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The French Worker in the Provinces 

Stuart Rice

    Paris, for workers in nineteenth century France, was a place where work could almost always be found. Whether skilled or unskilled, most workers migrated to Paris when work needed to be found. This is not to say however that work in the provinces was hard to find or that workers forgot their provincial backgrounds. Aside from agriculture (which still dominated the countryside of France), there were cities in the provinces where work could often be found if one was willing to travel. Often workers returned to their hometowns to spend time with their families. By the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization had turned many towns and regions into factory towns or specialized regions. But with this, the nature of the work changed. Work in the provinces was no longer dependent on a floating skilled work force that migrated according to season. With the development of industrialization, we see the decline of agriculture and skilled labor in the provinces and the rise of unskilled factory workers. We also see a decline in the conditions of these workers. This led to frustrations among the working classes all over France.

    While migration to Paris had always been an option for French workers in need of a job, very often provincial workers during the first half of the nineteenth century set out on a "tour de France" to perfect the skills of their trade. At a time when skilled labor was still in high demand, many artisans, after spending time learning their craft in their hometown, would journey to other towns and regions of France to practice and perfect their skills. For the most part, these tours were organized by compagnonnages (workers’ societies set up to help members find work as they came into town). Agricol Perdiguier described how a journeyman would show up in a town and go directly to the local compagnonnage to set himself up. Here the worker would find work, as well as housing. The compagnonnage was often run by a "mère" or mother who told the workers where they would be working and where to stay while in town. Workers of the same compagnonnage were treated in an egalitarian manner. Fraternity and brotherhood were stressed in compagnonnages. (Traugott, 116-182)

    Although many workers eventually migrated to Paris, most never lost their connection to their home province. In Paris, they were known by their regional dialects and lived with workers from the same region, setting up a pattern of certain regions providing workers for certain jobs. We see this in Martin Nadaud’s autobiography. The province of the Creuse was known for producing stonemasons, who would have to lead dual lives, because there was little work within the Creuse region for a stonemason. Paris was always in need of such workers, so many workers spent a great deal of the year in Paris working and living with people from their home province. However, these workers almost always felt obligated to return to their hometown and peasant background. Many returned home during the winter months to be with their wives and families and help with harvests. The fact that Nadaud did not move his family to Paris, but chose instead to migrate to and from Paris while his wife and family took care of their land showed how much these seasonal migrants were attached to their peasant backgrounds. (Traugott, 183-249)

    Despite the rise of industrialization and the need for unskilled labor, most workers remained close to their peasant background. However, by the late nineteenth century, worker life had changed in France. Many towns in France had grown to become company towns. These were towns where local government and factory management were often on in the same. This meant that often regulations and conditions that were in contrast to the law were often overlooked. According to the memoir of Jean-Baptiste Dumay, the Schneider factory ran the town of Le Creusot. Even though Dumay took off on a tour de France, factory towns such as Le Creusot had stabilized the work force in these towns, all but eliminating the need for traveling workers. Work was becoming more and more urban, creating more problems as workers flooded the towns. (Traugott, 309-335)

    With Norbert Truquin and Jeanne Bouvier, we see how difficult life was for male, female, and child unskilled laborers in the provinces. Starvation was always just around the corner for many of these workers. Often economic downturns were worse for the provinces. The lives of unskilled laborers could thus be very harsh because they had little to no bargaining power against the employer. Often when laborers did unite with grievances, the local government turned them away because the factory owner held more sway over their decisions. Truquin became particularly hostile towards the government and the ownership of the silk industry in Lyon when the political upheaval of 1871 was followed by an economic depression during the 1880’s. It was difficult to live when what little work you could get was taken away for seemingly greedy reasons. It is no surprise that socialism became as popular in the provinces as in Paris. (Traugott, 250-308; 336-382)

 

 

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All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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