Worker Solidarity and Discrimination in Paris 1936

Fé Garcia Petit tells of workers resistance, solidarity and sexism.

En mai 36, au moment des grèves, je me suis retrouvée membre du comité de grève avec deux autres femmes. On représentait chacune notre étage. On m’avait mise au comité parce que je savais bien lire et parler le français ; la plupart des autres ouvrières étaient étrangères et ne se débrouillaient pas très bien. Je me suis retrouvée dans le bureau du patron avec les deux autres déléguées. En me voyant entrer, il s’est exclamé : « Qu’est-ce que vous faites là, vous n’avez même pas 18 ans ! » Comme j’étais très hardie, je lui ai répondu direct : « Quand vous m’avez mise sur la scie circulaire, vous vous en moquiez bien que je n’aie pas 18 ans ! » Cela l’a rendu furieux contre moi. Dès la fin des grèves, j’ai été la première virée. Sa secrétaire personnelle (qui était aussi sa maîtresse) m’avait dit que si je lui présentais des excuses, il accepterait sans doute de me reprendre mais j’avais mon orgueil et j’ai refusé. Ma sœur Conso, qui n’avait rien fait, a été virée en même temps que moi, ainsi qu’un copain espagnol, Maurice Nuevo. Après on ne trouvait plus de travail nulle part, on était sur la liste noire. Tous les lundis, on allait chercher de l’embauche mais personne ne voulait de nous. C’était difficile aussi parce que j’étais Espagnole, car je suis née en Espagne – je ne suis devenue française qu’avec mon mariage. Un jour avec ma sœur, on nous a promis du travail dans une usine de valises à Torcy ; on était contentes, ça avait l’air propre. Quand on est arrivées le lundi matin avec nos blouses, ils nous ont renvoyées ; ils avaient dû passer un coup de fil chez Clerc.

In May ’36, at the time of the strikes, I found myself a member of the strike committee along with two other women. Each of us represented her floor. I had been appointed to the committee because I could read and speak French well; most of the other women workers were foreigners and did not get along very well. I found myself in the boss’s office with the other two delegates. When he saw me come in, he exclaimed, “What are you doing here, you are not even 18 years old! Since I was very bold, I said: “When you put me on the circular saw, you didn’t care that I am not 18! That made him angry with me. As soon as the strikes ended, I was the first to be dismissed. His personal secretary (who was also his mistress) told me that he would probably take me back if I apologized to him, but I had my pride and refused. My sister Conso, who had done nothing, was dismissed at the same time as me, as was a Spanish friend, Maurice Nuevo. After that we did not find work anywhere, we were blacklisted. Every Monday we went looking for work, but nobody wanted us. It was also difficult because I was Spanish, because I was born in Spain – I only became French when I got married. One day my sister and I were promised a job in a suitcase factory in Torcy; we were happy, it looked clean. When we arrived with our blouses on Monday morning, they sent us away; they must have made a phone call to Clerc.

In the first half of the 20th century, the so-called “Little Spain” emerged in the Parisian suburb of La Plaine Saint-Denis. In 1931, Spaniards made up the largest migrant community in La Plaine Saint-Denis with 4.5 percent of the total population. Various Spanish migrants had settled in Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen and Aubervilliers in the course of three distinct migratory movements. So-called “economic migrants” shaped the decade of the 1920s. After the uprising in Asturias was crushed at the end of 1934, political refugees in particular began to arrive in the Parisian suburbs, and their number rose to about 1.5 million by 1950 after the defeat of the Republican camp in 1939. Another generation of Spanish “economic migrants” followed between 1955 and 1970. 11“La petite Espagne de la Plaine-Sainte-Denis “, https://www.tourisme93.com/la-petite-espagne-de-la-plaine-saint-denis.html [accessed July 28, 2020].

The connection back to Spain remained intact for many even after their migration. For example, when the Civil War raged in Spain, some ethnic Spanish men aged 18 to 46 left the Plaine Saint-Denis to return to Spain to fight in the Republican camp. Those who stayed in “Little Spain” organized support networks for communists or anarchists.

The reception experience for Spanish migrants differed according to the French migration regime. The latter in turn changed with the economic and political situation in France but exclusion and discrimination dominated the lives of many no matter when they arrived. For example, when, in early 1939, Spanish republican refugees from the Civil War exited for France, many of whom migrating to Paris and the surrounding areas, it became all too obvious that France had changed from a country of refugees to a country of forced transit. For although the French authorities had been very well prepared in the late 1930s to accept Spanish civil war refugees “humanely,” domestic, foreign policy and economic developments obviously spoke against this: immigration was to be severely restricted under the right-wing government of Édouard Daladier, making it more difficult for refugees to remain in France. 22Scott Soo, The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009 (New York : Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 1-3.

    Footnotes

  • 1“La petite Espagne de la Plaine-Sainte-Denis “, https://www.tourisme93.com/la-petite-espagne-de-la-plaine-saint-denis.html [accessed July 28, 2020].
  • 2Scott Soo, The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009 (New York : Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 1-3.

Extract from the interview with Fé Garcia Petit, conducted by Natacha Lillo, lecturer in Spanish civilization at the University of Paris-Diderot (Paris 7), on December 13, 1999 and March 9, 2001 in Garges-les-Gonesses.

Natacha Lillo, La Petite Espagne de la Plaine Saint-Denis (Paris: Autrement, 2004).

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