The Italians in France: milestones in a migration
The family trees of several million French people include an Italian branch, even if it isn’t always visible or clearly identified due to the gradual Gallicisation of family names which, regardless of the era, shows how they integrated to the point of blending into the rest of society. Transalpine immigration to France does in fact have a long history.
As early as the Middle Ages, clerks, merchants, bankers, artists but also peddlers and peasants from the area, which at the time was just a "geographic expression", found a land of refuge in France. From the Renaissance, some of them participated in the kingdom’s government (Catherine de Medici, Concini, Mazarin) while others helped spread its cultural influence (Da Vinci, Goldoni, Lully), giving Italians a high profile and also saddling them with lasting stereotypes, although their number was still limited. It was only in the mid-19th century that immigration became massive and continued into the 1960s.
A nation of emigrants
While political unity in the Peninsula took shape with the proclamation of the kingdom of Italy, in 1861, one of the biggest migration movements in history began; a veritable "group Odyssey" that saw 26 million Italians leave Italy over the course of a century.
In 1913, the year when the "great emigration" prior to World War 1 culminated, 872,000 of them left. Italy had experienced a large population increase that its economy was unable to absorb. With an underdeveloped industrial framework, mainly in the North, the country was also impacted by a rural crisis linked to the archaic nature of structures and difficult integration into the liberal economy of western Europe. Many people were left with the choice between "steal or emigrate" according to the Bishop of Piacenza, Monsignor Scalabrini.
Nevertheless, it was not the poorest people who set out on "the path of hope", since emigration always has a cost. Economic motivations were also essential in the periods after the two world wars, and each crisis brought a flood of migrants. Alongside that, and often combined with it, were political motivations. From the early 19th century, the process of unification prompted exile. Paris and Marseille welcomed opponents from all sides, Bourbons or Republicans like Mazzini. Once unity had been achieved, they were joined by anarchists and socialists. From the 1920s, the communists came to bolster the ranks of those fleeing fascist repression.
France, land of refuge
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, half of emigrants crossed the ocean headed for the Americas. But France was the third destination, behind the USA and Argentina. Geographic proximity, the natural shortage within the French population and the labour needs linked to the growth of the economy are behind this appeal.
From 63,000 in 1851, the number of Italians increased to 240,000 in 1881 then 330,000 in 1901, at that point exceeding the number of Belgians to become the leading foreign nationality in mainland France. On the eve of the war, they numbered 420,000, i.e. 36% of foreigners and over 1% of the population in France.
However, according to the Italian authorities, 1.8 million of them crossed the Alps between 1873 and 1914. Italian immigration therefore consisted in constant back and forths and transits to other destinations. This permanent movement was obviously not without effect on the integration process. The instability caused by the war, then being called up to national service when Italy entered the conflict in 1915, also led to a large number of returns (around 150,000). The loss was very quickly compensated for at the end of the war and, in 1921, the number of Italians in France was equivalent to the number in 1913 due to the demographic drain that was leading to a drop in the working population and a need for reconstruction in France.
Unlike the "colonials" who had come to replace men who had left for the front during the war, the Italians were seen as "good" immigrants. On September 19th 1919, an agreement was signed with Italy to encourage their introduction while corporate management tried to organise their recruitment via the Société Générale d’Immigration, which had branches in Italy. Most of them escaped this route however and entered France autonomously.
The restrictions imposed by the American countries also made France the leading host country for Italian emigration. The fascist regime’s policy of border-closing from 1927 had no effect, their number kept increasing to reach a record figure of 800,000 in 1931 – probably one million including seasonal workers and illegals – i.e. 7% of the French mainland population.
The crisis of the 1930s and also the increasing number of naturalisations led to a drop: there were 720,000 Italians in 1936. The war on the other hand brought it to a halt. From 1938, the fascist regime encouraged returns (160,000 between 1939 and 1941), while belonging to an enemy nation, guilty of "backstabbing", put migrants in a very uncomfortable situation.
The Italians nevertheless found their place within the "good immigrant community" defined by General de Gaulle after the war. The French State then focused on better structuring its migration policy through the creation of the Office National de l’Immigration (ONI), which had a selection centre in Milan. The conditions for selection were established by agreements between the two countries signed in 1946 and 1947. Their extreme restrictiveness encouraged clandestine immigration and most of the OMI’s work consisted in regularising. But the days of the big migration flows were over: there were 507,000 Italians in 1954 and they were overtaken by the Spanish in the 1968 census. France had become less attractive: Italy was experiencing its own "economic miracle” while other countries like Germany, Switzerland or Great Britain in Europe were offering more advantageous wages to people still leaving the Italian peninsula.
Faces of Italy
Eight out of ten of the Italians who crossed the Alps were from the North of the country. In 1914, 28% of them were from Piedmont, including a very large share from the border province of Cuneo. Next came Tuscans (22%), Lombards (12%) and Emilians. There were few southern Italians except in Marseille where Neapolitan fishermen formed a well-structured community.
After World War 1, the very large number of migrants from Venice, who had neglected France until then, increased in number and represented 31% of arrivals. For the same reasons, linked to the closing of the American borders, southern Italians also increased in proportion. After World War 2, they even became a majority (59%).
Once again, the question of integration was raised: "these immigrants from the South have nothing in common with their compatriots who had come to France ten or twenty years earlier and who already have deep roots here. Both on the professional and cultural level, there is no comparison", noted a manager of a steel company in Lorraine. The southern origins of these new migrants reactivated the image of a violent, criminal population: references to vendettas and the mafia were on the tips of everyone’s tongue. Already, in the late 19th century, the profile of these migrants, young, single men belonging to the "dangerous class" of workers, had portrayed them to the public as guilty of all kinds of unrest. It is true that there were around two times fewer women, although family immigration was increasing as time went by.
Initially, two-thirds of Italians settled in the South-East of France. In 1911, they represented 20% of the population of the Alpes-Maritimes region and a quarter of the population of Marseille. For reasons of geographic proximity and job offers, the area around Lyon and Saint-Étienne as far as the Alps welcomed them.
Between the two world wars, the appeal of the Paris region increased thanks to the development of the railway, while the industries and mines of Lorraine and the North satisfied the job searching of a population who were mainly non-qualified, and willing to accept the toughest and lowest-paid jobs. In the South-West, it was farm work neglected by local populations that fuelled a large migration flow. Gradually, Italian immigration spread across the whole of mainland France.
Family, village or provincial networks usually structured the flow of migrants. People joined a parent, a neighbour, an acquaintance, who often initially offered housing and provided access to the job market. Hence, the Italians grouped together according to their regional origins in the same neighbourhoods, the same streets.
In some municipalities such as Briey or Villerupt in Lorraine, or in Roquefort-ma Bédoule near Marseille, Italians were a majority. Their presence there was only rarely exclusive, which helped to tone down the – mostly American – image of "little Italys". Nevertheless, they left their imprint on these urban spaces. Referring to the rue Saint-Anne de Nogent where the "Ritals" lived, Cavanna talked of "a totally different world". Subsequently however, it would be said that they were "almost the same". By that point, it is true, the flow of transalpine migrants had dried up. Since the 1960s, the Italians had dropped back in the ranking of foreign nationalities represented in France. Yet they had not disappeared as their invisibility might have suggested, and the history of these millions of migrants merits further investigation.
Stéphane Mourlane, Lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Aix-Marseille.
This article is taken from the catalog for the exhibition Ciao Italia:
Ciao Italia ! Un siècle d’immigration et de culture italiennes en France
Co-published by the Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration and Éditions de La Martinière, 192 pages, March 2017.