The exclusion of foreigners during the interwar period :  how the term and the procedure were used

Philippe Rygiel,
Paris I-Panthéon-Sorbonne


Both the definition of the word refoulement ('exclusion') and the nature of the procedure it designates raise problems. What follows is an attempt to eliminate certain ambiguities by examining the occurrences of the term in the administrative texts of the interwar period and then considering the circumstances in which local authorities were supposed to apply the procedure and examining the sources which allow us to study its use during this period.

The first two sections of this study draw on a file containing the texts (laws, decrees, ministerial circulars) which, to my knowledge, regulated foreigners' rights of residence in France between 1918 and 1939. During the 1920s, the term refoulement designated the refusal to grant that right to a foreigner seeking to enter France or already present without State authorisation. Several circulars attest to this usage; we shall cite two examples here, dating from 1922 and 1929, respectively.

During the first half of the 1930s, there is no trace of this terms in the texts in our possession, and when it reappears, its meaning has changed. The decree of 6 February 1937 specifies in article 7 that foreigners' identity cards of normal validity should be renewed during the three months following the date of their expiration and that 'after that date, the holders of non-renewed cards will be considered to be in an unauthorised situation and may be subject to a measure of 'exclusion' ( refoulement )' [1]. In this instance, the term thus designated an administrative measure enjoining an alien who had previously resided legally in France to leave the territory, in other words, a decision ordering the foreigner to interrupt his or her stay, and no longer forbidding the establishment of residence.

This text does not allow us to deduce an extension of the usage of the term or a shift in meaning. Indeed, in 1937 the Home Secretary enjoined prefects to 'ruthlessly exclude ( refouler ) any foreigner attempting to enter without a passport or a valid travel document', which allows us to suppose that the first meaning of the term was still in use [2]. However, the written instructions of 31 May 1938, issued by the prefecture of the North to mayors and police commissioners, distinguishes exclusion , following the cancellation of an identity card, from refusal to admit a foreigner seeking to settle in France [3]. In other words, the primary significance of the term has been eliminated from the range of possible meanings. We thus cannot go beyond observing the appearance of a new use of the word and the absence of agreement on its meaning during this period.

We can, however, arrive at a definition which encompasses the different acceptations encountered if we designate as exclusion the whole of the administrative decisions which, taken without consulting the central administration, enjoined a foreigner to leave the national territory or not to enter it [4]. We shall examine below the cases in which, according to the regulations in force, the administration was supposed to have recourse to such procedures, which should allow us to identify the latter more precisely.

In order to do so, it is necessary to go back to the texts regulating the obtaining of an alien identity card, at the risk of repeating certain facts which are already familiar [5]. Since the identity card at that time was the equivalent of a temporary residence permit, these texts set out the conditions to be met by foreigners eligible to enter and sojourn in France and thus offer the negative definition of those who should be turned back. The texts of the 1920s abound in expressions of the concern for screening entries'by avoiding the arrival of foreigners not meeting 'health prescriptions' [6], those who were economically unnecessary'the decree of 19 July 1922 states that a foreigner should only receive a card if the state of the labour market permits it'and those who 'have entered France fraudulently' [7]. These constraints weighed on the foreigners not only at the time of their entry into France but throughout their stay, which was contingent on respecting them. Indeed, a November 1924 decree states that 'The identity card is the equivalent of a temporary residence permit. It can be retracted from holders who fail to conform to the regulations in force or who cease to provide the necessary guarantees' [8]. A 1931 circular [9] which reiterates the use of the exclusion procedure sheds light on the content to be attributed to these 'necessary guarantees'. Such measures, we are told, had until then been intended to evince foreigners who were 'undesirable' because of their 'lack of morality' or because they did not provide sufficient guarantees 'in national terms', which probably meant that their political or union activism was not to the administration's liking. At present, what was involved was excluding foreigners who had been made economically unnecessary by the state of the labour market, although they were 'not as undesirable as the preceding ones'. This shift had more to do with the application of the regulations than with basic principles. Since 1922, as we have seen, the foreigner's stay had been subject to his or her economic utility. Thus, from the end of the First World War to the mid 1930s, the right to reside depended on the foreigner's economic utility and hygienic, political and social innocuousness, with every latitude justify to local authorities to determine whether or not the populations in their charge conformed to these criteria.

A clear shift occurred in the middle of the 1930s, even before the victory of the Popular Front in the June 1936 elections. The Home Office circulars advocated first of all greater indulgence in the application of existing legislation. A text from April 1936 specified that the unemployed should not systematically be excluded [10]. Above all, it introduced a new element to be used for evaluating applications, based on four main factors [11] : 

' their own resources or those coming from their relatives

' their family ties

' their living conditions. Indeed, foreign workers may be homeowners . . .'.

What is involved here is what we would call today the immigrant families' degree of integration into French society. This constituted a triple innovation :  it meant explicitly acknowledging the right of certain foreigners to reside in France because of their ties there, which amounted in turn to admitting that the foreigner was no longer simply an immigrant worker but also a member of French society. And finally, the enumeration of the factors to be taken into account, by introducing the beginnings of a codification, partly shielded the foreigner from the arbitrariness of local administrative decisions.

In spite of a much tougher tone just before the Second World War, this new position survived after the Popular Front. To be sure, the desire to make a selection within the foreign population was clearly manifested. In May 1938, for example, the Home Secretary reminded prefects and police commissioners that it would be 'advisable to rid the country of the excess of undesirables who are freely circulating in it' [12]. In September 1938, however, the Ministry of Labour reminded its agents that 'Foreigners in possession of a regular work permit are still considered to be established on our territory' [13]. The same text stresses that ties with France, notably through family, should also be taken into account when considering the files of the foreigners in question.

Nothing in these documents seems to mark a break with the previous period. If there is such a break, it is rather to be found in the appearance of privileged categories, defined by their country of origin, who would be granted permission to stay more widely than others. A September 1937 circular, issued following negotiations between the French and Belgian governments, thus calls on local authorities to examine requests from Belgian nationals with the most favourable eye [14].

With the reversal of the economic situation , the exclusions ( refoulements ), which were, at a time of massive entries, a means of maintaining public health and safety by screening candidates for residence in France, thus became a tool for managing the immigrant labour force present in France. And when the spectre of recession gave way to that of war, they became in turn a procedure which, while respecting the rights of foreigners whose integration was evident, was to permit the expulsion of undesirable aliens whose economic utility was secondary to the potential problems of assimilation.

This description allows us to come back to the distinction between exclusion ( refoulement ) and deportation ( expulsion ). For one thing, the decision-making body was not the same, since the exclusion order was issued without the intervention of the central administration while the appropriateness of deportation was determined by the Home Secretary. For another, the texts defining the circumstances leading to a foreigner's exclusion make no reference to offences, crimes or misdemeanors committed by the foreigner on the national territory, except for violations of the regulations defining the conditions of residence and entry of foreigners, whereas the law of 1849 which defined the deportation procedure limited it to foreigners disturbing public order. In theory at least, deportation was thus a sanction, which in practice generally followed a conviction or an arrest [15]. The exclusion order only reflected a supposed incompatibility between an immigrant's profile and the country's needs, as the administration understood them. The examination of daily administrative practices would seem to call this distinction into question, however, since deportations during the 1930s often obeyed economic imperatives [16].

This evidence suggests a certain disparity between the standards thus defined by the central administration and the practices of the local administrations, notably the prefectures and those responsible for the labour force (which were normally supposed to accept the foreigners' work contracts so that they might obtaina temporary residence permit). In order to evaluate this disparity, it is necessary to have access to sources. Several circulars enjoin local authorities to inform the upper echelons of the administration of their decisions. Thus, in December 1931, the Home Secretary called for a statistical summary of the exclusion decisions made since 1920 [17]. Also in 1931, the same minister requested to be informed on a monthly basis of the number of foreigners excluded for economic reasons and recalled that any refusal to issue an identity card prior to that date should have been indicated to him in the form of a detailed report. He also ordered that 'genuinely undesirable' foreigners continue to be signalled to him in this way [18]. In 1935, he reiterated the request for statistics on exclusions of foreigners by nationality. It will perhaps be possible to find a trace of these reports and statistics in the Home Office archives, although our resident experts on the collections where these are likely to be found are highly pessimistic on this score.

In addition, all the texts defining the conditions for obtaining an identity card and the processing of foreigners' files have not yet been collected, nor have their origins been completely explored. To do so would require a visit to the archives of the Ministries of Labour and Agriculture and the Home Office, as well as the exploration of the M series of the department archives, which often conceal copies of circulars that have justify no traces in the archives of the central administrations issuing them.

The departmental archives are also likely to contain files concerning requests for identity cards or temporary residence permits which, where they still exist, should allow us to determine the criteria for approval or rejection. In certain cases, it is possible to find the exclusion files themselves. In order to determine the extent to which these have been preserved, a letter was addressed to the French departmental archives, requesting information on the presence of files with the word refoulement in the title. Among a total of 73 replies received, such files are available in 26 departments, 4 of which have only preserved files prior to 1931 (Moselle, Gironde, Côte-d'Or and Indre-et-Loire). Two others only have series covering extremely short periods. We are thus left with some twenty departments clearly possessing archives which could be useful to us. When we consider their geographical distribution, we can observe the absence of the main industrial departments and those with very large foreign populations. This means that neither an exhaustive study nor the constitution of a quasi-representative sample of the foreign populations present in France at that time is possible. There is still the possibility of a study combining several case analyses, which might suffice to bring out the disparities between the standards defined by the central administration and local practices, as well as potential disparities in function of the local contexts. We shall attempt to define the methodology of such an investigation in the coming year.


[1] Decree of 6 February 1935, concerning the conditions for obtaining alien identity cards.

[2] Ministère de l'intérieur (Home Office), Service de la carte d'identité et des passeports, circular no. 338, 9/7/1937, A.D. Cher M 7168. See item c.

[3] Special edition of the acts of the prefecture of the Nord department, dated 31/5/1938, A.D. Cher M 7169. See item d.

[4] Philippe Rygiel, Les refoulements d'étrangers en France dans les années trente, a collective research project.

[5] Gérard Noiriel, Le creuset Français (Paris :  Le Seuil, 1988).

[6] Decree of 26/11/1920, concerning conditions for obtaining alien identity card.

[7] Ministère de l'intérieur, Service central des cartes d'identité d'étrangers, circular no. 62, dated 20/7/1922, A.D. Cher M 7166. See item e.

[8] Decree of 1/11/24 concerning alien identity cards, article 4.

[9] Ministère de l'intérieur, Service central des cartes d'identité des étrangers, circular no.189, dated 28/12/31. See item f.

[10] Ministère de l'intérieur, Service central des cartes d'identité d'étrangers, circular no. 189; dated 28/4/36, A.D. Cher M 7167. See item g.

[11] The text only enumerates the three which are cited here.

[12] Ministère intérieur/ Cabinet du ministre; circular no. 85, dated 4/5/38; A.D. Cher, M 7169.

[13] Ministère du travail (Ministry of Labour), bureau de la main d'oeuvre étrangère, circular no. 207, dated 9/9/38, A.D. Cher M7169.

[14] Ministère de l'intérieur, service des cartes d'identité et passeports, circular no. 341, dated 8/9/37, A.D. Cher M7168. See item h.

[15] See Mary Lewis, "Expulsion des étrangers, d'une mesure policière à une mesure administrative :  le cas du Rhône, 1919-1933" .

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ministère de l'intérieur, Service central des cartes d'identité d'étrangers, circular no. 187, dated 8/12/31. A.D. Cher M7167. See item i.

[18] Ministère de l'intérieur, Service central des cartes d'identité d'étrangers, circular no. 189, 28/12/31, A.D

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