Paul-Adolphe Löffler on the Precarious Living Conditions of Foreign Workers

In diary entries from 1929 and 1934, the writer and journalist Paul-Adolphe Löffler (1901-1979) described his living conditions, characterized by precariousness and unemployment, which he attributed to social discrimination.

Le Gaz, Paris, 1935 © Fred Stein Archive
Le Gaz, Paris, 1935 © Fred Stein Archive

5 mai 1926. Bien entendu, par rapport au régime horthyste, la France est un paradis… pour les Français… et un tout petit pour nous aussi, car en réalité les ouvriers étrangers en France ne sont pas plus que des Sujets de police. Pour un oui, pour un non, la police peut expulser un étranger. Naturellement, la démocratie française n’est pas faite pour les étrangers.

[…]

5 avril 1929. Demain, journée redoutable. Demain, il faut que je renouvelle ma carte d‘ identité. Tous les ans, les travailleurs étrangers doivent parcourir ce chemin de tourment, qui blesse l’âme et l’esprit. Nous sentons que les fonctionnaires (de la préfecture de police) nous considèrent comme inférieurs aux Français qui, eux, ne sont pas contraints d’avoir la carte. Ils sont « libres ». Des semaines avant ce jour fatidique, nous tremblons, l’inquiétude nous prend : vont-ils renouveler la carte ou la refuser ? Des semaines å l’avance, cette pensée nous terrorise comme un monstre. Celui qui n’obtient pas le renouvellement se sent comme marqué au fer rouge, exclu de la société humaine. Le refus de renouvellement équivaut å l’expulsion de France. Où aller ? Presque tous, nous vivons au jour le jour, nous gagnons juste ce qu’il nous faut pour le jour. S’il faut acheter des chaussures ou des vêtements, c ‚est une tragédie. Il faut se retirer le pain de la bouche pour pouvoir les acheter. Les ouvriers professionnels ont une vie supérieure. Leurs salaires sont presque toujours le double de ceux des ouvriers sans profession. Qu’on ne parle pas des journaliers. Les professionnels obtiennent facilement la carte parce que la direction de l’usine intervient en leur faveur. Mais il y a des ouvriers étrangers pour qui personne ne fait rien. C’est leur faute ou leur ignorance. Ils ne savent pas où s’adresser. Les travailleurs domicile sont souvent des parias, ils vivent en marge de la société, ils n’ont jamais de carte. Les patrons refusent de leur délivrer un certificat de travail (qui est nécessaire pour obtenir la carte) parce qu’ils font travailler ces ouvriers en dessous des salaires légaux. D’autre part, ils les tiennent par ce moyen. Ces ouvriers sont terrifiés si quelqu’un les accoste dans la rue : si c’est un inspecteur de police. Ils sont saisis de peur si quelqu’un frappe de bonne heure, le matin, å leur porte. Et ils vivent quand même… Les autorités françaises sont au courant de cet état de Chose, mais elles le tolèrent ; ces ouvriers, inconsciemment, sont des briseurs de salaires.

[…]

21 février 1934. — Toujours sans travail. Nous nous nourrissons très insuffisamment. Depuis quelques jours, je suis fatigué, faible. Il faut que je lutte contre le découragement… et contre le mépris des Français, qui nait en moi, provoqué par leur xénophobie. Il est difficile de nager contre le courant.

April 5, 1929. Tomorrow is a dreadful day. Tomorrow, I have to renew my identity card. Every year, foreign workers have to walk this path of torment, which hurts the soul and the spirit. We feel that the civil servants (of the prefecture of police) consider us inferior to the French, who are not obliged to have the card. They are “free.” Weeks before that fateful day, we tremble, we worry: are they going to renew the card or refuse it? Weeks in advance, this thought terrorizes us like a monster. Whoever does not get the renewal feels like being branded with a branding iron, excluded from human society. Refusal to renew is equivalent to expulsion from France. Where to go? Almost all of us live from day to day, we earn just what we need for the day. If we have to buy shoes or clothes, it is a tragedy. We have to take the bread out of our mouths to be able to buy them. Professional workers have a higher life. Their wages are almost always double those of unprofessional workers. Let’s not talk about day laborers. The professionals easily get the card because the factory management intervenes in their favor. But there are foreign workers for whom no one does anything. It’s their fault or their ignorance. They don’t know where to go. Domestic workers are often outcasts, they live on the margins of society, they never have a card. The bosses refuse to issue them with a work certificate (which is necessary to obtain the card) because they make these workers work for less than the legal wages. On the other hand, they hold them by this means. These workers are terrified if someone accosts them in the street: if it is a police inspector. They are seized with fear if someone knocks on their door early in the morning. The French authorities are aware of this state of affairs, but they tolerate it; these workers, unconsciously, are wage breakers.

[…]

February 21, 1934. – Still out of work. We eat very insufficiently. For the last few days, I have been tired and weak. I have to fight against discouragement… and against the contempt of the French, which is born in me, caused by their xenophobia. It is difficult to swim against the current.

[…]

November 19, 1938. A new decree arrests undesirable or unemployed foreigners if they cannot leave France in case of war. It is a fascist decree… and that of a free work force.

The writer and journalist Paul-Adolphe Löffler (1901-1979) fled the fascist regime in Hungary to Paris in 1924. Löffler had joined the communist youth in 1918. After the overthrow of Béla Kun’s government, he lived for a short time in the uncertainty of a denunciation to Miklós Horthy’s police in Budapest. Löffler had had to leave his wife Ilonka and his son Michel behind in Budapest during his hasty escape – a neighbor had denounced him because of his affiliation with the communist circles; they moved to live with him in the French capital shortly afterwards. With low-paid, often odd jobs in a wide variety of industries, they made their way in Paris, which was marked by the uncertainties of the interwar period and the political-economic effects of the economic crisis.

In his diary Journal de Paris d’un exilé (Parisian Diary of a Expatriate), Paul-Adolphe Löffler describes the daily hardships and worries, the recurring hopeless phases of unemployment, growing xenophobia and antisemitism, and the political and social exclusion of the many thousands of foreign workers in France. His membership in various organizations and writer’s circles is just as present. In 1934 he became a member of the French Communist Party and held various offices for the Hungarian diaspora movement “Mouvement du 1er septembre” (later “Mouvement pour la Paix et la Liberté”). Between 1930 and 1935, his life was marked by long phases of unemployment and the associated misery and depression. In 1935 he found a long-term job as a draftsman in Paris, which he continued to do until his retirement.

In the diary entry from 1929, he writes about the precarious working conditions for foreign workers and the legal discrimination they suffered in comparison to French citizens and higher ranking professionals. In 1934 he writes that he is still unemployed and feels discriminated against by French society.

In 1935, Löffler found a long-term job as a draftsman in Paris, which he continued to do until his retirement. In 1973 Löffler published his diary, which is presumably based on Hungarian and French fragments from the period between 1924 and 1939 as well as memories added later, and was edited before publication. The diary ends in 1939, the year in which Löffler joined the Resistance against the German occupation of France, where he distributed the underground press and organized secret meetings in the Seine-et-Marne region. Paris as the “City of Light” and of the Enlightenment appears in Löffler’s diary as a dazzling place of longing, but it regularly disappoints him. As a refugee with a forged passport, he arrives by train at the Paris East Station, where the city immediately disenthralled him: it seems less beautiful and sunny than expected, but he hopes that the next day will be better.

Löffler, Paul-Adolphe, 1974: Journal de Paris d’un exilé (1924-1939), p. 3ff.

Photo published with kind permission by Peter Stein © Fred Stein Archiv

Translation by Minor Kontor

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