Destins immigres: Cher 1920-1980: Trajectoires d'immigres d'Europe.
Today, as France finds itself confronting a generation of newly-established migrants and their children, French historians pay increasing attention to the migrant experience during the last great wave of migration, the migrant wave of the interwar years. What happened to those migrants who remained in France? What happened to their children? Philippe Rygiel's study of migrant mobility in the Cher in central France between 1920 and 1980 provides historical perspective on a topic of contemporary interest. The subject of his study, the twentiethcentury Cher, was an area of mixed agriculture and industry in small towns such as Saint-Amand-Montrond and Rosieres and in cities such as Bourg and Vierzon.
The methodological problem confronting Rygiel's social mobility study are daunting. The standard U.S. approach for studying cohort and intergenerational mobility--linking individuals and generations across decadal federal censuses--is impossible. In the U.S., for the entire period of Rygiel's study, the census recorded the country of origin of children of foreign-born white parents. French censuses have not been similarly obliging. Vital records are the only French sources providing information about both individual and inter generational mobility. Birth records of foreign-born parents in the Cher for the period 1923-1946 provide the foundation of this study; successive births reveal the parents' status at different moments of the family life cycle. When a child is married it is noted on his birth record and this reference provides a means of linking birth and marriage records, providing systematic information on the occupational status of parents with that of children. Marriage records in the Cher, neighboring departments, and the Parisian arrondissements have been used, so in many cases, Rygiel is able to follow the child's trajectory outside the Cher.
Rygiel is careful to indicate bias in his sources and to correct them or to provide margins of error whenever he can. But despite his meticulous attention, serious biases remain. Migrants without children; migrants who came with completed families; and migrants who came and left without having children during their stay in the Cher are unrepresented. Unskilled industrial workers and agricultural laborers were the most common occupations of migrants to the Cher but skilled workers, small businessmen, artisans and small landowners were the most likely to remain permanently and constitute families and thus to find themselves over-represented in this study.
Students of social mobility will recognize some familiar problems. Job descriptions are often vague. For example, French terms for "daylaborer" (manoeuvre or journalier) apply to both unskilled agricultural and industrial workers and this creates classificatory problems in a department where small and medium-sized factories grew up in agricultural areas. Similarly, job designations alone often make it impossible to distinguish independent artisans from skilled workers. But France is a country with a strong bureaucratic penchant and specialized records often offer a way around the lack of systematic data. French laws that required the registration of foreign artisans simplify some problems of job classification; a governmental survey or other ad hoc documentation often enable him to crosscheck his data's reliability. The imaginative use of such corroborating evidence is one of the strengths of this study.
Rygiel is aware of, but does not directly confront, the issue of whether a single stratification system existed among native and foreign-born populations, an assumption vital to evaluating how migrants and their contemporaries regarded their fate. For example, many Polish migrants came from agricultural backgrounds. Did their disproportionate concentration among farmers and farm laborers represent the late immigrant wave's consignment to the bottom of a status hierarchy or did it match skills with jobs? During the Great Depression many Poles moved from factory towns to agriculture. Did this represent downward mobility or were these factory workers eager to return to farming?
These caveats do not really impair the major findings of Rygiel's study. He concludes that individual mobility was relatively rare among the first generation of migrants. Males were confined to unskilled factory work or to agricultural labor while women were domestics or farm laborers. For the second generation, mobility was real though limited. Using apprenticeship programs or technical schools, males became skilled workers and sometimes white-collar workers. Some males became small landowners while women left domestic service and the countryside to become unskilled factory workers; a few women who moved outside the Cher were able to find jobs as white-collar workers.
Real differences emerge both among ethnic migrants and within ethnic migrant groups. First generation Italian workers settled in cities where they were more liable to find industrial jobs, to open small businesses and to intermarry with the French. First generation Spanish and Portuguese migrants illustrate the presence of distinctive migrant flows within an ethnic wave; knots of illiterate Spanish and Portuguese workers established themselves in distinct geographic areas of the Cher, different from that of their literate fellow nationals. In contrast, first generation Poles and Czechoslovaks moved disproportionately towards rural areas where they labored in agriculture or in small-scale industry. The post-war expansion led to a general migration to the city on the part of second-generation migrants from the French countryside but it also led to further departures. Some Poles and Czechoslovaks returned to their homeland, recruited by consular officials who promised them a role in homeland reconstruction; the material of tragedy is here.
Perhaps more important than Rygel's conclusions are the problems that he raises but does not answer. Government employment including employment on the railroads was largely closed to young foreign-born workers; how important was citizenship in promoting the social mobility of natives over newcomers? What were the mechanisms used by employers or the French state to encourage migrants to leave during the years of the Great Depression? What was the role of apprenticeship and technical education as important elsewhere in France as in the Cher in promoting worker mobility?
Although the Rygal book contains much interesting material, it is not easy going. Even for readers familiar with French vital records and the book seems more like a memoir for researchers in the field than a monograph for students of French history or sociology.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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