Republican Order, Imperial Disorder

The judicial news give me the occasion to talk about the difficulties encountered by survey statisticians. Could the young ladies summoned as witnesses these last days in Lille be identified as prostitutes? If things were not clear for an IMF Director, they also can be fuzzy for statisticians in charge of the census.

Identifying the occupation of an interviewee in surveys, and particularly censuses, is one of the most complex issues when it comes to data collection. No less than 6 questions are devoted to that issue in the questionnaire of the French census. One of these questions is an open ended question. The respondent writes down as clearly as possible his/her main occupation and this is then coded by the French Statistical Office’s experts. The combination of this expert coding with the other 5 questions allows one to accurately determine the respondent’s occupation. The rhythm of the parties at the Carlton in Lille probably did not allow for such a precise assessment.

All the more so that this identification depends on the cultural imagery of the time. See for example, the book by Robert Salais, Nicolas Baverez et Bénédicte Reynaud, « L’invention du chômage ».

Another interesting example, attuned to the judicial news already mentioned, can be found in 19th century French censuses. The French Statistical Office (INSEE) had the good idea to post the results of these censuses online, when they were before only available as microfilms at its library, where I surveyed them some years ago.

The 1856 census thus counts the number of « filles publiques» (as INSEE delicately puts it, “the variable labels are those from the original publication. One can assume that they would be formulated differently nowadays”. True to form, another column in the file counts “Idiots and cretins”).

You might want to know that there were, in 1856, 14 098 filles publiques of female gender. But also 315 who were male…

In 1872 however, once the republican order has been restored, the filles publiques lot is smaller (11 875) and, most importantly, only female. Nobody knows where the 375 hommes publics have gone….

The virtuous Third Republic did not only switch from Jacques Offenbach to Vincent d’Indy. It put its stamps on everything it did, including the Statistique Générale de la France’s tables.

Antoine Moreau