a quarante-cinq ans, la population féminine laborieuse a doublé. Ce n’est pas un signe de prospérité nationale, ni surtout la preuve que le foyer familial est plus à l’aise que autrefois. 

There was a great continuity throughout the conflict over the concept that there were jobs that women were best suited to, and the sort of terms used to describe them. A. A. Bonnefoy in 1913 found no contradiction in arguing that the moment had arrived to incorporate into France’s laws, customs and practices the principle of social, economic, civil and political unity between women and men but also that 

Ces femmes nouvelles savent que le role le plus beau, le plus noble qui puisse leur être attribué consiste à être épouse et mères. Elles aspirent à remplir cette double mission dans toute sa plenitude, en exerçant les droites qui sont le corollaire de leurs devoirs. 

Bonnefoy acknowledged that circumstances might preclude women from following their desired path towards marriage and motherhood and urged that they be able to earn a living in a manner that conformed to their aptitudes and their conventions. Claiming to have done extensive research into the area of work and gender, Bonnefoy came to a simple conclusion : “il convient de donner a l’homme les carrières actives, et à la femme les carrières sédentaires.” He had earlier defined what jobs he considered sedentary as office work which demanded only the qualities of order and exactitude. 

Even in a town deserted by men, the women are all pictured in domestic poses, while the only actual occupation, delivering the post, is performed by an aged man.

Even in a town deserted by men, the women are all pictured in domestic poses, while the only actual occupation, delivering the post, is performed by an aged man.

In 1916, offering the views of the Lyon Chamber of Commerce, Morel argued that due to the veritable dearth of men after the war that women should take over employment in public administration, freeing men to work in commerce and industry. Also in 1916 the Calvados committee of economic action suggested that the three most obvious areas where women could be used to replace men were: cleaning (which could be done by maids), nurses (because women had proved their competence and devotion in the Red Cross) and secretarial work which could be done by women or adolescents. 

In 1919, the parliamentary committee on female work argued that men should be obliged to take on the wrok that only they were capable of doing, “aux femmes furent dévolus les travaux que l’expérience avait montrés susceptibles de leur être confiés.” Just as before the war, women’s work was seen as unskilled, undemanding and less valuable. Though a considerable number of new jobs were now classified as such and hence now available to women, the discourses that governed the employment of women and their relative place in society remained largely intact. 

The limited impact that colonial and female workers had made in persuading Frenchmen of their ability to perform skilled or high-quality work is summed up by the comments of Louis Duval-Arnould, the president of the pro-family league La Plus Grande Famille, writing in 1926 

The recruitment of European workers is more valuable than that of colonials, which was attempted at the end of the war and now seems to have been abandoned. The quality of [colonial] labour was revealed to be feminine, no doubt the result of profound differences of mores and climate.

For Duval-Arnold, “feminine” labour could be unproblematically written off as inadequate, whether performed by women or feminised men, while colonial workers were unable to surmount their different backgrounds to do the work of a (European) man.

 

 


 
[1]Tyler Stovall suggests that though the post-war expulsion of colonial and Chinese labour may have returned France to a situation that resembled 1914, the very act of expulsion established racial whiteness as a key component of French national identity. Stovall, “National Identity and Shifting Imperial Frontiers” p. 66.

 

[2]Poland wasn’t an independent nation until after 1918, but Horne estimates that immigration to France had already began before the war. # As Prisoners of War.

[3]The need to avoid putting Northern and Southern Chinese workers in the same establishment was also noted in the Minutes from meeting of the Conference Interministerielle de la Main d’Œuvre, 13 January, 1917.

[4]The rather poetic description of the assault by the Chinese: “la fureur des célestes” nonetheless emphasises their exoticism.

[5]David Englander also notes that advice was regularly sent back from the front.  Englander, “The French Soldier.  1914-18”

[6]Rosenthal’s argument was later quoted by Grunebaum-Ballin, President of the Commission du placement des marins et de la main d’œuvre maritime, who suggested that it was possible Rosenthal may have been exaggerating the lack of technical skills acquired by women working in munitions.  AN F/12/8001, July, 1917.

[7]The “Rest” category is made up of nationalities with less than 10 workers in the factories. Those nationalities were Argentinians, Americans, Brazilians, Czechs, Dutch, Indians, Japanese, Mexicans, Peruvians, Poles, Portuguese, Romanians, and Syrians.

[8]Notice that the reward is for women’s suffering and tears, in other words, for being feminine.

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