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Paris and its Province  |  Part II: Lending a Hand: The Regional Workforce in Paris

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by Anne-Caroline Sieffert

PhD Candidate, French Studies, Brown University (2013)

Before the drought and financial crisis of 1873-1895, rural populations were only temporary migrants to Paris. Sociological studies of rural demographics, notably Philippe Ariès’ La population de Paris, show that rural dwellers were still very attached to their original lands and unlikely to move to the capital to settle there. In the years following the global agricultural crisis of the 1870s-1880s, this trend would reverse. Through immigration, populations from the provinces were able to participate in the first truly coherent national project: building Paris.

Migrants to Paris were traditionally divided into two categories: temporary and permanent. From the end of the 1700s to the 1850s, migrants to Paris were predominantly male, single, and invested in the accumulation of wealth in order to boost their social status and marry. The type of jobs these migrants undertook was typically hard and physically demanding: chimney sweeping, coal and water carriers, masonry, etc. Women, who were fewer, took on jobs as maids, but with a decimated aristocracy and a smaller bourgeoisie, job opportunities were fewer for female migrants than they were for males before the 1840s-1850s.

After the 1850s, however, temporary migration declined and permanent residency became the norm for regional migrants. At last, the Province was contributing to the building of industrial Paris. Two groups became predominant amongst the Parisian population, Auvergnats and Bretons. Amongst other regional populations, the two regions were especially well represented. The first come from Auvergne, a region halfway between Paris and the South of France, vastly empty of industries in the 1800s-1900s period. The later come from Brittany, a well-known Western coastal region of France, whose Northern border is the English Channel.

La Rue Rambuteau le matin
L’Auvergnat in Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Paris : Curmer, 1840-1842.

Balzac describes Auvergnats as common thieves, like Sélerier in Le Père Goriot; murderers, like Rémonecq in Le Cousin Pons; or sociopaths like Bidault, a character who appears in several novels. To truly gauge Balzac’s views of Auvergnats, one should compare it to his well-documented anti-Semitism. In Le Cousin Pons, a Jewish art collector, Elie Magus, is rendered in highly stereotyped and harsh terms. Only one other character in the novel gets such a treatment, Rémonecq. In fact, Balzac points out: “Les Juifs, les Auvergnats et les Savoyards [1], ces races d’hommes ont les mêmes instincts: ils font fortune par tous les moyens” [2]. Auvergnats, in addition to being insular migrants, were very organized and often acquired small shops after working for a time as coal or water carriers. The system of apprenticeship Auvergnats had developed enabled their youth to be quickly placed in jobs. Their higher literacy rates vis-à-vis other regions also helped them become valued workers, and in time, store owners: they could keep the books, order products, write letters, unlike their Bretons counterparts who, frequently did not know how to read. Having placed well, Auvergnats swiftly repaid their countrymen generosity forward. Despite their negative image in the time’s literature, they were diligent and well organized, if quite insular.

Restaurant waitress named Duval
Restaurant waitress named Duval in La Parisienne peinte par elle-même. Paris : Conquet, 1897.

The representation of Bretons in literature had traditionally been more positive than their Auvergnats counterparts. In the early 1850s, a strong interest in medieval literature brought Celtic folklore back in fashion and, along with it, an interest in the Breton language. Brittany, however, had a lower literacy rate than any other province in France: Bretons did neither benefit from a solid network like the Auvergnats nor from the latter’s capacity to keep books, although they did use their family connection as they frequently were welcomed into their maternal lineage in Paris until they could support themselves financially. Women were frequently hired as waitresses or maids. Men avoided factories like the plague: Bretons were notorious for doing badly in factory-like work. A minority of them were stone-workers and masons (they notably participated in the construction of the Montparnasse train station).

The Saint-Lazare railway station
Saint-Lazare railway station, in part built by Breton masons in the 1830s-1840s.

More frequently, they became low-level public servants, not in direct contact with the public, where their limited mastery of French would have been a problem. They tended to be employees in Paris rather than business owners, unlike the Auvergnats, the Ardèchois [3], or the Alsatians [4]. Whereas Auvergnats were described as cunning and intelligent, Bretons had a reputation of being goofy drunks, compounded by their poor ability to converse in French. Proust evokes, in Swan’s Way, a Breton soldier’s French as poor, “ayant appris à parler français aussi difficilement que s’il eût été Anglais ou Allemand [5]”. Zola’s Breton maid, Adèle, in Pot-Bouille, is persecuted by her employers, even sexually harassed by the husband, and described by them as naïve and gullible. Many Bretons participated in the Capital’s huge Celtics festivals, the festnozes, very popular with the Parisians, but associated with the Bretons’ public drunkenness.



[1] Inhabitants of Savoie, a Southeast département, situated in the Alps chain.

[2] Jews, Auvergnats, Savoyards, these races of men have the same instinct: augment their wealth by any means possible.

[3] Inhabitants of Ardèche, a Southwest départment of France.

[4] Inhabitants of Alsace.

[5] Having learned to speak French with as much difficulty as if he had been English or German.