The Pariahs of Yesterday: Breton Migrants in Paris.
Leslie Page Moth, a leading historian of European migration, has written an important book on the migration of Bretons to Paris during the Third Republic. The book focuses on the question of their integration into the larger Parisian community and their gradual loss of the status of pariah within that urban society. Historians have studied questions involving the assimilation of international immigrants, but internal migrants have been mostly left out of the story about how newcomers became integrated. The book demonstrates that the integration of migrants into city life was often difficult, but argues against the black legend of migrant failure by taking a longer view. The full integration of Bretons into the fabric of Padsian life took several generations, it is true, but was ultimately successful, to the point that the pariahs of the nineteenth century have become "provincials like any others with a charming French past." (p. 180).
To a considerable extent a book such as this one will succeed or fail depending on how well the methodology used actually measures the extent of integration into Parisian society. The Pariahs of Yesterday is primarily based on an analysis of marriage records from the banlieu of Saint Denis and from the fourteenth arrondissement, two areas that had a significant concentration of Breton immigrants throughout the period studied. The author compiled lists of all marriages involving a Breton bride or groom for the years 1875, 1890, 1910 and 1925, and used the geographic origins of brides, grooms and witnesses to evaluate the integration into Parisian society. Moth also makes extensive use of a variety of other documents such as oral histories collected in the 1980s, criminal and police archives, memoirs, and the B6cassine stories and related paraphernalia (dolls, for example).
Until the arrival of the railroad around the middle of the nineteenth century, Breton migration was distinct in that Bretons migrated internationally more than people from most parts of France, but were less likely to migrate internally. Then around 1850 they began to migrate within France, including to Paris (although of course only a minority of Breton emigrants ended up in that city, with most working rather as farmhands or fishermen).
Bretons living in Saint Denis had marital patterns that were distinct from those in the fourteenth arrondissement. In Saint Denis about two-thirds of marriages involving at least one Breton-born spouse were geographically endogamous (between two people born in the same department), much higher than the 20 percent proportion among all new-comers to Paris. Unsurprisingly, francophone Bretons were less likely to marry another Breton than were those from Celtic Breton areas. On average, Breton brides in Saint Denis were much younger than other Parisian brides, a good indication that through the 1880s and 1890s Breton migrants remained attached to courtship and marriage patterns from their home province, especially since these same brides were less likely to cohabit before marriage or have children out of wedlock than were other Parisian women. Endogamy rates were much lower in the fourteenth arrondissement, since only about a quarter of Breton wives had married another Breton. Couples in this area were also more likely to cohabit and have children before marriage, and married later in life, much more closely following the general working-class patterns of courtship and marriage than was the case in Saint Denis. The author argues that those planning to stay in Paris went to the fourteenth arrondissement, but I would have liked to see a more detailed explanation of the divergence. The differences between these two communities persisted (in 1900, for example) but gradually cohabitation and exogamous marriages became more common in Saint Denis, and the average age of brides rose to become similar to that of the Parisian working class overall. In general women did better than men at becoming integrated, as they more often married non-Bretons and found it easier to find and keep work in domestic service and related trades (notably as hospital staff) than men did as manual labourers. By 1925 Bretons in Paris had effectively emerged from their relative insularity. After World War II there was another surge of Breton migration to Paris, but integration came much more easily to this new cohort.
Throughout the book, Moch also analyses the role of community bonds and Breton associations in the lives of Breton-born Parisians. Neighbourhood bonds were especially important in Saint Denis, which had a higher density of Bretons than did the fourteenth arrondissement. As we would expect for people leaving behind the most religious province in France, Catholic associations (and the Breton parish founded in Paris by Francois Cadic) played a significant role from the start, but there were also socialist associations. Gradually Breton clubs focused on helping Bretons find their way into Parisian society gave way to institutions and groups reflecting a growing sentiment of Breton nationalism. These new groups publicly and visibly resisted the negative stereotypes of Bretons, with, for example, widespread opposition to a Becassine film screened in 1938-9.
Pariahs of Yesterday is an important book. My only criticism is that the organization of the book is sometimes a bit difficult to follow. The book discusses marriage patterns in various different chapters, one chronological period at a time (for two different neighbourhoods) and then presents other changes in attitudes and associational life for each period. But the organization reflects the richness of the analysis and the author's determination to do justice to the diversity of experience of her subjects. The book makes a persuasive case that the gradual integration of Bretons in Paris was partly the result of the way the French state privileged its own citizens over immigrants from outside, but also reflected the rhythms of the urban economy and especially the decisions of ordinary Bretons who "often chose to make their lives outside of the Breton group" (p. 179). Integration was not easy, but neither can it be described as a failure, especially if we take the long view advocated by Moch. The research is meticulous and wide-ranging, combining social science calculations with analysis of oral history and other documents, literary texts and early scholarly treatments of the Breton immigration "problem."
Universite de Moncton
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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