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The Pariahs of Yesterday: Breton Migrants in Paris.

The Pariahs of Yesterday: Breton Migrants in Paris. By Leslie Page Moch. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. 255. $23.95.)

This new book will surely stand as the definitive account, in any language, of Breton migration to Paris from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Building on a considerable body of work on immigration to Paris, Leslie Page Moch provides a model study of the last major group of French migrants to travel from the countryside to the capital, a group whose arrival overlapped with a series of waves of immigration from foreign countries and the French empire. Although Moch nods toward recent work on nationality and citizenship status, the primary contribution of this book is to situate Breton migrants in the context of family and labor market networks that connected the Breton peninsula to Paris and to explore the exclusions they endured, especially in terms of gender.

After a brief framing chapter that addresses the migrant traditions in Brittany, Moch moves on to the establishment of a migrant community in the capital. Building on her own earlier work in migration history, Moch makes particularly effective use of marriage contracts to shed light on the immigrant experience and to show how the Breton community evolved over time, from the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. In the early years, the 1880s, Bretons-- especially the Breton speakers from lower Brittany--were more likely to marry one another than people from other regions, including Paris. Those from francophone upper Brittany were understandably more likely to find spouses from elsewhere in France. Within the city limits, in the fourteenth arrondissement, women outnumbered men, reflecting the demand for domestic labor on the part of the city's expanding ranks of middle-class families and showing diversity within the Breton community; they were relatively much more likely to find a spouse from somewhere else in France than among Bretons in the industrial suburbs.

With this sociological detail, Moch demonstrates the close-minded prejudice of Parisian elites. She is withering on the writings of Jean Lemoine. "They are not Frenchmen," he wrote (36). The insular tendencies of Breton migrants, especially in the industrial suburbs, struck him as evidence of pathology--of primitive ways imported from the countryside that left the newcomers incapable of coping with modern urban life. A subsequent chapter takes up bourgeois representations of Breton domestic servants, most famously Maurice Languereau's best-selling Becassine stories about a simple-minded chambermaid with a heart of gold and her misadventures among the Parisian bourgeoisie.

The heart of the book provides a counternarrative to such well-worn cliches about the pathologies of country bumpkins. It explores their mutual assistance efforts, associational life, and daily labors. Women were domestic servants, cooks, workers in the needle trades, and hospital workers. Men were generally unskilled laborers, digging ditches, cleaning septic tanks, sweeping streets, and working in transportation (railroads and the metro). Endogomy rates, if they remained relatively high at the turn of the twentieth century, gradually broke down. Bretons moved into white-collar work and gradually blended in to the Parisian community.

Clifford Rosenberg

City College of New York

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Author:Rosenberg, Clifford
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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