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New Government: Minimal Improvement

John Knadler

    The famous philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once said, "The poor donít know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity;" however, when we examine the poor in nineteenth century France, especially the poor worker, we clearly find that the generosity of the government and the employers was certainly not exercised. Selections from The French Worker, especially those dealing with Norbert Truquin (1833-?) and Jean Baptiste Dumay (1841-1905) clearly show the desperate circumstances of the nineteenth century worker during the period of Louis Philippe, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire. For example, we see how Truquin feels a complete sense of alienation from society in that he literally wears rags for clothes and is constantly on the verge of starvation, and the sense of agitation that Dumay feels when he is blacklisted from the ironworks and his subsequent exploitation. However, in 1870, near the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III abdicated his throne and a Republic was proclaimed with universal elections. Although traditionally many French people feared the radicalism of republicans, it did very much in theory benefit the poor with universal suffrage measures and attempted to give the poor some sense of hope that maybe they might be included in this new government, thus leading to the possibility that it could end the continuing abuses of workers. Many French people felt that these republican measures should be implemented especially with the growing education of the population in understanding their citizenship through the Guizot education law of 1833 and the Falloux School Law.

    However, this hope for labor reform was in vain, and, as we see from the memoirs of Jean Bouvier (1865-1964), a worker during the Third Republic, conditions were equally as horrid as they had been during previous eras. One of the most blatant and obvious abuses during the period that we see in Bouvierís account were neglect of child labor laws that mandated restricted hours for children under 12; Bouvier began working in a silk factory at the age of 11, despite child labor laws, after her fatherís business failed. She explains the sheer fright of an eleven year old working by saying, "The terrible part was winter, when I had to leave the house at quarter to five. It was so dark going out in the streets in the cold, the rain, and the snow. Oh how I suffered, and oh how I was afraid of the dark" (Bouvier 346). Despite the reduced hours required as part of the child labor laws, Bouvier worked from five in the morning until eight at night all at age 11. Since women especially young women had miniscule means by which to appeal to the law on the basis of unlawful labor practices, foremen often sought to exploit children like Bouvier further because they essentially had no power to stop such abuses. While Bouvier worked at the factory, she was rarely granted a raise; however, when she inquired as to why this was so, she explains, "The foreman would ask the owner for raises. The owner would grant them, but the foreman would keep them for himself as a way of getting rich" (Bouvier 348). Bouvier also discusses one of the worst aspects of factory work: the horrible conditions and lack of food. "At the factory we were served soup in the morning and evening, but what soup! It was so bad that dogs refused to eat it. We were also given a place to sleep that was an attic without a ceiling" (Bouvier 349).

    Bouvier soon could no longer stand the insufferable conditions she endured in the factory and began to search for work in domestic service. Although Bouvier had changed fields, she found the work equally as troubling. In her first house, "she (the mistress) taunted me, saying that I would not easily find as good a job as the one in her houseónot a girl as dumb as I was, who owned no clothes and no wardrobe" (Bouvier 354). Upon her quitting this household, Bouvier was blamed by the mistress for breaking a plate and was given only a fractional amount of her actual earnings, thus victimizing her in the same fashion as the factory. Bouvier remained in domestic service for a few of her next series of jobs; however, after a series of personal problems with her employers, Bouvier once again returned to factory life. Finally, Bouvier was able to get a job in her ideal factory where she would work as a dressmaker, a job in which she was paid well so that she could afford decent housing, of which Bouvier says, "I could not believe I had so much luxury" (Bouvier 373). However, Bouvierís work in the dressmaking factory was extremely stressful and taxing on her. "How many sleepless nights I spent, thinking about the dress I was to make the next day. But the five francs a day gave me the courage to overcome these difficulties" (Bouvier 372). Bouvier tells the reader, "I did not want to go hungry in my old age. I wanted my old age to be better than my childhood. It was this prospect that gave me the courage to work," and ultimately Bouvierís hard work allowed her to attain a career in public service.

    While Bouvierís story did indeed prove to be one with a happy ending, it is important to note how she still had to endure long working hours and extremely taxing work, although she was fairly compensated, especially in comparison to many of her previous jobs and many of the other workers we have seen in The French Worker. It appears as if one of the main problems for workers during the Third Republic was the lack of enforcement of labor laws. In 1892 a labor law covering women and children limited their working days to 11 hours and forbade night work. Bouvier tells us that she felt "joy at the thought that the law of 1892 would free us;" however, in the end, this law was not enforced and made no real difference in the lives of workers. It is also significant to note the hardships her friends endured at the dress factory and how these hardships even brought some to suicide. While Bouvierís account does show us that some workers were able to prosper moderately during the Third Republic, they certainly endured extreme suffering to do it. 

 

 

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