“At the bottom of the mine”, on France Culture: return to the “black mouths” in coal


Undated photo of workers in a coal mine in Lens (Pas-de-Calais), northern France.


For “LSD, the documentary series”, on France Culture, Johanna Bedeau went to see the side of the mine, and the stories she reports are more than precious, because, through them, they are not only the lives of miners which make themselves heard, but our history, that of the workers and that of the bosses, that of the unions and that of the politicians, that of the Moroccan workforce and the way in which it was recruited, then pushed to return to the bled.

In the beginning, the miners were peasants, alternating work in the fields and in the mine. It is to ensure a permanent workforce that the corons, these dwellings owned by the coal mines, will be built. As the historians interviewed here remind us, the fear was sometimes less of being fired than, indirectly, of being fired from one’s home. The women were given a guide to good behavior: cleaning in front of their homes on Tuesdays and baking bread on Thursdays… Getting up first, they prepared the “briquet”, this snack made of bread spread with lard, most often.

Another world

In the following episode, it is the minors, these “black mouths”, that we hear widely. And who first say: “What happens in the background stays in the background”, because “you can’t understand”. And to say the galleries, the sections and the veins (“there is something to get lost”), the almost total darkness and the very trying heat. A difficult and dangerous job to which, despite everything, the miners are viscerally attached and which some compare to that of a sailor. Because it’s another world. Because, deep down, like at sea, it’s teamwork where solidarity comes first. In this episode, it’s about Germinal – novel (by Zola) and film (by Claude Berri). Of industrialization, strikes and the rights obtained. Accidents, illnesses and incessant noise.

And then there is episode 3 (“Immigration, a mine for coal”), absolutely essential, which recalls that, from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, nearly 78,000 Moroccans were recruited – largely by Félix Mora, a former officer in the French army – to come and extract the last tons of coal in France. Who will be recruited with employment contracts of twelve to eighteen months, before being sent back to the country for a few months, and who return to work in France – if their medical examination allows it.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers “The green stamp, you were going to France. The red, you returned to the bled “: on the trail of Félix Mora, the man who hired thousands of Moroccans for the French mines

Remember that, in addition to bladder or skin cancer, miners often contract silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust particles. Let’s also say that it will be necessary to wait until 1980 for Moroccans to obtain the status of minors. At the end of the 1980s, they were forced to choose between returning home or retraining, with no guarantee of employment. This will be notified to them by mail. This injustice will sound the beginning of a long struggle.

The last episode shows how, with the mines closed, the “black country” has become a landscape worth preserving and protecting. So that we don’t forget the “black mouths”. Wherever they were. For this too, we must salute the particularly rich work carried out by Johanna Bedeau.

At the bottom of the mine, documentary series by Johanna Bedeau, directed by Marie-Laure Ciboulet (Fr., 2023, 4 × 55 min). On the France Culture website and on all the usual listening platforms.


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