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Les Voltigeurs de la Republique: L'Inspection du travail en France jusqu'en 1914.

This important and well-documented study of France's pre-1914 labor inspectors treats a group of civil servants who mediated between the state and significant segments of the larger society. By terming them light infantry soldiers (les voltigeurs) the author capsulizes both their relatively modest status and the active role which distinguished them from the ronds de cuir, the presumably do-nothing, office-bound bureaucrats satirized by contemporaries. The military analogy also suggests the similarity between labor inspectors and the public schoolteachers often called the "black hussars" of the Third Republic.

Viet's balanced interpretive approach well demonstrates the merits of moving beyond two long influential explanations for nineteenth-century state policies: the Marxist interpretations which reduced official acts to reflections of bourgeois class interest, and the emphasis by Michel Foucault and disciples on the increasing use of experts for purposes of social control. Although alert to tensions between social classes, Viet finds nothing sinister about the introduction of either legislation to protect workers or administors to enforce it as France gradually became (according to Francois Ewald) "l'Etat providence."

Labor inspection in nineteenth-century France had three lives. Its first birth was the child labor law of 22 March 1841, itself a product of the intersecting concerns of politicians, hygienists, and manufacturers. The ineffectiveness of retired businessmen asked to monitor compliance with new restrictions on child labor soon prompted calls under both the July Monarchy and Second Empire for a corps of paid inspectors, such as existed in England and Prussia. Labor inspection's second life began with the early Third Republic. Deeming the more effective protection of child and adolescent workers a means of national regeneration after the Franco-Prussian War, the monarchist Moral Order in 1874 introduced 15 salaried divisional inspectors, expected to oversee a larger number of inspectors paid by departmental administrations. Because only 20 of 87 departments hired inspectors, politicians in various ideological camps, prodded by medical allies, created a national corps of departmentally-based inspectors in 1892, coupling that decision with new legislation that restricted adult women workers' hours of work and possibilities for working at night. The third, post-1892 life of labor inspection soon became more complex as the legislature added new measures concerning industrial hygiene and safety and extended regulations from industry to commerce. Inspectors who observed violations were instructed to try first to persuade employers to make corrections; if that method failed they could issue a formal warning, and in a small minority of cases they initiated court action.

Industrialization and politicians' rationales for protective legislation provide the essential backdrop for labor inspection's history in France and the other western countries often cited by Viet for comparative purposes. Nevertheless, the men and women of the inspectorate are Viet's central subjects. His analysis of their backgrounds is sensitive to differences in generation, education, social origins, and gender. The first cohort of divisional inspectors named after 1874 set the tone for the post-1892 inspectorate. These 15 men - whose ranks expanded to 21 in 1885 - were typically former manufacturers and businessmen (not necessarily successful) or engineers trained at state schools. The Department of the Seine employed 31 of the 73 departmental inspectors in place by 1891 and also created the precedent for appointing women inspectors. The Seine inspectresses' successful functioning prompted the inclusion of women in the post-1892 national corps and proved less controversial than the contemporary appointment of women to inspect primary schools or public assistance. Although barred from promotion to the supervisory position of divisional inspector, labor inspectresses owed their jobs to the prevailing gender ideology of "separate spheres:" women were designated as the morally appropriate investigators of all-female workplaces. After 1892 the route to the inspectorate for both sexes was a competitive entrance examination (concours). There were separate concours for men and women, and the position of inspectrice - officially limited in 1892 to 15 slots, as compared to 77 for men - drew relatively more applicants than that of inspecteur, just as greater competition then prevailed among women than among men for teaching posts. Although more workers became inspectors after 1900, Viet labels the inspectorate "demi bourgeois" in background and ethos, and he notes that inspectresses' family backgrounds were of somewhat higher status than those of male colleagues. Initially part of the administration of the Ministry of Commerce, inspectors were moved in 1906 to the new Ministry of Labor, created by Georges Clemenceau as a gesture of reconciliation with workers after the government used force to break a wave of strikes.

One of Viet's most interesting contributions is his distillation of a sense of corporate identity and psychology from divisional inspectors' annual reports, which synthesized and quoted liberally from the submissions of departmental foot soldiers. There was a sense of solidarity among inspectors, who developed "familial" bonds with coworkers in order to cope with the difficulty of being intermediaries aware of what "should be" done for workers and what was realistically "possible" to obtain from employers. Even before France's first socialist minister, Alexandre Millerand, ordered the inspectorate to forge links with trade unions, inspectors' reports and letters exhibited a sense of social "mission" and genuine concern for workers' health and welfare. Some inspectors also tutored workers aspiring to become labor inspectors. Evaluated by divisional inspectors for the quality of their relationships with both employers and workers, departmental inspectors faced not only resistant employers - reluctant to shorten the workday or to spend money on required improvements in facilities - but also sometimes hostile workers, who complained that restricting hours of work interfered with their earnings potential. Nonetheless, Viet concludes that inspectors were relatively effective, recording that it was easier to improve hygiene and safety in the workplace than to eliminate violations in the length of the workday. He is less critical than Mary Lynn Stewart (Women, Work, and the French State, 1989), of protective legislation's role in reinforcing a gendered, and economically discriminatory, division of labor.

Beyond the scope of Viet's study but noted briefly is the extension of inspectors' role of "official mediators," as defined by the 1892 law, to that of formal arbitrators, the result especially of the Popular Front's collective bargaining legislation in 1936. After World War I, Arthur Fontaine, the labor inspectorate's administrative supervisor from 1899 to 1919, and other French officials also played a major role in the new International Bureau of Labor's efforts to promote worldwide standards. More recently, the centennial of the 1892 law creating the modern French labor inspectorate prompted displays of the General Confederation of Labor's support for inspectors and some indications of (Socialist) governmental reserve about inspectors' sympathetic tilt toward workers.

Linda L. Clark Millersville University of Pennsylvania
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Clark, Linda L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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