Abstract: The Contradictions of Controlled Immigration: Mines, Foreign Labor, and the State in Interwar France

Philip H. Slaby


In the 1920s and 1930s, France developed a multi-ethnic work force, as employers and the state promoted immigration to remedy post-World War I labor shortages. This essay takes a business history perspective to appreciate the dynamics that shaped the incorporation of foreigners into interwar France. Examining the mines of the coal-rich department of the Pas-de-Calais, and relying on government and company archives, the analysis illuminates how firms improvised new managerial strategies and reshaped traditional ones to transform foreigners into productive miners. Through these policies foreigners became vital to the mines after the First World War, helping them to rebuild staff, to reconstruct facilities, and to regain profitability. Yet, managerial policies carried unintended consequences for employers and foreigners alike. Practices in the workplace and company paternalism toward immigrants served to isolate foreigners from their French coworkers and earned them the suspicion of local officialdom. Such anti-immigrant sentiments ultimately worked against coal firms. Indeed, as joblessness and xenophobia grew in the 1930s, the foreign labor force created by coal companies was decimated, as local officials aggressively expelled non-natives in order to appease public opinion, to open positions for French workers, and to expel those held politically suspect.

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