French worker (Fortune, 1948)July 15, 2012: 9:00 AM ET
Roger Buquet has a tough time supporting his family on $27 a week. But, compared to most French workers, he is lucky.
By Sherry Mangan
Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. Bastille Day, France's national holiday, took place this weekend. We bring you this piece from 1948 on how workers were living in post-WWII France as seen through the eyes of motorcycle factory worker Roger Buquet.
FORTUNE -- Roger Buquet, thirty, métallurgiste, works for the Société des Ateliers Motobécane in Pantin, a northern industrial suburb of Paris, as a final assembler of motorcycles. He puts in a forty-eight-hour, five-day week for an average income of 8,200 francs or approximately $27 -- on which he supports a wife and three children (a fourth child is coming any minute). With the cost of living as it now is in France, this constitutes a minor miracle.
Buquet's blue eyes bug at the living standards of his U.S. counterpart ("Detroit Auto Worker," FORTUNE, August, 1946), above all, at his automobile. The very idea of a workingman's being able to afford a car practically stands his red hair on end. Buquet thinks he's doing pretty well to have a bike for himself and a tandem on which to take his wife.
Not that it's a car he's mostly worrying about: his troubles are much more elementary. Before the war, whatever international statistics may have indicated, French workers lived not too badly. Leaving all ego-tickling display to the middle classes, they concentrated on such fundamental things as a formidably comfortable bed and a commodious dining-room table, and ate the world's best food blended with good gros rouge-and champagne, too, for birthdays and baptisms. The war has put a smashing end to all this: the French workers' standard of living today is marginal in the statistics and all but insupportable in the reality. All of which explains a lot about French politics today.
Whistle while you work
Roger Buquet's day begins at 6: 15 A.M., when he gets breakfast for himself and his family, and prepares a midmorning snack to eat at the plant. From a closet workshop in his apartment he unhooks his light, semi-racing-type bicycle, and carries it down the three flights to the rue de Chartres. It takes him under twelve minutes to cover the three miles to his division of the scattered Motobecane plants in Pantin. There, with another heave of the bike to a wall bracket, a quick change to overalls, and a whack at the time clock, he is ready for a working day that from Monday through Thursday runs from 7:00 A.M. till noon and from 1:00 to 6:00 P.M., on Friday stops at 4:00 P.M.
Buquet is on the dividing line between semi-skilled and skilled. He works in a twelve-man team on the company's lightest model, most complicated to assemble. Picking up twelve mudguards, he walks down the line placing one on each motorcycle frame, then more slowly retraces his steps bolting them on. Other workers come one machine behind him with head lamps, tail lamps, gas tanks, etc. On his second trip his turn falls on, say, the rear wheel or the main drive chain, which is similarly handled. Each trip finds him distributing and attaching a different part. This system, making for variety, causes the machine-minded Buquet much less psychological fatigue than a repetition of a single process.
Motobécane is, comparatively, a pretty nice place to work. The management has the sense to impose, not hourly rhythms, but only an over-all daily output. The pace, determined by the team itself, is therefore easy and flexible. The foreman is no straw boss, but works with the others. Smoking is permitted, though the favorite proletarian "smoke" is usually a cigarette that went out half an hour ago pasted to the lower lip. Space is tight: workers must squeeze past one another, but long experience and a good team spirit avert all frictions. Half a dozen of the team will be whistling a tune in unison, and it is a tossup whether it is the popular Pigalle or L'lnternationale in march time.
"Look at them from here," said a top management official on a balcony overlooking the assembly line, "and you'd say they weren't doing a damn thing; yet they turn out as many machines as twice the number of men in a competitor's 'rationalized' plant." The production norms were determined scientifically twenty-two years ago. "The operation hasn't changed; human beings haven't changed; so naturally the norms haven't changed," he adds. The flexibility of the system allows Buquet to knock off at ten o'clock for a midmorning snack, and permits the team members free choice between eleven and twelve-o'clock lunch hours. And unless there has been some quite exceptional holdup in parts, the team is usually finished with its daily stint at least a quarter of an hour before closing time.
Buquet thinks he's lucky to have shifted to Motobécane, just under a year ago, from Chausson, maker of airframes, radiators, buses, and the new French Ford. Chausson, he says, was an absolute hellhole, with cadences (production norms) that were steadily and unfairly speeded up, and a "combat management" that seized every occasion to chivy the union. The administration seemed always looking for trouble, says Buquet, and the Chausson workers gave it to them in full measure. But the Motobécane people are "understanding." "Monsieur Benoist, the big boss, is the cream of directors"; he has established an over-all labor policy that keeps the workers as contented as they can be in the present terrible wage-price situation. Besides the common-sense attitude about cadences and "rationalization," the company has made an intelligent effort to circumvent the government's one-sided wage-freezing policy. Thus, beyond meeting the full Paris region metalworkers' union scale, it pays various bonuses. It makes a grant of 15,000 francs, or $50, to the worker on the birth of a child. It pays 3,000 francs, or $10 each, for vacations for each worker's child of three years and up. It passes out, each three months, 1,500 francs, or $5, as an "assiduity bonus" for maintaining its reasonable production rhythms, and roughly 3,000 francs, or $10, as an additional bonus based on over-all productivity-and what's more, the chef d' atelier does it handsomely at a nearby cafe, with short speeches and long apéritifs, free. It's not astonishing, says Buquet, that the boys don't have to be driven by straw bosses and clocked by chronometer holders. The amount is small, but it makes all the difference.
Thanks to its enlightened labor policy, Motobécane has never had a strike of its own, though naturally its workers close it up tight whenever there is a general or a sympathy strike called by the Metallurgical Federation of the Confédération Générale du Travail. The members of the union know that Motobécane is exceptional, and stand by the workers in less fortunate plants. The management, for its part, does not try to fight these shutdowns. Buquet remarks with a wry grin that in fact it's the workers and not the management that lose when the Communist-controlled C.G.T. calls for "making a demonstration" by stopping work half an hour early, since the boys have usually finished the day's production anyway, and the management is saved half an hour's pay.
One other thing that Buquet likes about his job is the motorcycle itself. Like all French machinists, he hates shoddiness; and he enjoys assembling the company's product because he thinks that the four series of Motobécanes and Motoconforts are the "queens of the market." But the French workers' standard of living is such that for him to buy one, even at a heavy employee's discount, is simply out of the question.
All is relative, as the French like to say; and Buquet's satisfaction with his job is perfectly justified in the sense that he is better paid than the majority of French industrial workers. But in terms of another comparison -- that of prewar conditions -- his situation is miserable. And in an absolute sense -- of human living standards -- it is almost intolerable. "You can't really be surprised at strikes in France today," says the same Motobécane official. "We do the best we can, but workers just can't live on that money. I don't know what they do."
Roger Buquet's pay, like that of all French workers, is an accountant's nightmare. His base pay is 83 francs, or 28 cents, per hour. The company pays him also 58 francs, or 20 cents, per day "canteen bonus." Every three months he gets the "assiduity bonus" and the $10 "production bonus." From the social-security compensation fund he draws every month 16,800 francs, or $55, to offset the fact that his wife doesn't work and that he has three children. And he gets the company's annual $20 vacation bonus for his two older children. He has no other income, but then he has no debts, either.
His regular net income, bonuses apart, and after social security and similar charges are deducted and the "family allocations" are added, averages 16,400 francs, or $54, each fortnight. On a weekly basis of $27, the Buquet family budget works out as follows (see table, right):
The items of doctors, dentists, clothing, and furnishings, which figure importantly in a U.S. worker's budget, are conspicuously absent from the Buquets'. Medical care, including hospitalization, childbirth, and medicines, as well as dentistry, is more or less covered under the French social-security system. Fortunately, the whole family enjoys good health. They cannot afford any private insurance. As for clothing and furnishings, which obviously can't be fitted into the regular budget, that's where the Motobecane bonuses come in. With each lump sum of approximately 4,500 francs, or $15, the family buys what it can in the way of shoes and dresses for the children, and, once in a blue moon, something for Roger or his wife. The house just has to go without.
With food taking over 82 per cent of the whole regular budget (almost double the Detroit auto worker's food percentage), it might be suspected that the Buquets are gourmets. But with meat at 82 cents a pound and other foods at similar price levels, it is certainly not epicureanism that characterizes their cuisine. Says Buquet: "We're becoming involuntary vegetarians." The family in fact has meat at only two meals a week.
Buquet's breakfast is a bowl of semi-ersatz coffee. His 10:00 A.M. snack consists of eight ounces of dark bread, with either a little butter or a little jam, or, on Thursdays, a slice or so of sausage. A typical lunch, which he carries to the plant and heats in the canteen, is broken boiled potatoes mixed with a few string beans-no butter, rarely bread. At home his wife and children will have the same, or stewed tomatoes, or a puree of mixed vegetables, plus milk for the kids. At night the family has a thick soup, plus potatoes, and once in a while a mushroom omelet, and a little wine. Sundays they eat in addition a small quantity of meat. Summer permits the variety of a salad; and quite often, now that the milk situation is easier, Buquet's wife can make up a little unsweetened pudding with the milk the children don't drink.
It will surprise nobody that for 25 cents a week Buquet doesn't get much in the way of living quarters. He has lived in his present apartment since he was a year old, taking it over from his parents when he got married. For years now there's never been enough money to do anything to it. Situated in an old barracks of a building in the Eighteenth Arrondissement in northern Paris, it has a dining room approximately eight feet by twelve and a bedroom some twelve feet square, plus a kitchen about ten by five. In winter the overflow heat from the kitchen stove heats the apartment. There is no bathroom. A water closet in the corridor is shared with the other tenants; the kitchen sink serves for washbowl and sponge bath. The wallpaper is peeling, and the worst spots are covered (and decoration simultaneously provided) by a series of advertising posters of singing stars of stage ,and screen put out by phonograph-record companies. Sleeping three children in this layout is a problem that the imminent arrival of a fourth renders well-nigh insoluble. But in Paris' terrible housing shortage, no move is possible now.
Fortunately for the Buquets, the prices of. gas, electricity, and coal, like rent; are government-controlled and hence dirtcheap. Roger's wife shakes her head over the comparatively large item for "entretien de ménage" largely toilet soap, laundry soap, lye water, brushes, and such; but one must fry to keep clean, and with three small children ...well...
The spending money his wife gives Buquet from the family income in fact includes everything else. The bikes must be kept in shape; Papa must after all have a few cigarettes to smoke. Reading is a problem. Buquet, like other French workers, would like to be able to afford to read L'Humanité or Franc-Tireur, plus a union paper; but, as a cycling fan, he has finally sacrified the regular press to specialized sports and cycling papers. As for entertainment, there just isn't any margin. Keeping in condition for cycling rules out the corner café, even if the budget would permit it. As for movies, they used to go often before they had the children, but now once a month is about the best they can manage.
In fact, Roger and Raymonde mostly just stay home and listen to one Paris station on the radio he picked up during the German occupation. He paid for it by cycling deep into the country, beating the regular German requisitioning squads by one day, and buying butter at particularly low prices. The Buquets would like to replace the burned-out tube that keeps them from tuning in more than one station, but the family budget wouldn't stand such an extravagance. For other amusement they sometimes visit his father or married sister or brother and play a little belote. Or Buquet spends the evening in his tiny home workshop, some three feet by nine. There, with a handsaw and a file, he makes sideboard-ornament silhouettes of springing deer or other animals from scrap aluminum, or, when necessary, repairs or tunes up the two bikes that hang from its ceiling.
"The school of courage"
For Roger Buquet's real passion is cycling. He belongs to the Parisian Club Cycle-Sportif, which each Sunday organizes competitions and tours in the country around Paris, and most Sundays find Buquet, who holds a certificate for doing the 100 kilometers against the stop watch in three hours and twenty-eight minutes, competing in his age class with his club. Cycling is a sort of mystiquefor Buquet, who calls it "the school of courage" and will discourse at length about what it does to form a man's character. This summer, recognizing that although he's a fine cyclist he'll never be a top champion, he gave more and more time to coaching Marcel Lebelle, an eighteen-year-old who works with him at Motobécane, and who has, he thinks, the makings of a "great" racer.
Often on Sundays, Lebelle will be entered in a country race and Buquet will be on hand to advise him. They have already ridden slowly over the course to study each stretch and curve and discussed the possible maneuvers of the other contestants. The strategy is generally to lie a little easy off the pace setters and prepare to sprint at a predetermined spot on the last lap. At each lap (there are usually four of about ~5 kilometers each) Buquet waits near the finish line to run beside his boy, swappingfullforempty handle-bar bottles andshoutinginstructions. Though Lebelle has often placed, he has still to win a race. When he does, he will move to a higher category in the complicated hierarchy of French bicycle ratings and thus stand a good chance of having a bicycle manufacturer provide a better machine, see to its upkeep, and furnish the necessary travel expenses and special nourishing foods to be eaten during the race. "You just wouldn't believe," says Buquet, "how the cost of sugar and bananas and figs can pile up."
Roger is a little disappointed that his wife doesn't cycle "much." This makes her laugh, since last year she put in over a thousand kilometers with him on the tandem, and she wonders how much Roger would consider "much" to be. He himself covers each year between 15,000 and ~0,000 kilometerswhich is as far as the average American drives his car. He is most anxious that his next child should be a boy, so he can start from scratch making a bicycle champion of him. The Buquets have twice had boys, but they were premature and died at birth. Their three little girls lived. Edwige Alice, six, Annette Yvette, four, and Ginette Christiane, two, are all blonde and all pretty.
"The crooked road to Motobécane"
For a man as typical of French workers as Buquet, it is significant that he did not start as a worker at all. Of unmixed French ancestry, he was the son of a white-collar worker, a cashier at La Semeuse de Paris, the consumer-credit subsidiary of La Samaritaine, one of Paris' big department stores. He began life in 1918 in a small village in the Seine-et-Oise, where his parents had taken refuge from war-threatened Paris. There was one brother, one sister. His father used to add to the family income of an evening by playing in the band at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, Paris' big indoor bicycle track and general sports arena; and Roger remembers that the most terrible punishment of his childhood was to be forbidden to accompany his father to the Vel d'Hiv to listen to the music and watch the races. These evening sessions gave him a lifelong taste for bicycle racing and playing in bands.
"Titi," as Roger was called as a boy, was educated in the Paris public schools until he was twelve and a half, when he started to earn his share of the family expenses as apprentice in a wholesale woolen-knit-goods firm. "Apprenticeship," however, seemed to consist exclusively of errand running, and Roger was relieved when his father, three years later, got him a job as assistant bookkeeper at La Semeuse. He wriggled on his stool, dreaming of next Sunday's bicycle racing, yet he stuck at the routine job until he was called up for his compulsory military service in 1938.
In the Army he became a pointeur in the artillery, and as such the war found him and sent him into the Sedan pocket. Bored by being stuck in one spot, Buquet had the luck, at the moment of the German break-through, to hear a call for volunteers for the risky job of liaison cyclist between his outfit and Sixth Division headquarters. He jumped at the chance. As headquarters pulled out well before the batteries, and moved much faster, the job proved no sinecure. Buquet whizzed backward and forward, but mostly backward, during a nightmare retreat that led from Rethel, by uneasy stages, to the Mediterranean, where the armistice found him. Being engaged in his military service, he was not demobilized like the reservists, but sat waiting at Privas.
Here he met pretty eighteen-year-old Raymonde Carey. Born at Riems in the Ardèche, where her father was a marble cutter, Raymonde had left public school at thirteen to work in a cloak-and-suit sweatshop at Privas. At the time she met Roger Buquet she had found a better job, in the same town, making paintbrushes, while living with her parents at nearby Ruissol. Some evenings after work she used to go to the local movies, and one night, as young people are very likely to do, whatever the etiquette books say, she met Roger Buquet there. Their courtship lasted about a year, and they were married at Veyras on December 7, 1941.
It was, oddly enough, the Germans who made a worker out of Buquet. In 1943 he was "requisitioned" by them, under the compulsory labor system, to go to Germany as a metalworker. But since he had no experience in that kind of job, he was first sent as an apprentice to the Lioré-Olivier aircraft plant at Clichy. Here he soon found that he liked riveting far better than bookkeeping, and determined to stay at it.
The collaborationist management of Lioré-Olivier at that period specialized in repairing Luftwaffe planes damaged in combat. The Resistance workers of Liore-Olivier specialized for their part in sawing halfway through the main longerons supporting the wings, just before riveting down their aluminum skins a-- a practice that they cheerfully referred to as" de-boning the wings." Buquet, as a riveter, also developed a little caper of his own, keeping in his overall pocket a few dozen rivets and bolts whose shanks he had filed to one-third thickness, and concentrating them at points of critical strain. "Those planes, you know, they looked really beautiful when we got through repairing them," he says with a reminiscent smile, "but I shouldn't much have liked to fly in one." Fortunately the resultant crashes were never traced, nor was Buquet ever requisitioned and shipped to Germany.
With the Liberation, Buquet, now determined to remain a metalworker, shifted to Chausson, and stayed there three miserable years before he got his chance, through a member of his cycling club, to move to Motobécane. Pay during the Chausson period was bad and prices were skyrocketing; he already had two children, and his wife had not been able to work since their marriage. So, having from the age of fourteen played the clarinet and all the saxophones, he followed in his father's footsteps as a semi-pro musician. Two or three nights a week, instead of sleeping, he played from 9:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. at balls. The additional money helped a lot at home. But the lack of sleep was killing; and when he got the Motobécane job, with the bonuses bringing in the same amount as the balls, he gladly gave up music for bed and bicycle.
Buquet thinks it was a funny, crooked road that led him to Motobécane; but he is glad of the result. He likes being a worker, and if his pay is a good bit above the French workers' average, that does not mean that he does not share the financial anxieties of his class. He is grave, reserved, dryly humorous, roughly affectionate -- the antithesis of the legendary Gallic middle class with its prattling and mercurial oh-la-la vivacity. And in his beliefs about his union and his opinions about politics, he is a pretty characteristic figure.
"We need one big union"
Buquet is a strong union man, and by union he means the regular C.G.T. France has actually three trade-union federations: the overwhelming C.G.T. (Confédération Generate du Travail), largely controlled by the French Communist party (F.C.P.) ; the recent right-wing split-off, the C.G.T.-F.O. (Force Ouvrière), run by the socialists and the so-called "apoliticals"; and the C.F.T.C. (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens), the Catholic Church's union. Buquet's loyalty to the C.G.T. nowise means that he approves all its policies, but represents his basic belief that only a united union movement can "really stand up to the bosses, who can always find a way to play off one union against another if they're split. We need one big union." He carries his beliefs about unity over to the international plane, feeling that one of labor's greatest needs is a genuinely international union, something that he doesn't think the present loose World Federation of Trade Unions comes anywhere near being. No nationalist, Buquet believes that both worldwide improvement in labor's lot and the avoidance of further wars depend in large measure on international labor solidarity.
The Motobécane section of the C.G.T., like the C.G.T. nationally, is dominated by the Stalinist factory cells, although naturally not all the members are also members of the French Communist party. It is, however, a very quiet union section, in part because the management has a hands-off policy and is usually ready to meet the delegates halfway; in part because the age level of the shopworkers is relatively high. The delegate in Buquet's department, although a close Communist sympathizer, is no fire-eater. Indeed, there is at Motobécane none of the smoldering civil-war atmosphere that can be sensed in plants like Renault, Citroën, Chausson, or Michelin. Buquet holds no post in the union, having transferred too recently from Chausson to be eligible; in fact, he attends union meetings only if there is something of immediate importance to the shop on the order of the day. This does not reflect any lack of interest, but only the feeling that things are in good hands and going smoothly. When they don't, Buquet's record shows that he's no man to sit on his hands: at Chausson he was a shop delegate, a militant member of the central strike committee in the big strikes, and a constant volunteer for picketing. Buquet believes that there is too much intervention by political parties in trade unions, and he particularly distrusts the French Communist party's manipulation of the C.G.T. Like most French workers, he will go the limit in militancy if he knows and approves of a strike's goal; otherwise only his basic union loyalty makes him follow a strike call. His instincts explain why French workers puzzle foreign observers by seeming both radical (as when they stand up in pitched battle to civil guards or the Army) and uncombative (as when the C.G.T.'s strike calls are not unanimously followed).
"My politics -- that's my bike"
Politically, Buquet is somewhat reserved. He belongs to no political party. If asked whether he is a socialist, he replies, like a good 90 per cent of French workers, "Of course." But he adds quickly, "Minute, papillon" -- a phrase that could be roughly (and inadequately) translated as "Just a minute, bud." For theword "socialist" in Europe can easily lead to misunderstanding. He wants you to understand that it means he's for socialism, and fears you'll take it to mean that he supports the official French socialist party (S.F.I.O.), whose leadership, he thinks, has no interest whatsoever in real socialism. In fact, like the vast majority of French workers in the present conjuncture, he doesn't see any immediate way out-let alone any clear way to socialism. If he could see such a way, his instinctive class consciousness and temperamental militancy would, as his record shows, make him a tough fighter. But as things are, he tends to draw in on himself and say, with a deprecatory smile, "Pour le moment, vous savez, ma politique-c'est mon vélo" that is,"For the moment, you know, my politics -- that's my bike." Besides, he points out, politics isn't just opinions; it's activity, too. And, when one has three children and another one around the corner, "Eh b'en, one is less radical than when one is single." He is content, in this sort of waiting period, to describe himself in unconscious rhyme as: "Nile gars qui casse tout; nile gars mou." That is to say, he doesn't aim to blow the joint up; but he's not a guy to be pushed around, either.
Buquet feels that the new war won't come before several years. He supposes it wasn't very "serious" of him, but he admits that during the week when simultaneously the Berlin crisis and the Tour de France (France's great round-the-country bicycle race) were both coming to a head, he always looked first, in a borrowed evening paper, to see whether Bartali had taken the lead from Bobet before he looked to see whether "those generals" had started a new world war in Berlin.
"And then we'll see"
On the level of a permanent peace, in which he would be the last to believe realistically, his interest centers on two things: the hope that the child his wife will bear him next month will be a boy, and improvement in his immediate lot. The latter aims at Motobécane's special-works division, where the company improves its present product, and designs, builds, and tests prototypes. In the works at present are: an improved model of the special superpowered heavyweights for the French Army and police (described by motorcyclists, with the admirative French gesture of shaking the right hand as if one had just burned it on something, as really "carabinée"); a new streamlined two-cylinder 350-cubic-centimeter model with airplane landing-gear springing; and a few canvas-hooded secrets. Buquet is interested enough in his present job but thinks he has better machinist's brains than it calls for. His "head works him," as the French phrase goes, and he is sure that that head would be fully occupied in the special-works division.
Also, just as 22 per cent of the French people have demonstrated in public-opinion polls for two years running, he would like to get out of France before he and it atomically disappear. Buquet is cautious in his evaluation of U.S. foreign policy as a means to economic recovery and peace. He feels he doesn't know enough to have a definite opinion about the U.S. - except to know that, for the workingman, it must be a veritable "pays de cocagne" compared to France. He would emigrate tomorrow it he could. This dream seems to him very unlikely of fulfillment. Yet that doesn't mean that he has no personal plans.
These plans aren't long-range ones. U.S. workers may be looking forward to retirement on pension schemes; but Buquet figures that for an industrial worker like himself, in the European cockpit of 1948, distant plans are unrealistic. Still, one can't just stop living. "B'en quoi," he says with a French prolo's realist shrug, "qu'est-ce que vous voulez? Next Sunday, Marcel is going to come first in the 88-kilometers; and next month I'm going to have a son named William. Et puis, on verra, quoi."
[Editor's note: At press time Buquet's first wish had not come true, Marcel Lebelle had won no major race; but his second wish had: he now has a son named William.]