Immigrants at work

Immigrants at work

  • Chinese workers in Boulogne-Billancourt


  • North African farm workers harvesting in France, circa 1939.

  • Immigrant workers before the Ministry of Labor. Paris, 1938.

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Title: Chinese workers in Boulogne-Billancourt

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Contact copyright: © Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

Picture reference: 1065-14 / HRL-610575

Chinese workers in Boulogne-Billancourt

© Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

To close

Title: North African farm workers harvesting in France, circa 1939.

Author :

Contact copyright: © LAPI / Roger-Viollet

Picture reference: 769-10 / LAP-62751

North African farm workers harvesting in France, circa 1939.

© LAPI / Roger-Viollet

To close

Title: Immigrant workers before the Ministry of Labor. Paris, 1938.

Author :

Contact copyright: © Collection Roger-Viollet / Roger-Viollet

Picture reference: 1891-14 / RV-416059

Immigrant workers before the Ministry of Labor. Paris, 1938.

© Collection Roger-Viollet / Roger-Viollet

Publication date: April 2016

Historical context

Immigration become necessary

Each in its own way, these three photographs bear witness to the nature of labor immigration to France on the eve of World War II. They also raise certain related issues.

During and after World War I, labor immigration became economically necessary. It works closely with businesses, notably through the employers' body of the Société générale d'immigration, created on May 7, 1924, the Central Coal Committee of France and the Central Office for Agricultural Workforce.

In a context of strong economic growth, France experienced, during the 1920s, an intensification and diversification of immigration, both from the point of view of the origin of arrivals and the sectors in which they were employed. At the height of its colonial power, the state has in particular more and more "reserves" of labor from Africa or Asia, a new fact compared to the more European immigration of the 19th century.e century. Essentially composed of low-skilled workers, employed as workers in mines, factories, on public works sites or in the fields, the immigrant population comes from the colonies (Indochina, Morocco and Algeria in particular), Europe (Italy, Poland , Belgium, Spain and Switzerland), but also from China and Armenia.

In 1931, the foreign presence in France thus represented nearly 3 million people, or 7% of the total population. Despite the influx of new political migrants, this figure tended to decrease during the 1930s, marked by the economic crisis, a great xenophobic stiffening and a clear hardening of immigration policy, which resulted in the restriction of family reunification. , layoffs and dismissals.

Image Analysis


The three photographs studied here are anonymous and seem to have had an essentially documentary function. It cannot be said that they were publicized and may have played a role in contemporary representations of foreign labor.

The first photograph shows some 20 Chinese immigrants gathered in front of a workshop, in one of the yards of the Renault factory, located on Séguin Island, in Boulogne-Billancourt. It was taken between 1929 (date of the opening of the factory) and 1939. Dressed in the West (costumes and caps of "workers" for some, hats for others), these men seem to discuss quietly in this sunny day. It is difficult to specify what justifies such a gathering: hiring, break or end of the working day.

The second image also immortalizes a scene at work. We can see North Africans, young and old, resting, drinking, eating during agricultural work that we guess trying. Exhausted but proud to take the break, they stare at the goal without smiling as weariness prevails. They wear Western clothes suitable for the task, although the older worker in the foreground is distinguished by a more exotic outfit, a scarf placed on his head to protect himself from the August sun.

The third photograph shows a scene that takes place in front of the Ministry of Labor, located rue de Grenelle, in the VIIe district of Paris. In front of the entrance to the administration building, a group of workers, men dressed rather poorly and often wearing typical caps, stand in the street, while others enter and leave the inner courtyard. The majesty of the building (high walls, high doors, beautiful neighborhoods) contrasts with the simplicity of these workers.


At work

The three images provide information on a certain way of understanding the populations of immigrant workers, as well as on their diversity, their realities and even their daily lives.

First of all, a diversity of origins and sectors of activity, as evidenced by the first two photographs. Less known than others, Chinese immigration to France dates back to the treaty of May 14, 1916, signed between the governments of the two countries, which led to the recruitment of 35,000 Chinese (the "coolies") to support the war effort . It is estimated that more than 3,000 of them (the figure may be underestimated) remain in France after the conflict, thus forming the first contingent of this community in France. Some of these men are recruited in the automotive industry (Renault in Boulogne-Billancourt, Panhard & Levassor in the XIIIe arrondissement) and lives in Paris.

Immigration from the Maghreb dates from the end of the 19th century.e century. It was clearly reinforced during the First World War, then in the 1920s. As an indication, in 1936, there were 85,000 Algerians (who were not, in the proper sense, immigrants, since they were have French nationality), a large part of which are Kabyles, to which we must add Moroccans. This young and male workforce is first employed in the cities and farms of the Mediterranean coast (the city of Marseille constituting an anchor point for the community), then also in factories in the Paris region and North.

The first two photographs also show the reality and the daily life of these immigrants, which we choose here almost naturally to present at work. On the one hand, the workforce is predominantly male, exclusively even in all three shots. The cases are obviously very disparate, but it is estimated that immigrants who can live with their families in France are still in the minority, women being hired much less than men, and even more rarely at the same time and in the same places as them. On the other hand, the immigrant population remains poor and practices arduous and devalued jobs. Despite the fairly notable differences visible in the images, Chinese workers appear to be better off than North African workers. Indeed, punctuated by the many back and forth trips, Maghrebian immigration often constitutes an industrial, urban and agricultural underclass, as the second photograph eloquently suggests, which shows workers who are probably seasonal and very destitute resting, exhausted by task.

Finally, indirectly, the third image underlines another aspect of the life of these workers in France. Subject to both the goodwill of their bosses and the demands of an increasingly restrictive administration during the 1930s, immigrant workers saw a proliferation of controls, repression, and even bullying. We can thus assume, for example, that these workers go to the Ministry of Labor to obtain or renew their work permit, without which they cannot stay in the territory.

  • immigration
  • workers


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To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Immigrants at work"

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