The Bakers of France
Daniel Bertaux presents an oral history of a traditional French industry.
For me, one of the most striking features of European oral history today is the way in which it draws people from different disciplines into genuine exchanges with each other. As a sociologist, my journey into the practical 'fieldwork' of social history has been a long one. Ten years ago I was studying social mobility and the class structure in France – a classic theme in sociology. Tired with the aridity of statistics and surveys, I made up my mind to try – if only as a kind of personal relief – a small piece of practical research myself: to look at how the making of some basic common product was organised, and how this organisation affected the overall lives and everyday experiences of the men and women – workers, owners and managers – involved in it. I thought of cars; but the process there was too complex for the simple personal project I wanted. So I chose bread: the 'real' bread, which is still made, in Paris as everywhere in France, by small artisan bakers.
In 1970 any self-respecting French sociologist would have dismissed life stories as valueless, 'soft stuff; nor was there any oral history as such. But my wish to work with life histories went back to reading Oscar Lewis's The Children of Sanchez ; and the first interviews proved so interesting that I was soon seeking out the support that eventually enabled us to collect a hundred life stories from bakery workers, master bakers, bakers' wives and apprentices. The historical aspect of the research took on momentum when Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame, who is a historian by training, joined me on the project. But we were disappointed to find little of value from conventional archive sources, and it was in fact some time before we came to realise that we already had the historical material we were seeking – in the life stories themselves. For example, before 1936 apprentices were literally outside the law: there were no written contracts, very few visits by factory inspectors (and a very obvious complicity between them and the master bakers), so that no reliable written sources were to be found; while on the other hand our own interviews provided very detailed accounts of the working life of apprentices – including evidence of the bias of the few written documents which were available.
What I learnt from this venture into history was not just the need to study the past if one is to understand the present. I also came to see how the present itself is historical. With 90 per cent of bread production in France, artisan bakery looks a very strong social force. But we soon discovered that powerful economic interests were lying in wait for the right moment to conquer the entire bread market and wipe it out of existence. We came to see that the present system of production can only keep this invisible threat at bay through the incessant, strenuous efforts of the 200,000 people who work in its 40,000 'cells', the artisan bakeries. They are driven on by competition, by the need to repay loans, by hopes like those of masters to retire early or of workers to become self-employed – 'Quand tu seras patron '. It takes the daily struggles of all these individual lives – each with its own purpose – to maintain the bakeries we know. This is why life histories have a unique power in enabling us to penetrate the solid-looking facade of the present, of the world as given, and the enduring 'structures' of society; and to reintroduce the crucial role of human action in weaving a present which is also history-in-the-making.
One must not think of life stories as just dead strings of factual beads waiting to be taken apart and sorted back into different piles – hard and soft. The stories are themselves part of a living, if in some respects fleeting, social relationship: between teller and listener, past and present. So far from being a drawback, this is a great strength: for as we discovered, the telling of the story may give as many clues as what is told.
In the first place, there may be something to be learnt from one's own impact as a researcher. For example, at first I found that with master bakers, in contrast to bakery workers, it was practically impossible to obtain an interview. I would no sooner introduce myself as a state-paid research worker investigating artisan bakery than a kind of invisible iron curtain seemed to drop between us. Long experience has in fact taught shopkeepers that state investigations, whatever their original purpose, can only have one end result: more taxes. Silence is their weapon. After the warm welcome of the bakery workers this coldness from the master bakers was especially disconcerting. We found the solution to it by accident, one day on holiday in the Pyrenees, when Isabelle and I decided to go along together to see the village baker. First, of course, we met the baker's wife in the shop, and we asked for an interview. She was somewhat surprised and she got her husband to come up. ‘What are you doing this research for?' he asked – as they all had. So we explained that being husband and wife, we worked for... 'Husband and wife?' he interrupted. 'So you are working like us – en couple . Only we are making bread, and you are making... research? You are some kind of artisans like uh, is it that?' Both couples looked at each other and some process of mutual identification, some non-verbal, human communication happened. And it solved our problem. After that, we either conducted the interview as a couple, or if Isabelle went alone, she was careful to mention that this research, although financed by the state, was a family thing...
More obviously, it matters a great deal who you get your stories from, even if the hard facts in them fellow a similar pattern. For example, Isabelle interviewed fifteen old men specifically for information about apprenticeship. Eight of them had subsequently become master bakers, by going self-employed; while the other seven had remained bakery workers throughout their whole life. Not one of them was a baker's son – all but one came from poor peasant or working-class backgrounds. They all had started as apprentices in their teens – usually at fourteen – with small bakers in villages or small towns. We can safely say that all experienced more or less the same patterns of work and living, the same processes, the same hardships. What is interesting is that their accounts were so different.
The facts they described were the same: night work, twelve to fifteen hours each day, lack of sleep, and so on and so on – but presentation of these facts, their interpretation, the overall tone of the account, differed strikingly. This depended on whether the narrator was still a bakery worker at the end of his life or whether he had become self-employed and, in his turn, had trained apprentices . Those who still remained workers could bitterly recall every pan of cold water thrown in their face, every kick up their arse, every blow, every act of pressure which was exerted on them to drive them to work – and all for no pay. But on the other hand those who were now themselves master bakers seemed to have forgotten all this. If, after some probing by Isabelle, they did remember some act of brutality, they simply laughed about it. To a man, they justified the hard work and constant pressure by explaining that there could be only one way to learn the trade, and this was it. Their relationship to their own past has been drastically altered.
Stories about the past are told from the present, from a situation which may have changed over the years so as to define a new relationship with the past. It is this relationship which underlies the whole story and will define its intended meaning. Telling a story about the past is a way of expressing indirectly a meaning about the present.
This is why variety of the sample and good questioning are so crucial. A variety of informants helps to break a consistency of memories which may owe more to consistency of later life careers, than to the past itself. Questioning focusing on facts (working conditions, living patterns, time schedules, health problems, money matters) will also help, within the interview itself, to reach beyond the veil of reconstructed meaning and discover power relations, forgotten desires, frustrated projects.
From time to time we were told a story which was about history in the more familiar sense, relating to events, matters of politics. Yet to treat even such stories as 'oral documents' of what 'really happened' is often to miss their real interest. One example is our interview with Mr T, once leader of the master bakers' union, the Syndicat Patronal de la Boulangerie Parisienne .
He lived about eighty kilometres from Paris. When the day came we drove in our old 2 CV to his village and finally stopped the car in front of a cottage, built on the edge of a dark forest. Two fierce barking dogs prevented us from getting into the garden. We rang the bell: a woman came out of the cottage and yelled that her husband had changed his mind and did not want to meet us. Our long ride in the bumping car gave us the strength to insist. Finally, the man came out reluctantly and, standing behind his dogs, said we had misunderstood him: he did not want to be interviewed. Well, would he care to talk to us at least – without being recorded? The dogs would not keep quiet, so that he had to come up to the front door. After a short discussion, he seemed to change his mind. He came out; we shook hands at last. Then he led us to his Mercedes, and invited us to get in: 'We'll drive around', he said.
And so we did for half an hour, circling through the forest. We asked questions more or less as if blind-fold, vainly trying to fish out some interesting topic. He also questioned us. Who was in charge of this inquiry? Who was paying for it? What was going to come out of it? Meanwhile he was driving around on minor tracks, and soon we had completely lost our sense of direction as well as control of the conversation. 'Then the car turned once more and the cottage appeared at the end of the road. We were back to square one...
But suddenly the man seemed to reach a decision; he pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. Turning in his seat and looking straight at us he said
– Well, do you know exactly when I was in charge of the Syndicat?
– Well, yes: it must have been in the early fifties, or was it the late forties?
– No. C'était pendant l'Occupation [that is – during the Second World War, while the German troops were occupying France].
We remained silent and shocked. What the man had just said meant that he had been 'collaborating' with the Germans, that he certainly had some trouble at the end of the war...We did not know what to say. Nevertheless, he went on:
é , [All this is past now and we won't come back to it] But I'll tell you one story, which may be of interest for your research.
Well, after the Allied troops had landed in Normandy, when it became clear that they would eventually reach Paris, the Germans decided to retreat back to Germany. Off they went one morning, and because they were a long way from home, they took away with them all the fuel they could find. You see what it meant?
We did not see anything, and it must have shown on our faces, for he went on:
- No more fuel: this meant, no more bread. Without fuel, you cannot bake bread anymore, can you? Do you understand now?
– Well... the Allied troops were bringing fuel with them, I suppose, and...
– No, no you don't understand. But you are too young of course. It took them one whole week to reach Paris. Meanwhile, street-fighting had begun. The Résistants (partisans) came out from underground. They were sniping at the German rearguard. They were all Communists: they wanted to take power before the Allies reached Paris. They were trying to subvert the whole situation.
– What does this have to do with the fuel shortage?
– No fuel, no bread; et quand il n'y pas de pain, c'est l'émeute! [When there's no bread, you get a riot.] This is what the Communists wanted: riots. To have a revolution. See?
So, you know what I did? I knew that in many bakeries, the ovens were quite old and could still be operated with wood, as before. But, it was almost impossible to find wood; imagine, we were in August, and there were no stocks.
So I organised brigades to go into the Bois de Vincennes [a forest on the edge of Paris], cut the trees, and bring the wood back to Paris on hand-carts. This wood was distributed to all the bakeries which could make use of it. I explained the situation to everybody, and everybody in the profession gave a hand. Oh, it was hard work, because the wood was not dry! It did not burn well; it made a lot of smoke. We spent several nights coughing in front of the ovens. And during the day, instead of sleeping we would go back and cut more wood. It was a hell of a job for one whole week, I tell you. Mais Paris n'a pas manqué de pain! [But Paris didn't go without bread!]
Having finished his story, he started the engine and dropped us in front of our car; and we drove away, carrying with us the message this man had wanted us to pass on: that he had saved Paris, and hence the whole of France, from Communism. This was in his eyes the part he had played in French history.
You cannot discover the significance of such a story by checking it against other sources. What it brings home is the degree to which French bakers can see bread-making as a political matter. Through it we were reminded of how most major upheavals in France, including the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune of 1871, did start with bread riots in Paris; and also how conversely in May-June 1968, while workers were on strike all over France, the bakery workers – led by a Communist Party very much frightened by the May movement – were among the few who carried on working throughout.
It was this recurring association of bread shortages with riots which led the authorities to take such a concern in the supply of cheap bread. Once on this trail we began to discover how closely they watched the stocks of flour, the price and quality of bread, the possibilities of bakery strikes. Even the secret police (Renseignements Generaux) has bread on its task-list.
Another story was told us by an experienced trade union activist, a truckdriver of the biggest Parisian flourmills.
In 1966, he said, the Grand Moulins tried to take over the bread market for the whole Paris area. They had prepared their coup for a long time. They had secretly drawn up plans for a large factory for industrial bread to be built next to their mills on the banks of the Seine. They had negotiated government approval. The only remaining obstacle was the existence of the 5,000 small bakers in Paris: for all previous attempts to sell industrial bread in competition with artisan bread had failed. The big combine knew they had to break the back of small bakersbefore building the factory.
The Grands Moulins had a lever on the bakers: they had the de facto monopoly of flour delivery. So one day, without warning, they informed the bakers that they would not deliver flour anymore except by full truck loads. Most of the bakers could not accept this: they lacked storage space, and could not use that much flour. For a few days a panic swept through the trade.
Then some of the bakers found a solution. They made contact with some of the small mills which were still functioning at a low cost in rural areas, around a hundred miles from Paris. These mills were only too happy to take orders from Parisian bakers, and so to work to their full capacity. Convoys of trucks started to bring flour to Paris by night and day; the Grands Moulins were losing their customers one after the other. They soon realised that bakers could live without them. They withdrew their dictate, lowered the price of their flour to win back the market, and decided to wait for better times.
What this story taught us was extremely important. So far we had tended, like everybody else, to take the existence of the small bakeries for granted. Suddenly we realised how precarious was their situation, how strong was the latent threat of agro-industrial business. Seen in this light, the harsh pace of work of artisans took on a new meaning: it was not only competition between themselves which led them to such crazy rhythms of life, we began to perceive, but also this. threat, this silent shadow behind their shoulder.
Neither of these two sources is a 'reliable' source. But each, whether true or half-true or even one tenth true (but which tenth?) can certainly help us to understand more deeply how bakers see their lives, what drives them on, how their world holds together.
It is one thing to rediscover the laws and customs, the structure of power of' some sector of past social life. It is another to imagine its consequences on the lives of people. Direct witness can again help us to chart these consequences.
In our investigation we had been told several times that, until the thirties, there was no day off in the baker's trade. We also had been able to check this partially by referring to documents. (A day off was imposed in some of the 90départements in the early thirties, but it was not until theFront Populaire of 1936 that it became general all over France.) What we had failed to understand was the meaning it had for the people .in the trade.
Talking with a widow, a former rich baker's wife in a small town, we came to ask her if she had ever travelled outside the town. She stared at us as if we had asked a most irrelevant question,'which we had):
– Don't you know that there was no day off until very recently? When could I have found the opportunity to travel?
– But after 1936, there was a day off...
– For workers! Only for workers, and for salesgirls! That day was the worst for me: I didn't have anybody to help in the shop!
– But you could have closed the shop...
– Close the shop! and let the other bakers take up our customers! No, no, it was impossible.
– Then, maybe on holidays...
– But we had no holidays! We could never close, never close; I have just told you why.
– So, do you mean to say you spent every day of your life behind the counter and...
– Yes of course, every day, until we sold the shop two years ago. Everyday, even before my marriage [she was a baker's daughter and helped in the family shop]. Every day, yes; that is the way things were in those days. We did not know what leisure meant, we had no idea of... Work, that's all there was. J'ai travaillé tous les jours de ma vie . (I worked every single day of my life.)
Later, when Isabelle interviewed old bakery workers to learn about apprenticeship in the twenties, she was able to check that there was, indeed, no day off. But knowing that workers would usually work twelve hours per night and sleep in the afternoon, one might well wonder how they even found the time to meet their wife, or simply had time for living. To this question which we had not yet asked ourselves, the answer came as Mr G, born in 1900, told his life story. Having described, at Isabelle's usual request, one day's work, he added:
écouche ! That was the usual word.
So, he [i.e. the baker] would hire a substitute. And, when you wanted to get back, you came to see the boss, you just said: 'I'm coming back to-morrow'. It worked, it was all understood. The substitute, he would go to the labour office to get taken on elsewhere.
The origin of the term 'je découche ' is easy to imagine. As they were working by night, the young, single workers (and the apprentices) were usually given a bed in the bakery itself, especially those in the countryside.
In Paris, single workers used to live in one of those cheap 'hôtels garnis ' (lodgings) whose function was to provide room and board for young men of provincial origin (as were most bakery workers and, in fact, a very sizeable part of the capital's working class). Mr D, who lived in one of these 'garnis ' as a young man, had a nice way of warning his boss when he would not be coming to work. This would happen most often in springtime; he would just telephone him and say:
Look, I won't come to-day; je vais aux jonquilles (I'm going to pick wild daffodils).
These pretty flowers blossom in the forests surrounding Paris, and it has long been a popular custom on sunny Sundays to ride there by train or bicycle, spend the day in the woods and get back with an armful of them – the secret of the whole thing being, of course, that it is more fun to go there in company.
Another bakery worker, Mr B, who lived a happy life in one of these lodgings during his bachelor years, tells a similar story. His friends (who as industrial workers had their Sunday free) pressed him to come with them for a picnic in the woods; they brought with them their girlfriends, who brought other girls. 'Alors tu viens, la boulange .' ('So, will you come, baker-boy?'). Quite often Mr 8 did not resist the invitation. When he came back on Sunday evening, he would know he had lost his job.
Unlike provincial bakers, the Parisian ones very much disliked being the only ones left out when it was a sunny Sunday. But it did not matter, for there were plenty of bakeries, and a chronic shortage of labour. He knew, like Mr D coming back from 'the jonquils', that he would find another place quite soon.
Once married, things changed a lot. Usually the wife did not work, there was a baby around and money was needed. Still, it was impossible to work day after day after day, with never a break. Many had difficulties with their sleep; as one of them told us: 'When you are too tired, you can't sleep; then you're really in a mess'. To restore their capacity to work, many bakery workers went as far as taking two weeks' holiday each summer, at their own expense. In doing so they were pioneers of a kind, for it was only in 1936 that, thanks to the victory of the Front Populaire , holidaying became usual for workers: they won the right to two weeks' holiday paid by the boss. The bakery workers had done this for years at their own cost. They would take the train with the family to their, or their wife's, native village and rest . They needed it, too.
Stories from the past thus can provide us with precious clues for deepening our understanding of how society worked. But they can do more than that. We too can use them in turn for conveying our own understanding to others 'in a nutshell'. Consider for instance the particular character of traditional apprenticeship. Old bakers describe it in a slang term which you cannot find in the dictionary: On apprenait par voir-faire . (We learnt by looking-and-doing.) Because we have been brought up in a quite different system of learning we cannot easily perceive many of the implications of this method. It meant for example that the apprentice could only learn what the master knew himself – which was why they often completed their training by moving from one baker to another, from country to town, to learn different techniques. Moreover the master might try to keep some secrets to himself, to ensure that the apprentice stayed on as an unpaid, dependent worker. Thus on the pretext of not wasting the dough, the young lads were commonly forbidden the skilled task of putting the bread in the oven. Apprentices had to learn it for themselves by practising secretly with pieces of wood, for instance, instead of bread.
We could develop this analysis further here as we have done elsewhere, and certainly no series of stories could replace it. But to my mind no such analysis could possibly convey the essence of traditional apprenticeship better than the following anecdote, told to us by Mr Bailly. (The blade he refers to is used to draw three very slight cuts on the top of each loaf of dough, in order to let the bread develop fully in the oven.)
– Once, the boss looks at me, and says to me
– What, you're left-handed then?
– Why, no, I say
– So, why are you holding the blade in your left hand
– Well, I am doing it like you do!
– Yes, but, I am left-handed!
Social thinking is not the monopoly of professionals. The layman also continually makes investigations to try to discover the 'rules of the game', the logic of his or her social world: through personal experience, through discussions with friends and with more experienced people. Investigation thus becomes a collective process; and the conclusions reached make the core, for instance, of a work culture. But they are not put in a written form or expressed through theoretical concepts, but rather through sayings, proverbs, or telling examples – the anecdote that puts it 'in a nutshell'.
We too have much to learn from such examples in putting over our own ideas. More high-minded theorists would dismiss such a solution as vulgar – even if they got their initial! idea precisely from such an anecdote. In so doing they certainly cover their own footprints. And as the influence of abstract economic 'rationality' in justifying political decisions indicates, there is certainly a power to be had in establishing a 'science' beyond the comprehension of the layman. But life history and oral history suggest that there is another and much better way forward, through recognising that there is a real value in so-called commonsense and in day to day sayings, and through building up social knowledge of both past and present through real exchange.
Daniel Bertaux is a researcher at the Centre d'Etudes des Mouvements Sociaux , Paris and the editor of Biography and Society (1981). This article has been abridged from Paul Thompson (ed) Our Common History: The Transformation of Europe (Pluto Press, 1982).
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