The repatriation of foreign workers in the potassium basin of Haute-Alsace
Were the State potassium mines in Alsace a laboratory for government policy?

Yves Frey, historian,
IUFM [teacher training college] of Mulhouse

29 avril 1999

Potassium was discovered in 1904 in Haute-Alsace, which was then under German domination, but the extraction was only developed after Alsace-Lorraine returned to French control in 1919. Two companies shared the exploitation of the mines :  the Mines Domaniales de Potasse d’Alsace (State potassium mines of Alsace, MDPA), a State-owned industrial concern which controlled 70 percent of the shafts, and the Mines of Kali-Sainte-Thérèse (KST), a private company which owned the remaining 30 percent. There was, however, a shortage of local manpower, and as of 1923, both companies called upon immigrant workers. The large majority of these (80 %) were Poles, who continued to arrive in the potassium fields until 1930.
Potassium is a mineral used almost exclusively (95 %) for the manufacture of fertilizer. As in the 1920s, Germany and France have a quasi-monopoly on production worldwide, with exports representing about one-half of the extraction. The Alsacian potassium industry was thus quite sensitive to the situation of agriculture :  it first suffered the effects of the world crisis of 1929-1930 and then, once this diminished, the severe French crisis which flared up in 1933 and especially 1934. Thus, the industry crisis was both precocious (as of 1930) and long (6 years, until autumn 1936). Production had to be limited, and this raised the question of reducing the number of mineworkers.

The dismissal of foreigners began in January 1932, in other words, one month after the French Chamber of Deputies adopted a text providing for the limitation of foreign manpower in industrial concerns. Although this text was not yet approved by the Senate (which would follow on 10 August 1932), it enjoyed a consensus. The Ministry of Labour was drawn into the situation, and in fact, the person responsible for labour at the ministry, Charles Picquenard, was also a member of the board at the MDPA. He called upon the general manager, Pierre de Retz, to draw up a policy for the repatriation of foreigners. In the conclusions de Retz submitted at the end of December 1931, five principles were defined : 

The annual reports of the Mines Department of the Haut-Rhin, with the exception of 1933, mention only “voluntary individual departures”. The term ‘exclusion’ (refoulement) is very rarely used. However, the term ‘volunteer’ turns up quite frequently. In practice, it signified that the worker presented his identity card and passport to company management; the former was to be kept by the prefecture, while the latter, duly annotated, was to be returned to its owner on the day of his departure.

But there is no source telling us how the candidates for departure were determined. Was there pressure? We believe so. The first repatriations for 1932 were almost all single men. In accordance with the principles of the general manager, a selection was made. In addition, the repatriations were by far most numerous during the first six months of 1932, when the law had not yet been passed. Were those ‘selected’ given a choice between repatriation or dismissal pure and simple? Probably. Following interventions from the Polish consulate in Strasbourg concerning certain of its citizens who had been laid off, the French administration replied that they had refused repatriation.

When, in 1933, the number of ‘volunteers’ was not sufficient, the heads of the mines turned to exclusions. In agreement with the prefecture of the Haut-Rhin, they provided lists of workers whose services were no longer desired, with the result that the prefecture did not renew their identity cards and these foreigners had to leave the country. But such exclusions involved only a slight, or even very slight proportion of those who were ‘repatriated’.

In all, from 1932 to 1936, about 45 percent of the total number of Poles in France returned to their country. In spite of the volume of these departures, however, more than 10 percent of the workers in the potassium mines continued to be foreigners, for the law of 10 August 1932 was never enforced in this area and Charles Picquenard was the first to take a position against it.

It would appear that the policy carried out in 1932 by the MDPA, a State industrial concern depending on the Ministry of Public Works, subsequently inspired government policy—operations which were neither brutal nor spectacular, pressure on the companies to obtain ‘voluntary’ repatriations, paid expenses—in a word, flexibility. For these reasons, and notwithstanding the fact that it led to a considerable decrease in the foreign labour force, this policy remained too limited for a fraction of the public opinion which demanded more and more quotas and authoritarian measures.

Sources : 

Departmental archives of the Haut-Rhin, Colmar. Series AL (fonds MDPA and KST).
CERARE (Centre rhénan d’archives et de recherches économiques), Mulhouse (fonds KST).


[ Retour à l'index de la rubrique ]