The deportation of foreigners, from police practice to administrative measure :  the case of the Rhône department, 1919-1933

Mary D.Lewis, doctoral student, New-York University


The deportation of foreigners was first codified in the mid nineteenth century. The law of 3 December 1849 permitted the Home Secretary to escort to the border any individual disturbing the public order. Examining actual deportation practices more closely may give us an idea of how the administration conceived of the public order and what was considered disturbance of that order from one period to another. I've just personalised the administration. Indeed, when we speak of the control of immigrants, it is too often the administration which is treated like a person and not the immigrant, who would seem to suffer from a single, efficient, conscious desire on the part of the State, a desire expressed by the laws regulating immigration and the residence of foreign populations in France. The administration, however, is never one person but is composed of a multitude of agents. Through the examination of concrete practices of deportation, we can untangle the comings and goings of the French administration with regard to the regulation of foreign populations living in France and observe the impact of these practices on the individual foreigner who is targeted.

During the period under consideration, a deportation file included several documents :  an individual note drawn up at the time of the arrest, followed by a detailed report written by the police commissioner, who either decided upon a deportation measure or recommended a simple warning. The file was then transmitted to the prefecture, where the secretary-general for the police or the prefect, depending on the case, wrote to the criminal investigation department of the Home Office, reiterating the data in the commissioner's report and giving an opinion. Ultimately, it was the criminal investigation department which decided whether a deportation order should be issued for the foreigner in question. In other words, the deportation procedures were instituted by the lower echelons of the French administration, which means that these procedures might differ according to the particular features of the local police, the economic, social and political context of the region and local relations between foreigners and administration.

In the case of the Rhône department from the end of the First World War to the crisis of the 1930s, we have been able to note a certain number of trends suggesting the effect which the increasingly difficult context of the interwar period in France had on foreigners. First of all, there was a change in the motives for deportation. The fact that the deportation file was based on an individual note prepared during an arrest meant that deportation was initially used as a police practice. During the 1920s, apart from the deportations of foreigners suspected of being strike leaders or propagandists for Bolshevism, deportation was most often recommended for those who had been convicted of an offence threatening the safety of other individuals or their property. During this period, in almost every instance where the proceeding ended in dismissal of the charges or an acquittal, there was no deportation order issued.

During a brief transition period at the end of the decade, the conviction became a less important motive for deportation than the desire to maintain control over an alien population which might or might not include common-law criminal. We find, for example, deportation orders for foreigners who had not yet been tried, or even foreigners who had been acquitted, on the basis of "information" provided about their "attitude", their "conduct" or their "morality" deemed likely to disturb the public order. During this same period, there are also a growing number of deportation orders accompanied by a deferment. These deferments could be renewed, every four, six or twelve months but they could also be refused or subject to a certain number of conditions, such as, for example, proof of regular employment or -and this becomes more common during the crisis- the promise not to take a salaried job. Whereas deferments were previously granted only to foreigners who requested them, on officially stamped paper (often with the help of a lawyer or notable), by the 1930s, the granting of immediate but conditional deferments was, in my opinion, a kind of admission that deportation was no longer a means of expelling "dangerous" foreigners from the French territory but increasingly a way of keeping watch over a population called upon to remain.

After this gradual shift towards deportations which were increasingly arbitrary, although often tempered by the granting of a deferment, they once again took on a certain sense at the time of the crisis, although they were not based on specific convictions as they had been during the 1920s. As of 1932, we begin to see deportations for offences which I would call "economic" :  lack of a work contract approved by the Department of Foreign Labour, stealing coal dust from the train station to keep warm, taking the tram without a ticket, begging, petty theft and so on. A new phenomenon emerges as well :  deportation for failure to obey an exclusion measure (most often ordered for lack of valid papers). Whether it is a recruited factory worker at the end of his contract or an Armenian refugee without work, the same logic is applied "foreigners likely to take work from the French or to become "a burden to the Country" are not welcome. The most important factor for the public order would seem to have become economic.

The deportation files allow us to follow the spread of a protectionist, nationalistic mentality, even among the most minor civil servants. They also show how the foreigners reacted. While the effect of the crisis on immigrant populations in France is often depicted in sombre tones, these files allow us to perceive, beyond the destitution and the forced return, the foreigners' cleverness and their solidarity, even during a period of extreme difficulty. Umberto C., for example, excluded for lack of an approved work contract and subsequently deported for failing to obey the exclusion order, left the country in 1932 before the authorities could notify him of his exclusion and stamp his identity card to this effect. It was only discovered in 1939 that that he had simply left for two weeks and then come back to the place of his exclusion. Philippe P., a self-employed hairdresser who became a hairdresser's assistant following an illness, and thus a salaried employee, was then required to obtain a contract stamped by the Department of Foreign Labour; when this was refused, he was subject to exclusion followed by deportation. But instead of submitting to the deportation measure, he bought a hairdresser's salon, thus becoming a master hairdresser, and requested a deferment of the deportation order, which he received (his deportation was finally reported in 1938).

Some of those facing deportation changed addresses so that efforts to notify them of the measure "remain[ed] unsuccessful" until they were found, several years later, living in a neighbouring arrondissement and working for some time without an identity card. Others left the Rhône department before their identity card could be taken away and then received new cards in another department, sometimes only a few kilometres from Lyons. Hundreds of them took their chances with the arbitrariness of the administration and sacrificed a half-day of work to present themselves at the Foreigners Office every three or six months in order to request a deferment. For many of them, this perseverance paid off in the end, their deportations were postponed, and after the Second World War they received preferential residence cards or were even naturalised.

It is possible that the Rhône offers a particular case. Things may have worked differently in a region with a less diversified economy and a less complex, spread-out urban centre. That remains to be seen. But the example of the Rhône remains important because it reminds us that if the administration is plural, the same is true of foreigners.

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