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Paris and its Province  |  Part III: Building Fortunes

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by Anne-Caroline Sieffert

PhD Candidate, French Studies, Brown University (2013)

Alsatian immigration to Paris follows two trends: before 1871, poor Alsatians moved to Paris from rural areas in Alsace. In 1870, Prussia, on the verge of uniting Germany, defeated Napoleon III’s France. As a result of the war, France lost Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. Local populations were given two years to choose their citizenship. Migrants who had opted for France were called “Optants”.

Financial emigration was important before the 1870s, large enough that Balzac made some of his characters Alsatians and Lorrains. Like in Zola’s works, Balzac’s Alsatians are frequently blond, massive, bear-like, opinionated and obstinate, with heavy German-like accents. Such is simple-minded Kolb, an honest and hard-working servant. The following is a discussion between him and master David:

On m'ovrirait pien tes millions, queu cheu ne tirais bas une motte! Est-ce que che nei gonnais boind la gonzigne milidaire? — Tu es averti, marche, et va prier monsieur Petit-Claud d'assister à la remise de ces fonds chez monsieur Cachan. -- Ui, fit l'Alsacien, chesbère edre assez riche ein chour pire lui domper sire le gazaquin, à ced ôme te chistice! Ch'aime bas sa visache! — C'est un bon homme, madame, dit la grosse Marion, il est fort comme un Turc et doux comme un mouton. [6]

After the 1870s, ideological immigration dominated. A large part of the 1871 Optants were wealthy bourgeois, who already had ties to Paris and could afford to leave Alsace quickly. Their choice of French citizenship was as political as it was practical: some of them had already established businesses in the Capital, some only moved there in the 1870s. In Paris, they frequently turned to business and poured their wealth into charities and philanthropy. One such example of these practices is the Alsatian School of Paris.

As a private enterprise of philanthropy, the school illustrates how Alsatians became active and how they networked in Paris, and came to be very influential in Parisian political life. Built on Humanistic principles, the school became one of the founding examples used to shape the Ferry education laws of the late 1880s. It was funded by Alsatian migrants, the same who founded the General Association for Alsatians and Lorrains (GAAL) (see image, at the World Fair, an exhibition presented by the GAAL).

One of the goals of the GAAL was to keep alive the memory of the Lost Provinces and get them back. Along with building Paris and the French colonial Empire, retrieving the Lost Provinces was to be the third major national project since the French Revolution. The GAAL also became a major business-networking machine. It helped newly arrived Alsatians and Lorrains swiftly settle in Paris.

Exhibition presented by the Association for the protection of Alsatians and Lorrains who opted for French citizenship
Exhibition presented by the Association for the protection of Alsatians and Lorrains who opted for French citizenship in de Vandière, Simon. L'Exposition universelle de 1878 illustrée. Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1879.

Thanks to such organizations, a decade after the end of the war, Alsatian and Lorrain exiles had well integrated into Parisian economic life. Three staples of Paris were the result of this integration: the Eiffel tower, the brasserie Lipp, and the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann. All three were the results of efforts led by major figures of the exiled Alsatian community: Maurice Koechlin, the Lippman couple, and Théophile Bader. They were not only tangible proof of entrepreneurship displayed by the exiled community; they represented also a financial investment in Paris post-1870s.

The Eiffel Tower in L'exposition de Paris, publiée avec la collaboration d'écrivains spéciaux, Vol. 1. Paris: Librairie Illustrée.

If the Breton was depicted as a silent and shy drunk, and the Auvergnat a mumbling thief, the Alsatian was a jovial drunk with a heavy German accent. In Balzac’s works, Alsatians are frequently hard-working and honest characters, if of limited intellectual capacities.

The common stories between those migrants highlight a history of marked xenophobia within Parisian populations. Within a couple of generations, though, there was not a single Parisian whose family was truly Parisian.

Thanks to those migrants, and other regional and international migrants, Paris was becoming a quilt of identities. By the end of World War I, these different communities of migrants would be transformed into a Nation.

Effectively, if building Paris was the mortar of a national identity, defending it would prove the ultimate test for the newly minted French.


Notes [Top]


[6] Dey vould offehr me millionz, I vouldn’t say ein vorde! Do I not ‘now ze milidary lav? — You are warned, go, and ask Mr Petit-Claud to come serve as a witness to this money transaction at Mr Cachan’s. — Aye, said the Alsatian, I vish I vill be rich enough ein tay to hit him in iz dezpicable face, zis lavyer! I dunnot like her face! [Note: the gender confusion between her and his in front of face is not a translation mistake: Alsatian-native speakers frequently make gender mistakes when they spoke French, as Alsatian, a Germanic language is grammatically similar to German.]