Housing for single foreigners in 20th-century France:
Three historical configurations.

Marc Bernardot, sociologist, associate member of URMIS (Migrations and Society research unit)

22 February 1999

The question of housing for single foreigners is one aspect of the broader problematics of the emergence of 'colonial' populations in the migratory flows towards metropolitan France. Among such populations, 'Algerian' workers are particularly concerned on account of their numbers and early migrations. Several hypotheses may be advanced about the special features of this movement and its importance in the history of the handling of foreign populations in France.

The first hypothesis would argue for a double continuity: (1) between the nineteenth-century strategies of control and sedentarisation of single workers and those applied to Algerian workers in the twentieth century and (2) between the representations and techniques of pacification of the colonial territories and the conceptions of the supervision of 'native' immigrants in metropolitan France on the other [1]. The second hypothesis relates to the consequences of the State's traditional reticence to involve itself in a housing policy before the 1950s. Two alternative solutions to the migrant housing problem may be cited as examples of comp%nsatIon! for the lack of interest on the part of the public authorities: the responsibility of the military in periods of crisis and a delegation to local, philanthropic or employers' initiatives. The third hypothesis concerns the place of relations between the area which we shall designate as Algeria [a French colony between 1830 and 1962] and France's administrative structure.

The specific nature of the problematics tied to Algeria's incorporation into the French territory (from both geopolitical and migratory standpoints) required French public institutions to modify their system of action, including the division of tasks between ministries in the metropolis [2]. Through its historical recurrence, the case of the housing of single foreigners, or 'colonials', allows us to bring out on the one hand the succession of actors concerned (along with the evolution of their cognitive systems) and on the other, the changing forms of action and their effects on the specific question of housing. The growing difficulties with housing encountered by single foreigners during the twentieth century was accompanied by a gradual transfer of its management from the civil society to the State. Similarly, the [French] protagonists' representations gradually shifted from hygienist issues to preoccupations with urban planning, although neither the protagonists nor the representations and issues were ever totally substituted for each other. Indeed, the successive elements of these patterns were to be combined and accumulated in function of the historical context. The real beginnings of Algerian immigration in France coincide with the First World War. It was a military organisation, the Service de l'organisation des travailleurs coloniaux (SOTC, Department for the Organisation of Colonial Workers), which designed and applied the selection and recruitment, essentially of Kabyles, in order to use the colonial reservoir in the war effort both at the front and behind the lines. Closely taken in hand and supervised by their officers, the soldiers of the African army were housed and fed by the military institution. The management of these companies of soldiers was vigilant and strict, with separate barracks, mosques in the wintering camps and meals conforming to dietary laws. But if the living conditions and contacts (or not) with the rest of the military population were particularly supervised, notably by agents of the Bureau des affaires indigenes (Native Affairs Bureau), the demobilization left a considerable share of these migrants without any surveillance. This context led to growing public preoccupation in areas with a heavy concentration of Algerian populations.

1925-1933: Assisting the 'native' returnees

The role of the prefecture of Paris in providing housing and health assistance for the returning 'native' labour force
At the request of city councillors following a “sensational crime [which] had attracted the nervous attention of public opinion to the invasion of France by foreign or colonial elements and notably by North African emigrants”, the Paris Municipal Council and the Country Council of the Seine, in conjunction with the prefecture of Paris, set up a section for North African native affairs in 1925 [3] [4]. One of the activities of this unit was the management of residences and it thus encouraged the establishment of an Authority for North African Residences in 1931. As the prefect of the Seine declared at that time, “Many immigrants are without housing. The disgraceful hovels where North Africans used to be packed in by the dozens constituted a dangerous scandal. Our residences provide clean, healthy rooms with fresh air and sunlight, at rates which are considerably lower than those charged by ordinary hotels” [5].
The offices at 6 rue Leconte in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, which depended on the Paris police prefecture, were to serve as the base for the extension of the Home Office's prerogatives in the years following the Second World War. During this period, the main actor in the administrative management of immigration was the unit handling labour immigration, the Service de la main-d'oeuvre étrangère (SOME, Department of Foreign Labour), which was supposed to keep an eye on the intrigues of the Société générale d'immigration (SGI, General Immigration Company), an employers' organisation which showed little concern for the question of migrant housing.
For the local promoters of the first public responses to the housing problems encountered by Algerians living in the metropolis, the crucial issues were health (tuberculosis and syphilis) and insecurity. The results in terms of housing were as limited as the means implemented (a few residences constructed or rehabilitated in Paris and the northern suburb of Gennevilliers). On the other hand, certain social and cultural efforts aimed at this public were to last (residence for intellectuals, the Great Mosque of Paris and the Avicenna Hospital). In the eyes of their promoters, these local initiatives were nonetheless aimed at “limiting the invasion and reducing its dangers to a minimum”. Under pressure from the French settler-landowners in Algeria, it was.
deemed necessary to encourage the return of these migrants to the Algerian 'departments'.

1947-1954: encouraging separate housing for the 'colonials'

The Ministry of Labour, a modest instigator of a policy of 'separate' housing for 'colonial' migrants
During the 1948-1954 period, the Ministry of Labour involved itself in the management of foreign workers even if it had no control over the displacements of the 'Algerians'. The considerable workforce needs did not suffice to reduce the desire shared by most of the institutional actors to 'select' workers in function of their origin. When this selection proved relatively ineffectual, as in the case of the 'Muslim French from Algeria', these populations were handled through strategies of control on the national territory. The particular architectural solution of workers' residences seemed the most appropriate for supervising these single foreign workers while contributing to the “human advancement of the North African workers” [6]. It was, moreover, used to take charge of foreigners only for the housing of 'colonial' workers, whose presence could only be temporary given the refusal of their inclusion in a strategy of permanent settlement.
The institutional situation was marked by competition between different departments which did not want to relinquish possession of the sectors concerning the populations under their responsibility. With regard to the residences and centres for lodging and reception, the Ministry of Labour, along with the Direction de la main d'oeuvre (DMO, Labour-Force Department) and the Home Office, as well as the General Secretariat for Algerian affairs, intervened in function of their respective powers. The residences of the first were exclusively reserved for North African workers actually holding jobs. In this case, the users were supposed to pay a rent corresponding to operations costs. The centres run by the Home Office, intended for North African natives, provided free housing.
From 1947 on, the Ministry of Labour was the main public promoter of housing for Algerian workers, but its policy was limited above all to incentives and support measures. This policy on “housing in the particular domain of the lodging of single North African employees living in the metropolis” followed three main lines: it encouraged employers to create installations specially reserved for the lodging of these employees; it initiated the construction of residences for North African employees and it participated in identical initiatives undertaken by various public or private bodies or local communities [7]. For the Ministry of Labour, the major need was for “emergency centres”. Another problem faced by the Ministry, however, was institutional competition from the Home Office; for several years, the latter had been encroaching upon its authority in the area of migrant labour-force management, in terms of both the maintenance of public order and social action.

1955-1962, the promotion of coercive hygienism [8]

The Home Office, as the metropolitan heir to the military culture of colonial management, develops a policy of “coercive hygienism” specifically aimed at Algerian workers.
In 1955, the Home Office's special services made the following observation: there were a significant number of shantytowns in the greater Paris, Lyons and Marseilles areas and these shantytowns were essentially inhabited by North Africans, especially Algerians. Such a situation raised a series of interrelated questions. Plots of land were being illegally occupied in close proximity to urban “nerve centres”. The lifestyle of the populations, supposedly cut off from the rest of the world, was, according to the Home Office's representatives, both humanly intolerable and sociologically harmful because these populations “escaped” both the behaviour of other inhabitants and outside controls. They asserted that the Algerian conflict was at the core of the problem [9].
In this struggle between ministries over the management of the 'North African' population, the Home Office had the most hegemonic attitude. Profiting from gaps in the handling of this file, its services began by turning their attention to the housing of migrants and set up associations affiliated with it for the management of migrant workers' residences. As of 1956, it focused its social action more clearly on the Algerians in metropolitan France because Algeria no longer came under its authority (its responsibilities were transferred to the General Government of Algeria as of 16 March 1956) [10]. But this increased social action (the creation of a “Service des Affaires musulmanes et de l'action sociale” [Department of Muslim Affairs and Social Action] [11]) was combined with growing repression through the creation of detention camps for Algerian nationalists. With the Home Office's creation of the Sonacotral (the public enterprise for the construction of housing for Algerian workers) on 4 August 1956, the Home Secretary gained a powerful commercial relay for the control of Algerians' housing and the recovery of the outlying plots of land which had been transformed into shantytowns [12].

The administrative handling of the 'housing issue' with regard to 'Algerians' in the course of the twentieth century has not been a continuous process; rather, it has manifested itself on the occasion of temporary 'crises'. The analysis of the different historical configurations of the government's approach to single North African workers in metropolitan France serves to bring out the combinations of biological, cultural and political representations of 'colonial man' in his contacts with the metropolis. The successive cognitive frameworks are characterized by the paradoxical interrelationship of representations of biological issues (the impossibility of assimilating the North African into the French nation) and questions of public health (danger of epidemics, morals counter to those of French society), of preoccupations related to the necessity of making up for the French demographic deficit (need for labour or military reinforcements) and strategic or urban constraints (avoiding the creation of an Arab Fifth Column, recovering land occupied by these workers for purposes of city planning).
The analysis of this cyclical pattern also allows us to highlight the French tradition of an administrative management of immigration through specific regulations, “administrative cogs, nothing institutional”, to deal with the contradiction and interests divided between the need to promote the workforce needs of private enterprises and that of separately taking charge of the 'colonial workers'.


[1] M. Murard and P. Zylberman, Le petit travailleur infatigable ou le problème régénéré. Villes-usines, habitat et intimités au XIXème siècle (Paris: Recherches, 1976).

[2] P. Legendre, Trésor historique de l'État en France, l'Administration classique , Fayard, 1992.

[3] in P. Godin, ' Notes sur le fonctionnement des services de surveillance, protection et Assistance des indigènes nord-africains résidant ou de passage à Paris et dans le département de la Seine '. Paris, Imprimerie municipale, 1933.

[4] These municipal services were to benefit from the support of the Algerian Affairs department of the Home Secretary's Office.

[5] Cited by Godin, op. cit.

[6] In ' le logement des travailleurs à faibles revenus ', Avis et rapports du conseil économique, janvier 1956.

[7] As of 31 December 1955, a Department of Labour (DMO) note placed the number of North African workers at 186,418. Of the 56,226 of them who were housed, 42,739 were in employers' establishments following the action of social service inspectors assigned to the North African labour force and 11,487 were in residences or centres created on the initiative of the Ministry and in various administrative centres. See Note pour le ministre des Affaires sociales, de la Sous-direction de l'emploi, 4e bureau, Direction de la main d'oeuvre, 12 March 1953. 860271, C.A.C. ministère du Travail.

[8] This term is borrowed from A. Jeantet, “Les foyers en question”, in Le logement des immigrés en France (conference papers) (Lille: OMINOR, 1982).

[9] They were notably afraid that the emerging Algerian maquis would spread to metropolitan France, with a geographical base in the shantytowns thus permitting the creation of a “second front” for the Algerian War. Each time that the idea of not allowing individuals to live in extremely difficult conditions was mentioned, it was generally followed by conditions of public order because such locations bringing together thousands of people were not under police control. The image of a police force which did not want to enter the shantytown was contrasted to the idea of the National Liberation Front (FLN) collecting funds for the conflict in Algeria.

[10] On the subject of the “ping-ponging” of responsibilities between the Home Office and the General Government since the 1890s, see Legendre, op. cit.

[11] This department could rely on a strong network of social assistance to the Muslim French of Algeria, composed of associations employing agents coming form the African army and managing nearly 135 workers' residences (20,000 beds) and reception centres. Cf. V. Viet, La France immigrée (Paris: Fayard, 1998).

[12] See my PhD thesis, “Une politique de logement, la Sonacotra (1956-1992)”, Université de Paris I, 1997.

[ Retour à l'index de la rubrique ]