Forced departures and duress, or how foreigners left France in the 1930s. Reflections based on the study of a border department :  the Ardennes.

Claudine Pierre

20 mai 1998

Many foreigners were driven out by the crisis of the 1930s and this is a known fact. The image of the convoys organised by the Houillères coal company struck contemporaries. Also cited are the cases of foreigners deported for failure to respect the "laws of hospitality". The study of the flows in one administrative department raises the question of the real weight of these forced and/or organised departures. The Ardennes, a department on the Belgian border which had been traumatised by the German occupation during World War I, was eager for foreign labour (Belgian for many years, more diversified after 1918) in order to confront the tasks of reconstruction and the shortage of workers. According to the breakdowns established by the prefecture, the number of foreigners rose to more than 36,000, which corresponded to about 12 percent of the total population. These basically included Belgians, who were by far the most numerous (16,800), followed by roughly equal numbers of Italians and Poles (over 6,000), Portuguese (2,000) and Spaniards (1,500). Their ranks decreased considerably, however, from 1931 on; after a final year of particularly intensive immigration (1930), there was a dramatic reversal in 1931 and then a slower process of decline. All nationalities were immediately affected, the Portuguese most of all. The drop in the number of males (- 18 % in one year) is striking, and none of the nationalities was spared, although the Poles showed a lesser decrease (- 7 %). Bachelors and unattached males were thus the main victims.

The reports of the departmental labour office as well as those of the prefecture allow us to assess the nature of these departures. In 1931, those sent away were -notably cross-border workers-, who, in the legal sense of the terms, were not included in the statistics on resident aliens. The term also covered all the Belgians, who were more numerous than the Italians and the Poles to leave the country. (Many escaped the status of alien through naturalisation.) Nor do the statistics reflect the Algerians, although they too left in large numbers. Indeed, the best way to postpone the impending crisis was to get rid of those whose departure would only cause a minimal stir. Other foreigners left as well, through "extended leaves" granted to the Italians and Portuguese and "systematic repatriation of the families of the unemployed". Long-term leaves amounted to quasi-definitive returns for unattached men whose families had remained in their native countries. Repatriations, however, could not have been frequent owing to the distance of the Ardennes from the main centres of departure and the small number of persons concerned. Only the populations protected by bilateral agreements allowing them to benefit from the same assistance as the French in case of unemployment might be repatriated. But in spite of repeated urging on the part of the authorities, the owners, who had brought the workers at great expense, often with their families, preferred to keep them on and renewed their contracts.

The flows of 1933-1934 show that there were about two departures for every arrival. From October 1933 to September 1934, the prefecture recorded 1,500 genuine departures from the department (including those towards other departments), while the negative balance between arrivals and departures was only 790. At most, 150 to 250 persons fell into the category of "forced departures" (deported, excluded, repatriated), which amounts to about 15 percent. How did the other 1,200 leave? The placement office affirmed that, for 1931, in the face of "the increased numbers of foreigners without papers who were subject to exclusion ( refoulement )", it went beyond official instructions by regularising the situation of foreign workers not in possession of an identity card. But regularisation did not mean authorisation to remain in France, especially since the same office also stated that "it had not carried out any regularisation because of the unemployed persons to be placed". The prefect, meanwhile, spoke of the "disengagements attempted over the past eighteen months" (July 1932). Given the minimal effects of the orders to employers, the prefecture explicitly requested the police to "remain the contact with Monsieur the factory inspector for the examination of contract renewals" and inform him of "penal convictions justifying deportation measures". The different courts thus transmitted "the records of convicted aliens" to the prefecture, and simple offences like failing to have a bicycle headlight or walking the dog without a leash were scrupulously put in writing in order to "justify the repatriation of the guilty party". Very few would in fact be repatriated or deported, but this constant surveillance combined with the risk of being convicted placed the foreigners in an even more precarious position. With the decree of 6 February 1935 requiring them to request authorisation to change departments, even if most decisions were positive, the risks became even greater. A Czech who lost his job in the department of the Nord and found a new one in the Ardennes was guilty of two offences :  changing departments without authorisation and working without a permit following an unfavourable decision on his request for to renew it. But since he no longer had a valid permit, he could not obtain the right to change departments even with a work certificate and was required to return to the Nord, where he no longer had either a job or a permit. He chose to return to Czechoslovakia.

This Kafkaesque situation is typical of what many foreigners went through, neither deportation nor exclusion in the legal sense of the term, but a "forced" departure. Thus, foreigners whose only choice was to leave France or to remain without valid papers were pushed into leaving. Local public opinion also worked in that sense. Through the voice of their elected officials, the Ardennes population called for a law limiting foreign labour. The greatest animosity was found in the tiny Givet headland, where border workers were assimilated with profiteers, while the companies continued to employ numerous foreigners (cf. the slight impact of the law of 10 August 1932). By 1935, meanwhile, the public authorities expressed concern about "the presence of many more or less suspect aliens", which was a serious situation "in a border department . . . owing to the discontent of French workers who are presently unemployed". In order to avoid xenophobic manifestations of a public opinion that was particularly sensitive in a border area, the authorities thus acted indirectly to incite the greatest number of foreigners to leave, while the employers, attached to a foreign workforce, resisted any attempt at State control of the personnel employed.

Thus, there were practically no departures resulting from repatriations organised by the owners or from the application of decrees, which were never issued, or from deportations, which required long investigations and could only affect small numbers of people. Rather, there were forced departures, where foreigners, because of increasingly complicated rules and niggling surveillance, were placed against their will in situations likely to provoke their exclusion, and which could only be avoided by a "voluntary" departure.

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