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January 3, 2009

French attitudes to Race and Gender during World War 1

Filed under: All,History — Josh @ 12:35 pm

What follows is basically my PhD thesis, though to minimise the likelihood of people ripping it off wholesale, I’ve omitted the references. Anyone with an academic interest in reading the proper version with due acknowledgement of sources should let me know either directly or in a comment at the end of the piece.

At the moment it contains significant chunks of untranslated French quotations, which I’ll be gradually removing so as to make it more widely comprehensible. I’ll gradually try and make it look a bit prettier too!


Chapter 1: The Racial Other

Chapter 2: Race and Nationality

Chapter 3: World War One and Gender Relations

Chapter 4: Gender, Race and Employment



Summary from

Summary from



Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:30 pm

In May 1917, a police report in Le Havre stated that a common sentiment in the munitions factory there was that

If this continues, there will not be any men left in France; so why are we fighting? So that Chinese, Arabs, or Spaniards can marry our wives and daughters and share out the France for which we’ll all, sooner or later, get ourselves killed at the front.

The police concluded that this attitude demonstrated jealousy of both foreign workers and allied soldiers. Not only does the statement betray a fear of a loss of national identity; it also provides evidence of the sexual insecurity that was prevalent during the war. The French feared that women’s new found independence would lead to the abandonment of their husbands. For the soldiers at the front there was the added factor of long-term separation from their wives and girlfriends while they risked their lives on a daily basis. This meant that their loved ones were often unable to comprehend the suffering on the front, shielded as they were by distance and censorship.

In 1918, Dr Louis Fiaux, a social reformer and expert on prostitution, described the social crisis that he perceived had resulted from the movement of so many French men to the frontlines.

Quelles conséquences ne devaient point avoir ces exodes d’hommes par masses, ces délaissements equivalents des femmes. Ces innombrables foyers familiaux rompus et dispersés, les hommes mariés redevenus célibataires, les jeunes gens non mariés éloignés de leurs habitudes de cœur ou de leurs arrangements, les circonstances du célibat viril comme les conditions ordinaires de la prostitution féminine bouleversées, sans omettre tous les vides incertains, tous les vides définitifs laissés à l’arrière par les prisonniers, les disparus et les morts de l’avant, sans oublier surtout la crise économique de gêne et de misère s’abattant sur les femmes du prolétariat réduites par milliers et milliers aux plus insuffisantes ressources, quelque intelligente et humaine que soit l’intervention des secours publics. A l’ensemble et aux détails de ce trop véridique tableau, comment s’étonner de ce bouleversement des mœurs?

A M. Marchetti, speaking in 1919 at a veterans meeting in Marseille, lamented that while the soldiers were fighting, “others at the rear, among them many foreigners, enriched themselves scandalously at our expense.”

These quotations describe a world where dislocation caused by war resulted in comprehensive disturbance of social norms. The absence of many of France’s men had created a space that could potentially be filled by women and foreigners performing roles that were not those conventionally expected of them. The question addressed here is whether this dislocation resulted in any significant changes in how French society perceived women and foreigners, or whether existing discourses on gender, race and nationality survived the turmoil of the war. (more…)

The Racial Other

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:25 pm


The First World War saw an unprecedented number of foreigners on French soil, and from a diverse background. There were German invaders in the North East and prisoners of war in the rest of the country, Belgian refugees, immigrant workers, colonial soldiers and allied armies. 

While only the Germans were actively and consistently loathed, all of the others provoked resentment or unease at some level amongst the French public. In some ways, they provided an acceptable outlet for discontent that could not be directed at the French. It was politically difficult to criticise the behaviour of the poilus, so instead the population could decry the conduct of the Allied troops. Other foreigners could be portrayed as profiteers at the expense of the French, seducers of their women, collaborators with the enemy, or even spies. A Bill presented in 1915 demanded that at the end of the war an identification card be required for all foreigners residing in France. This became official policy in April 1917. At the start of the war, the prefect of the Savoie felt impelled to criticise “Une campagne odieuse [qui] est menée par l’Allemagne, dans certains milieux de notre beau département: elle va jusqu’à prétendre ‘que les Suisses sont vendus à L’Allemagne'”. 

The return of demobilised troops, to find foreigners in their jobs led to some outbreaks of xenophobia. One of the more prominent reactions was that of unemployed workers in the hotel industry who organised themselves into the Union des combattants de l’industrie hôteliere and participated in street demonstrations. According to Schor, they argued that it was “dangereux d’abandonner le contrôle d’une activité importante à des métèques; ces derniers ne prendraient jamais en compte les intérêts de la France et risquaient de transformer les hôtels en officines d’espionnage.  (more…)

Race and Nationality

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:20 pm


People from France’s colonies and those with different coloured skins were not the only ones viewed in racial terms. Both popular and scientific discourse ascribed national characteristics to white and European peoples on a racial basis. The French argued that the outrages committed by the Germans were the result of a cruelty and a warlike fanaticism inherent in their racial make-up, while vacillations in Russian policy were understood as the manifestations of Russian’s Slavic nature. Thus in his book about the English, John Charpentier argued that what distinguished them from the Germans was the Celtic influence on the Teutonic race: “l’Anglais est le produit d’une grette saxonne, entrée sur le tronc celte motile” Laird Boswell has argued that in both popular and scientific discourse, Alsace-Lorraine was described as having formed the borderline between the Celts and Germanic peoples. The racial differences between Alsatians and Germans were widely commented upon. The war, and France’s historical conflict with Germany was often portrayed as a racial struggle, such as when the Lyon branch of the Ligue populaire des pères et mères de familles nombreuses argued in its periodical that victory, however crushing, could not kill the “German hydra”, only the repopulation of France could effectively combat “the accursed German race.”  (more…)

World War 1 and Gender Relations

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:15 pm


Both at the time of the Great War and in its immediate aftermath it was generally considered that the war had brought about a massive change in gender relations. By showing that women could take over male roles it was thought to have done more to emancipate women than years of feminist campaigning had been able to achieve.  However, recent historiography now offers a different orthodoxy, summed up by Christine Bard and Françoise Thébaud: 

La guerre n’a pas émancipé les femmes. Dans les faits, elle a renforcé la hierarchie entre les sexes, bouleversé les relations entre les hommes et femmes, brouillé les identités sexuelles, et ces d’autant plus que les uns et les autres ont vécu une chronologie différente du conflit.

These arguments depend on several grounds, such as that the increase in female participation in the workforce has been exaggerated, that the war made men more hostile to feminism and women’s rights, that the issue of depopulation hampered feminism, and that the war halted the momentum that women and the feminist movement had achieved.

It will be argued that in much of France concern over gender relations was peripheral during the war. While people commented on the various new roles taken on by women, they understood these modifications in traditional terms. Some new developments were believed to be temporary adjustments that would not continue long past the ceasefire; while others were downplayed as applying only to a small minority of women or just to Paris. In most cases, pre-war ideas of gender relations maintained their importance throughout the war, offering a framework within which the changes wrought by the war were understood.


Gender, Race and Employment

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:10 pm


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. (more…)


Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:05 pm

For France’s colonial subjects the war had the least impact on how they were viewed by the metropolitan population. Every attempt was made to minimise contact between colonial soldiers and workers and French civilians. The recruitment and utilisation of non-white peoples, as well as the summary way they were sent home at the end of the conflict were informed by popular and scientific views of their essential nature that were maintained consistently throughout the war. Colonial women were almost entirely absent from France during the war, and appeared primarily in discourses highlighting the erotic or backward nature of the countries in France’s empire. (more…)


Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:00 pm

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