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1The work of the deputies, the elected members of the French parliament, is at least as much an exercise in public relations as it is concerned with legislation. Fulfilling the mandate of political representative means dealing with a wide variety of people: constituency residents and elected officers, interest groups, journalists, parliamentary opposite numbers, ministers and cabinet members, as well as close colleagues to whom may be delegated some tasks and even powers. All these people constitute an affinity network that acts according to how it is managed. Deputies must know how to make good use of their networks but must also manage things so as to advance the causes they wish to support in pursuance of their political goals. There are today several communication tools that enable deputies not only to further their aims and to ensure their availability, but also to guarantee constant media visibility, the most important of these being the mobile telephone. This enables them always to be within easy reach of all their various contacts, to synchronize activities with them, and more generally to stay informed.

2The role of relational activity in the work of members of parliament is not new. During the Third Republic, as well as sitting in the Chamber passing legislation, deputies spent long hours every day in the Palais Bourbon—home of the French National Assembly—dealing with constituency correspondence as well as haunting the ministers’ antechambers to promote the rights and claims of their electors. [1] The post office attached to the Palais Bourbon also had electrical telegraph, which the deputies used extensively for exchanging long-distance messages when deadlines were tight, but which could not be used for actual conversations. [2] Until the beginning of the twentieth century, in order to have a discussion—for example to deliver a report, to debate the stance to be taken in a parliamentary session, or to promote the merits of a political standpoint—a deputy had to be in the physical presence of his interlocutor.

3From 1879 onwards, this limitation began to disappear as telephones were installed across the nation. [3] Suddenly, there was a tool that allowed deputies to have real-time, long-distance conversations, giving them new ways to manage their affinity networks and so to pursue their mandates. There was no longer any compulsion to be in a specific place in order to have one’s voice heard as a national representative. From one day to the next, deputies could plan their movements, their collaborations, and their wider activities in a different way. In addition, a new form of support for their parliamentary work gradually emerged out of the Palais Bourbon telephone department: little by little the Chamber’s telephone operators began making calls on behalf of the deputies, thus evolving into telephonic secretaries. In this respect, it seems that the roll-out of telephone networks in France may be associated with the changes to the deputy’s job that came about at the beginning of the twentieth century. [4] The primary aim of this article is to describe some of the ways in which the adoption of this new means of communication caused the division of labor in the Chamber to evolve, over nearly fifty years—the duration of the Third Republic.

4The analysis that follows is founded on a political anthropology of technology, in that it aims to address the question of the institution from a starting point of understanding its material reality and the human relationships that underpin it on a day-to-day basis. [5] It forms part of a research project that follows on in particular from the work of Madeleine Akrich and later Susan Leigh Star. Firstly, this analysis posits that sociotechnical structures are “politically powerful instruments”, because they are as much products as producers of the modes of social organization to which they belong. [6] Secondly, it focuses on the telephone installation at the Palais Bourbon, not so much in its capacity as a tool available to users, but more as an infrastructure embodying the historically situated issues of division of labor, technical innovation, and social organization. [7] In point of fact this article has another aim, outside the field of legislative studies: to document the adoption of a modern means of communication by a state institution. This represents a small contribution to the study of informational infrastructures in contemporary societies, offering a contextual perspective on a key moment in their introduction.

5The research materials for this case study come from the archives of the General Secretariat of the Questure [8] (1806-1967) of France’s National Assembly. These contain several boxes of information relating to the introduction, organization, and management of the telephone network and its operators during the Third Republic. [9] The documentation includes reports, bills, and instruction manuals, as well as extensive correspondence between the department’s personnel, their management hierarchy, and the ministry of posts and telegraphs. Mention should also be made of the fact that these records contain a 1909 summary note (among papers attributed to Georges Gatulle, an officer of the Chamber), which provides a detailed and documented overview of the history and logistics of the department’s operation. [10]

6Before setting out the reasons why the introduction of the telephone played a part in the evolution of the deputy’s job at this time, several preliminary stages must be addressed. To begin with, we will explain why the Chamber decided, at the end of 1881, to take out telephone subscriptions, and describe the specific nature of the sociotechnical infrastructure that it adopted at the time. We will also examine the success of the telephone in the deputies’ eyes and the tensions that it created, before describing its idiosyncratic integration. That done, we will be in a position to explore the formalization of the role of telephone secretary, which was assigned to the Chamber’s telephone operators from the 1900s onwards.

A Made-to-Measure Telephone Service for the Chamber

A Mixed Network Architecture

7The installation works for the Palais Bourbon’s first telephone lines were completed in January 1882. For some years, the Questure had been petitioned to make this step by various telephone companies as well as by the minister of posts and telegraphs. Several projects had been considered but had not materialized, largely because of the Questure’s caution. The quaestors balked at entering into a contract with a private, rather than state, enterprise and made high demands, such as free calls for some users. It must also be acknowledged that at the beginning of the Third Republic the commercialization of this communications apparatus was in its infancy, its uses were still to be clarified, and its true benefits were unproven. In fact, the general public as well as commercial promoters were not initially interested in the telephone for the interactive exchanges it made possible, but for its potential as an instrument of cultural diffusion. [11] The Chamber’s Questure itself saw it as a vehicle for parliamentary publicity: to begin with, the quaestors were attracted to the idea of offering subscribers on the Paris network the possibility of following public sessions from a distance, along the lines of the theatrophone. [12]

8In November 1880, when the Questure decided to look into the potential of the telephone as a means of communication for occupants of the Palais Bourbon, its use was envisaged as specifically internal. [13] The idea was “to establish a network of electric cables that would allow various government administration departments to communicate with each other by means of the telephone, without needing to move around the site”. [14] Why did they want to avoid such movements? Firstly, because at the end of the nineteenth century there was a policy regulating the space and occupancy of the Palais that increasingly required administration personnel to keep a low profile in relation to the Chamber’s political contingent. [15] In the days before the telephone and pneumatic tube were installed in the Palais, office boys carried messages and parliamentary files between departments, and their incessant comings and goings came to seem increasingly unacceptable. Secondly, reducing unnecessary movements formed part of an overall policy of modernizing the administration. It was thought necessary to rationalize the transmission of information (to reduce delays) and general co-ordination (to improve efficiency) between the administration offices dispersed in different parts of the Palais. It should be noted that this initiative of the quaestors was not entirely original: during this same period, and springing from similar concerns, other public and private organizations were investing in apparatuses for moving documents around in a drive to improve space management and workflow. [16] Nine strategic locations in the Palais were initially identified and selected to receive a telephone: the debating chamber, the official minutes office, the summary records office, the print room, the president’s office, the president’s general secretariat, and some individual offices.

9How were these nine locations actually connected to each other? At first, the Questure had envisaged an arrangement of so-called direct lines, within an architecture that was not strictly speaking a network. [17] In fact, these key sites were linked in pairs, with the telephone installation mirroring the flow of circulating information that underpinned the legislative process. This solution was abandoned in the end in favor of a solution structured around a tenth piece of equipment called the poste central or the multiple, to which the nine others were connected. This was entrusted to an operator whose task was to make the required connections, manually and individually, between each of the system’s extensions. [18] A star configuration like this was more flexible, because only one instrument was needed in each office, no matter how many users were connectible. It was also cheaper in terms of the length of the wiring, the number of instruments, and finally the cost of subscriptions to the Société Générale des Téléphones. This central apparatus was located in a room called the salle des téléphones, which had long adjoined the Questure secretariat, whose staff were consequently not given their own instrument. [19] Centralized in this way, this network architecture not only put the Questure in a privileged position to oversee telephone usage in the Palais, but also emulated the organogram of parliamentary administration.

10However, to all intents and purposes the Chamber’s telephone network was never exclusively internal and centralized. In the months immediately following the installation in January 1882, many adjustments were made after it became clear that the network was not fit for its purpose. [20] For a start, several lines were opened to the nearest telephone exchange (presumably Opéra) so as to allow calls to subscribers on the Paris network. The first of these was assigned to the poste central, for use by the Questure and departments linked to the internal network. Two further lines, more specifically for the use of the deputies, were stand-alone, rather than being connected to the poste central, although the instruments were still situated in the salle des téléphones, in sound-proofed cubicles. Secondly, some departments and some members of the Chamber’s management were given direct lines as well as telephones linked to the poste central, either for internal use or to make calls outside the Palais. As an example, this enabled the president’s office to speak to the police headquarters without going through an intermediary, the quaestors’ offices to benefit from direct access to the Paris network, and a dedicated connection to be created between the summary records office and the print room. Thirdly, newspaper editors asked for a telephone to be installed, at their cost, in the press gallery near the debating chamber, so that they could reach their journalists via a direct connection to the Paris network. As the installation progressed, the discovery of potential uses for the telephone resulted in the Chamber’s mixed network architecture.

The “Gentlemen of the Telephone“

11Once the work was complete, the lines installed, and the instruments connected, the Questure decreed the creation of a dedicated department within the administration to take care of the system’s day-to-day operation. [21] The new department was designed to function with three people: a clerk, a telephone operator, and an office boy. The clerk was the chief (or principal) telephone operator and was responsible for running the department. His primary duties included keeping a record of calls, setting priorities for external calls (according to the order in which the requests were made as well as their relative importance), and noting down any messages received so that they could be passed on to their intended recipients. The telephone operator, under the clerk’s orders, was in charge of all tasks relating to the operation of the equipment. He was responsible not only for keeping the apparatus and lines in good working order, but also for connecting the many internal and external calls requested by the administrative departments, and then disconnecting them once the conversation ended. The office boy, meanwhile, was on the lowest rung of this short ladder. He looked after the two cubicles assigned to the deputies, helping them to operate the instruments and taking their incoming calls, a task that involved searching them out in the Palais Bourbon corridors in order to alert them, or delivering written messages to them.

12The policy of modernizing the administration—which as we saw above partly underlay the decision to install the telephones in the Palais Bourbon—also informed the decision to set up a dedicated department for the telephone service. The logical process of rationalization led the Chamber to give new tools to all its administrative departments, which were also restructured so as to better differentiate their services and to make staff roles more specialized. As a result, the personnel headcount doubled between 1871 and 1914. [22] Additionally, a split between administrative and legislative functions—still in place today—was created, categorizing staff according to the proximity of their role to parliamentary work. [23] It was during this period too that new entities were created within the administration. These were not directly responsible for parliamentary work, but fulfilled a meta function, [24] dealing with administrative data per se, with the aim of improving the circulation and dissemination of information between all actors. For example, the lithography department was responsible for duplicating parliamentary documents, while the telephone department was tasked with circulating instructions pertaining to the smooth running of the legislative process. [25]

13The work of processing data existed previously, but it was dispersed. Various people in various departments took on parts of it according to their particular level (for example as typists). As some processes became mechanized, requiring specific skills, these functions were collected together and assigned to specialized staff. In other words, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Questure began to take its first steps towards a centralized information infrastructure, principally through the creation of the telephone department, whose management was put in the hands of the operators. Since their role was interdisciplinary rather than purely administrative or legislative, they were situated outside the newly created bipartite organization, to the extent that they were never incorporated into the official organogram. [26] In fact, to this day a similar situation applies to the department of information systems, which is responsible for managing the computer network linking many sites in the Palais, as well as for developing business applications through which the legislative process is now conducted. [27]

14It can thus be seen that the Chamber’s telephone operators had much in common with the demoiselles du téléphone, or “young ladies of the telephone”, as the women who worked in France’s telephone exchanges were always described. Like them, the Chamber’s operators were entrusted with the smooth running of the service, setting up connections, managing call priority, and (in an informal arrangement, as and when required) offering to take messages or to call back when an engaged line became free. Like the demoiselles, they took upon themselves the pressures that the users were shrugging off. [28] The similarities in their status were felt routinely, and indeed they were invoked as an argument for a salary increase in negotiations with the Questure in 1919. [29] It must be said that, in terms of its function, the Chamber’s telephone department was like a small-scale exchange: in order for it to work, it needed to co-ordinate with the Paris network exchanges, especially the Gutenberg exchange after it opened in 1891. [30] When someone in the Palais asked to be connected to another subscriber, the telephone operator could not accomplish this alone: the request had to be relayed to an operator at the exchange, and thence to the exchange serving the subscriber in question. The same logic applied in reverse: it was the Chamber’s telephone operators who had to make the final connection to the Palais number that had been requested. The extent of interdependence was such that some of the demoiselles at the Gutenberg exchange were specifically assigned to the management of the Chamber’s lines so as to guarantee a smooth flow of calls considered to be more important and more complex than others (for example because of rules governing call priorities or specific billing conditions).

15How can the fact that the Chamber’s telephone operators were exclusively male be explained when, at this time, operators in all public and private organizations throughout France, Europe, and the United States were female? The answer lies in the fact that the administration of the French state was historically a male preserve, until the dramatic change at the beginning of the 1880s when shorthand-typists were recruited as secretaries. [31] In the state communication technologies sector (postal, telegraphic, and telephone services, before they were merged) this shake-up attracted fierce opposition, although not enough to offset the attraction of a cheap workforce, in the context of the deteriorating economic climate at the end of the century. [32] The Chamber’s telephone operators, meanwhile, were chosen according to a criterion of trustworthiness from among existing employees. Since the Revolution, the prevailing institutional culture had been elitist and therefore sexist, and in consequence the staff were still exclusively male during the Third Republic. In addition, in contrast to other organizations, this was a time when resources were being increased in this area, and so the Questure had no need to engage with the drive towards feminization. [33] The two services, similar in their duties but quite different in the manner of their staffing, provide an illustration of the Chamber’s inertia, as it sought to preserve work practices and attitudes that at the time were being progressively abandoned in other sectors of public administration.

The Deputies “Did Not Shun the Telephone“

16There were two principal phases in the organization of the telephone department, separated by the 1900s. During the first two decades of its existence, it seems to have created its own structure, without any input from the Questure, which never saw any need to review the provisional structure established in 1882, despite severe problems relating to telephone usage in the Palais. It was not that the Questure was uninterested in the telephone operators’ welfare, or that it remained deaf to the deputies’ complaints. Rather, it seems that it was slow to accept the legitimacy of these new communication methods and their relevance to the legislative process, and more specifically to the elected representatives in the exercise of their mandates. As a result, it failed to allocate the necessary resources. In the face of the Questure’s clear refusal to support these developments in the work associated with political representation, the deputies and the telephone operators together found ways of working that were compatible with the constraints under which they both labored.

Tensions Created by the Success of the Chamber’s Telephones

17A deputy wanting to make a call first had to place his request with the chief telephone operator. This would be recorded in a register and given an order of priority. He then had to await his turn until a cubicle became available. Once inside, after lifting the handset, there would be a second wait for the exchange operator to reply. He would tell her which subscriber he wished to contact, and then wait again for the connection to be established. After that, it was important to talk clearly and loudly, and to listen carefully so as to understand what his interlocutor was saying, as the connection was usually less than perfect. As the caller left the cubicle, the chief telephone operator would note down the length of the conversation. The president and quaestors benefited from a separate arrangement since, as we have seen, they had telephones within their secretariat and their offices.

18In her article “Paris boude le téléphone” [Paris shuns the telephone], Chantal de Gournay explains that until the end of the Second World War the residential population of the capital and its surrounding areas took little interest in this means of communication, in sharp contrast to London or Boston. [34] During the Third Republic, only an urban elite based in the central neighborhoods, near the Gutenberg exchange, took advantage of it: commercial, manufacturing, and artisanal interests, for whom the rapid transmission of information reflected a business need. For them, it was less a question of overcoming geographical distance than of facilitating business by consolidating networks between economic partners grouped within a small area. The deputies, for their part, did not shun the telephone. The volume of calls made from the Palais Bourbon roughly doubled between 1890 and 1900, quadrupled between 1900 and 1920, and was then multiplied by six in the next eight years alone. In real terms, in 1928 there was an average of just under sixteen calls a week per deputy, as against two and a half in 1920. [35] The deputies’ interest in the telephone was comparable to that of the economic elite in the center of Paris, to which in practice they partly belonged. [36]

19Since telephone conversations with subscribers on the Paris network were not charged, before long they ceased to be recorded in a register, which means that we now have no means of evaluating them. However, the archives do contain a copy of the register of long-distance calls between July 1936 and June 1937. This shows that calls made to constituencies were lengthy, with an average duration of 45 minutes. [37] Additionally, the deputies appear to have been fond of the telephone message service provided by the Société Générale du Téléphone. This offered the possibility of dictating a message to an operator, which would then be transmitted by telephone to the exchange nearest to the intended recipient, where it would be transcribed and then delivered by hand, just like a telegram. In fact, why was this method preferred over the telegram? There are two possible answers. Firstly, the telephone department, in the heart of the Palais Bourbon, was better located than the post and telegraph office, which was on the edge of the site. [38] Secondly, the deputies benefited from a charging arrangement, which meant that they did not need to pay for calls made to the Paris network, either from the Palais or, if they were private subscribers, from their home address. As a result, telephone messages were presumably cheaper over a short distance than telegrams. [39]

20In short, while the telephone had initially been installed in the Palais Bourbon for the benefit of the administration, it was the deputies who made the most use of it, seemingly for two purposes: firstly for calls between Paris and their constituencies, for example to talk to local authorities (such as the mayor’s office or local government offices) or to family members; and secondly for sending and receiving short messages within the context of Parisian political life, for example to check the progress of paperwork or to arrange meetings. However, these two types of telephone usage were not equivalent in terms of the volume of calls. It is known that long-distance calls never exceeded 3% of the total volume of calls (except during the war years, when they peaked at 9%). [40] The bulk of the calls made from the Palais were to other subscribers in the capital and their purpose was therefore presumably more informational than conversational.

21However, the success of the Chamber’s telephone system was not without its problems. During this first period, the telephone operators had to manage a situation of constant overload. This was at first caused by the opening of long-distance lines in the salle des téléphones, and although there was not a huge number of calls, they took up a lot of the department’s time. For by and large, as the government pronounced in 1921, the network was “in a disastrous state”. [41] During the Third Republic, the telephone network was not a single fully integrated entity, but an amalgamation of many local networks, with inadequate interconnections. Not only was it an interminable business to set up a long-distance call, but interference made conversations laborious. And the more switches it took for a call to reach a subscriber, the greater the risk that communication would be cut during the conversation, which meant starting the whole procedure all over again. [42] Pressure on the department also came from fluctuations in the volume of calls, which made resource management difficult. During recess or on days when the Chamber was not sitting, the operators managed to process the incoming and outgoing call requests without delay, and sometimes even found themselves with nothing to do. At other times, when the deputies were present in force, there were significant peaks in the volume of calls, forcing the Questure to reinforce the department on an ad hoc basis, by taking on a couple of extra office boys to look after the cubicles. From time to time, the Questure subscribed to new lines in order to relieve service congestion, but the growth in the number of calls was such that it did not take long to return to saturation point. As a general rule, the busier the Chamber, the longer the wait for a cubicle, and the more agitated the users became.

22These constraints weighed as much on the deputies as on the telephone operators. All the waiting irritated the elected representatives, who in those days felt the same continual sense of urgency that their counterparts do today. [43] They were always hurrying between competing demands on their time, and even before the telephone arrived they were complaining about being swamped by menial tasks. [44]

Illustration: Growth in the number of telephone calls at the Palais Bourbon between 1882 and 1924 [45]

figure im1

Illustration: Growth in the number of telephone calls at the Palais Bourbon between 1882 and 1924 [45]

figure im2

23Meanwhile, the operators shouldered a heavy burden, “very often beyond their capacity”. [46] Everyone in the Palais was “unanimous in recognizing the willingness, tact and zeal” of the operators as they went about “such demanding, and sometimes grueling, work”. [47] They did their best to “please everyone” so that “the telephone department might avoid all criticism”. [48] More generally, the archives clearly show how successive managers of the telephone department were constantly alerting the hierarchy to their difficult working conditions, pointing out how badly overworked they were, and urging the employment of additional staff.

Delegated Use of the Telephone

24In this singular context of significant technical limitations combined with heavy demand from the deputies, alternative communication methods began to emerge—alternative in the sense that they deviated from prescribed usage procedures. [49] When he set about commercializing the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell had envisaged a means of communication that would not require intermediaries to operate the equipment at the handset. [50] The quaestors had followed this assumption when they created the position of telephone operator for the Chamber in 1882. The operators were only tasked with maintenance and administration of the service, and not with giving assistance to users. However, in practice they always did what they could to make the deputies’ lives easier, providing services that were not on the face of it their responsibility. This prolonged arrangements for the division of labor that went back to an earlier time, before the end of the nineteenth century. [51]

25These services were set out explicitly in 1890, in a letter from the chief telephone operator to the Questure, which explains that while “during the first years of the operation, calls were made directly from person to person”, these days “deputies have a tendency, if not to have the call made for them, [.. . ] to leave it to the operator to take the reply, write it down, and bring it to them in the session”. [52] Equally, in the 1914 report, the above writer’s successor explained that the telephone department was facing “an excessive amount of work owing [principally] to new telephone subscriptions for deputies who, being detained in the sessions, expect the telephone department to take messages for them”. This, for various reasons, was causing a “particular increase to the work of officials”. [53] The chief operator describes here something that could be called delegated use of the telephone, to borrow a concept used by Éric Treille to describe the written work that deputies today entrust to their parliamentary assistants. [54] It must be assumed that this delegated use did not concern those calls with a conversational purpose mentioned above, but those whose purpose was obtaining information or passing on instructions. In short, administrative staff were not only charged with “holding the deputy’s pen”, [55] they also had to hold his handset.

26In order to fully understand the place of the telephone in the Third Republic’s parliamentary life, it is thus also important to take into account the fact that the deputies could circumvent the difficulties described above, by adopting a modus operandi in which all the parties collaborated. In fact, the archives contain nothing to suggest that the operators complained about this practice of delegation as such, they only complained about its consequences in terms of workload. Perhaps they realized that the arrangement was in their interests. Delegated use meant that the salle des téléphones was less crowded, and there were therefore fewer discontented deputies, tired of waiting. It also meant an improved traffic flow and better use of resources. Now, call requests no longer had to be dealt with on the spot, in whatever order they arrived: it was possible to reorganize them and even assign priorities, not only in terms of the importance of their content but also as regards the availability of lines and personnel. From this point of view, delegating the operation of the telephone handsets certainly contributed to the smooth running of the service provided to the Chamber before 1900.

27While the telephone was devised to eliminate the need for the telegraph operators who coded and decoded communications, the deputies seized the opportunity to introduce an analogous role. This similarity between telephone and telegraph operations reflects the period’s sociotechnical culture: the introduction of a new mode of communication never produces new communication practices ex nihilo, but is grafted onto pre-existing routines, continuing previously established arrangements. [56] In fact, as Catherine Bertho reminds us, between 1890 and 1930, the telephone was above all “an instrument for the bosses”, used by subscribers from well-heeled social milieus who, like the deputies, did not handle telephones themselves but delegated the task to their employees. [57] In the domestic context, household staff used the telephone to place orders or book services (for example arranging grocery deliveries or hiring vehicles and drivers), or for taking instructions from their employers. In the professional context, it was the office secretaries who picked up the handset to filter calls or to pass on messages on behalf of their employers (for instance to suppliers or clients). In this respect, it can be seen that handling the telephone was regarded as a servile act, indicating subservience to material as well as social considerations that could be dismissed by those who commanded a certain prestige. [58]

28The scientific literature—especially in the field of communications sociology—has already pointed up similar situations where users do not operate technical equipment themselves but have others operate it on their behalf. However, such cases have not been the subject of dedicated research and have been associated with issues of non-usage. [59] This type of non-engagement presents a problem. Vincent Caradec—who is among those who have looked at the issue most closely—stresses the ambivalence inherent in such delegation situations. He points out that while they can have an inclusive effect, drawing an individual closer to a tool, their effect can also be exclusive, creating a distance from it. [60] In this case, the delegation of use is clearly inclusive. It is true that the telephone operators freed the deputies from the constraints relating to the operation of the instruments, whose limitations caused them to get frustrated or give up. But equally this allowed them to take full advantage of the telephone network, through a rational division of labor that put the operation of complex equipment in the hands of the most competent, and that reflected the fact that it was considered undesirable to wear too many hats.

The Formalization of a Telephone Secretariat

29It had not been anticipated that the deputies would delegate use of the telephone, but once it happened it gradually became systematized within a specific context: the transformation of the deputy’s job in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the question of the material resources allocated to deputies began to be considered. It was actually in 1899 that an increase to their allowance of 9,000 francs was discussed, without result. In 1906, it was at last implemented, and their pay rose to 15,000 francs. This unleashed widespread controversy in French society around the issue of professionalizing the work of political representation, and the closely related matter of the resources needed to assure the quality of legislative work. [61] These decades also saw a crisis in French parliamentarianism, which led the deputies to feel a collective need to reinforce the efficiency of the deliberative process. Particularly after 1915, various initiatives were undertaken to rationalize the conduct of debates, so that “parliament would appear like a place of work rather than a forum for rhetoric”. [62]

30It was around this time too that the provisional nature of the telephone department’s organization was stretched to its limits, under the pressure of a new increase to the workload. In 1900, the World Fair prompted a significant hike in the number of calls to and from the Chamber. That same year, the chief operator resigned “after a serious illness, brought on by the effects on his nerves of overwork, caused by his responsibilities for the telephone service”. [63] In 1902, the price of long-distance calls was reduced, encouraging a new wave of users among the deputies. This meant an increase to the type of call that was for the operators a particular source of “strain, causing great fatigue by the day’s end”. [64]

The Overhaul of the Telephone Department

31The tension produced partly by the increased workload and partly by the continual pressure to satisfy the demands of the users (both officials and deputies) was at first managed from within the telephone department. In particular, the telephone operators tried to stem the proliferation of writing tasks, so as to lighten the load of activity regarded as peripheral. [65] A significant experiment in this context was the discontinuation, in 1901, of the so-called “inscriptions’ register, which listed the cubicles’ incoming and outgoing calls. However, the absence of this register, as the telephone operators were to discover, meant the eradication of the memory of much of the department’s activity. Moreover, the register had played a practical role in the service’s daily routine. [66] For example, it had acted as a log of recent calls, saving the operators from having to find so many subscriber numbers, and had also served to keep track of calls placed on hold while deputies were summoned to the salle des téléphones. Furthermore, it had provided a record of the collective work of the department, without which it was impossible to produce statistics and alert the hierarchy to situations of overload. After three months, the register was reinstated and later, at the beginning of the 1920s, the Questure appointed a clerk to the department, responsible for “telephone accounting, book-keeping, writing notes, reports, notices etc., [as well as] communications and relations with the telephone administration and with departments servicing the Chamber, etc.”. [67]

32The failure of this experiment seems to have been a definitive indicator that the telephone department had reached the limits of the organizational structure established in 1882. A proposal for structural and organizational reform was initiated. In parallel with the deputies’ debates concerning their own working conditions, the Questure gradually relaxed its stance. Up until that point it had refused to acknowledge the growing need for extra lines, to increase the number of cubicles, or to update the equipment in line with technical progress, but in 1902 the Questure resolved to fully incorporate the telephone department within the administration. [68] The staff were put on their own pay scale, with a graded promotion structure. The salary of the chief telephone operator was set at 2,600 to 3,500 francs a year and that of his deputy at 2,200 to 3,000 francs a year. The Questure also acceded to the demands of the telephone operators by establishing a specific recruitment procedure, to be carried out “among internal staff members previously assigned to the service who had shown themselves to have the necessary aptitude”—that is to say, based on a selection principle. Finally, additional staff members were taken on, so that by 1908 the department had increased from three to five people, and it gradually rose to ten by 1929. These reforms turned the role of telephone operator for the Chamber into a job in its own right, no longer just a specialized post within the parliamentary administration.

33As well as putting in place these reforms to the status of the department, the Questure also invested in material resources. The telephone department was given up-to-date equipment, adapted to the specific requirements of the telephonic installation at the Palais. This both improved productivity and enabled a more rational division of labor. For example, in 1904, an integrated telephone switchboard was installed for the first time in the salle des téléphones, permitting increased centralization of lines. [69] Until then, as we have seen, departmental lines and those for the deputies were centralized in the salle des téléphones, but were not interconnected. Calls on the internal network were managed by the telephone operator on the multiple switchboard while the deputies’ calls were handled by the office boys who looked after the cubicles. With the integrated switchboard, all the lines could be brought together in a single unit and could therefore be managed by a single telephone operator. However, by 1920 a sole operator could not handle all the call requests within a reasonable time and the switchboard had to be replaced with a larger model allowing two operators to work simultaneously. This was replaced once more with a four-position switchboard in 1925 and yet again with a six-position model in 1933. [70] A shift system was set up, with teams of operators taking turns at the switchboard several times a day according to a planned schedule, “so as to share the work out equally”. [71] As we will see, when they were not assigned to the switchboard, they provided the deputies with services of a more administrative nature.

34Additionally, under pressure from the deputies, the Questure at last entered into negotiations with the ministry of posts and telegraphs to gain various benefits for the Chamber. Towards the end of 1903, to reduce the inconvenience of long waiting times before calls were connected, a booking system was established. Now a deputy could request a long-distance call and then carry on with his business until his turn came: at the appropriate time, the exchange operator would inform the salle des téléphones and someone would be sent to fetch him. [72] In 1905, the quaestors also succeeded in getting priority agreed for calls from the Chamber to the constituency prefectures and sub-prefectures; then in 1911, for calls to town halls by deputies who were also mayors; and finally in 1929 for all long-distance calls from the Chamber. [73] On the other hand, the non-Parisian deputies tried and failed, from 1928 onwards, to get the Chamber to take responsibility for all their long-distance calls. This was only agreed much later, in 1985. [74]

The Expansion of Administrative Support to the Deputies

35During this period, the Questure therefore acted on several levels to give the parliamentary administration the means with which to respond to demands from users. This progress can be seen not only in the department’s structural and organizational development, but also in the emergence of new duties, specifically oriented towards supporting the exercise of the parliamentary mandate. Between 1900 and 1930, the telephone operators not only saw their work acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of the hierarchy, but also began to play a key role in the Palais Bourbon’s general operational routines. The Chamber’s management recognized that the principle whereby the deputies delegated their use of the telephone was irreversible, and at that point it was broadened out.

36To begin with, in references that appear as early as 1900, the archives reveal that it was the telephone operators who took responsibility for calling the ministries to pass on deputies’ requests for registration at the weekly ministerial hearings. Throughout the Third Republic, the deputies tirelessly did the round of these sessions in order to defend constituency interests. [75] The requests had to be “recorded each day in a special register, as they came in”, and then sorted and grouped together so as to avoid making serial requests that would unnecessarily occupy the lines. [76] The requests were finally passed on to the ministries the day before each hearing and verified, so as “to avoid complaints that could result from the negligence of some ministries, which sometimes misplace names”. [77]

37Then, after 1920, when it became possible for direct lines to be installed between the Chamber and all the Paris railway stations, the telephone operators took on the task of booking train tickets for the deputies. Three years later, the complex nature of this activity meant that on its own it represented more than a quarter of the telephone department’s work. Requests were not only numerous but often urgent, since they were mostly made on the day of travel and it was necessary to make sense of a “wide range of departure times, directions and networks”. [78] Furthermore, each seat booked often required three separate calls: the deputy would frequently make his request by telephone, and the operator would then need to make two further calls: one to the train station to book the ticket, and another to the deputy to confirm details.

38All this adds up to the fact that the telephone department eventually acted as a reception and information desk, similar to the role carried out by the concierge at the entrance to the Palais. [79] Because of their position as the first point of contact for all calls into the Palais Bourbon, the telephone operators became receptionists “to satisfy the needs of a public often lacking information and needing assistance”. [80] In this situation, the rule was to “take care only to supply [.. . ] brief general information, as much for the purposes of discretion as to keep the lines clear”. [81] The operators’ priority was in fact to support the deputies. Although they despaired of the amount of time it took up, it was a point of honor for the operators to respond to the deputies’ ad hoc requests for information, which could be “of any kind” (for example a subscriber number, the address of a meeting, or the timetable for an event). [82] Moreover, they were specifically instructed to “filter” incoming calls, especially those “addressed to the quaestors, the general secretaries, and heads of department, obtaining their consent before connecting calls”. This task required them to “announce in advance the caller’s name and if possible their status”, while remaining discreet and proceeding “entirely without the caller’s knowledge, aided by a simple fact sheet”. [83] Indeed, once the automatic telephone was introduced in 1933, there was no question of getting rid of the switchboard: these receptionist duties were enough to justify retaining the Chamber’s telephone operators. [84]

39The telephone operators thus took on a number of tasks that aimed to facilitate the broader exercise of parliamentary mandates rather than the legislative work. These tasks all required both permanent access to external telephone lines and a good knowledge of the general organizational logic of the Parisian and long-distance networks. As a result, they could not be carried out by other members of the administrative staff. This evolution led to some adjustments as regards the division of labor. Several times during the 1920s, the records reveal the chief telephone operator extolling the department’s adoption of a “system of specialization”, linked to the principle of team rotation that still prevailed in the management of the switchboard in the salle des téléphones. This system meant that when the telephone operators were not busy answering and connecting calls, they were individually assigned to one of the department’s duties, for example booking train tickets at one of the rail stations, or managing the hearing registrations for a specific ministry. [85] From the end of the 1920s, in the Chamber as in all large public and private administrations, the roles of secretary and telephone operator became indistinguishable. [86] During the last twenty years of the Third Republic, the telephone department could be regarded as a telephone secretariat, although it was never described as such in the archives consulted here.

Conclusion: The Invisibility of the Telephone Infrastructure

40One important question remains unanswered. If the installation of the Chamber’s telephones can indeed be associated with the development of the deputy’s job during the Third Republic, why is there no mention of it anywhere? There is no description of this means of communication, not even the merest allusion, in memoirs, recollections, and reports left by deputies and administration personnel. There is no reference to it—not even to the existence of the salle des téléphones—in the accounts of Paul Vigné d’Octon or Jules Delafosse (to name only those that are best known), nor in the legal reports of André Tardieu or Eugène Pierre. To get some sense of it, we must turn to the press [87] or to the “young ladies of the telephone”. [88] Part of the problem, let us not forget, is that the telephone department per se does not appear in any of the successive organograms for the Chamber’s administration. The whole question of telephony at the Palais Bourbon, and its communication structures in general, is shrouded in a historiographical silence that was only broken recently, when in 2003 the general secretariat of the Questure handed all the records over to the Assembly’s archives department.

41To understand this historiographical silence, we must bear in mind that while not explicitly expressed, absolute discretion was demanded of the telephone operators. As we have seen, the telephone’s principal appeal to the quaestors in 1882 was that it allowed them to eliminate much of the incessant comings and goings of administrative staff in the Palais Bourbon. It later became clear that the principle of delegated telephone use, which developed from the 1890s onwards, sprang from the deputies’ need to free themselves from the practical difficulties associated with the operation of the instruments, in the interests of simplification and efficiency. As for the formalization of the department after 1900, this can be interpreted as the Questure’s search for a definitive solution to a communications infrastructure that was still too resistant to the ideal of a smooth flow of information, and whose physical presence was therefore seen by everyone as a hindrance. In short, in general terms the Chamber regarded the invisibility of the telephone infrastructure as a prerequisite for its integration into the daily routines of the Palais. The discretion of the telephone equipment was seen as part of its function. This was not the case with the telegraphic equipment, which seemed to present an obstacle to the obvious value and immediacy of communication via electric signal, located as it was in a post office on the periphery of the Palais, with operators who could not show themselves to be as loyal as those employed directly by the Assembly.

42If our knowledge of the work of the Chamber’s telephone operators is limited, it was also poorly understood by their contemporaries. There was a drive to obscure the physical infrastructure and the work of the telephone personnel, keeping it from the eyes of the deputies and other members of the administrative staff, in what Susan Leigh Star and Anselm Strauss describe as an ecology of visible and invisible. [89] This drive for obscurity had two distinct origins. The first sprang from the lowly position of employees who were only engaged in tasks that were seen as manual and physical: demanding and skilled, of course, but not requiring intellectual abilities. The second was the hybrid status of staff employed to operate equipment, whose contribution to the organization of work in general was regarded more as the predictable product of a technical process than as the outcome of human activity. [90] The status of the telephone operators was not fundamentally different from individuals in other contexts and other times, such as the “invisible technicians” in scientific research laboratories described by Steven Shapin. [91] As early as the end of the nineteenth century, they foreshadowed those “invisible workers who produce and maintain our information society and its services up to date”. [92]

43Invisible and unrecognized, the telephone operators, in their capacity as information workers, nevertheless deserve a place in the history of collaborative working with elected representatives—in the same way as the staff of the research and documentation department established in 1961, which was responsible for collecting information, providing files, and writing summaries as and when requested by any of the deputies. [93] There is another parallel with the dozen women in the shorthand-typing pool, created in January 1933, to whom the deputies could dictate their personal correspondence, which would then be typed up. [94] Éric Phélippeau, incidentally, saw these women as representing the Questure’s first initiative to provide support to the deputies in terms of human rather than solely financial resources. [95] However, the telephone department archives show that this initiative was underway significantly earlier, and even suggest that the shorthand-typing pool was not created ex nihilo, but developed as an offshoot of the telephone department. In both cases, the deputies could hire the working capacity of an employee on an ad hoc and time-limited basis, in exchange for the payment of a fee to a third party. The case of the Chamber’s telephone operators thus brings an additional element to the genealogy proposed by Phélippeau, showing how, throughout the Third Republic, the deputies’ need for support staff gradually became established within a grey area, quite different from the distinct roles of parliamentary assistant and administrative officer that exist today. The telephone operators were neither wholly associated with the exercise of mandates nor solely assigned to the extra-legislative activities of elected representatives.

44Today, the telephone department as such no longer exists. Telephone reception is assured by the department of parliamentary logistics, while the maintenance of its infrastructure is mainly handed over to service providers. Presumably the department was dismantled towards the end of the 1970s. [96] At that time, three successive innovations led to a reorganization of the division of parliamentary labor, in the context of reforms that sought to increase the deputies’ power. Firstly, in 1974, they were provided with private offices within the precincts of the Palais Bourbon, equipped with the resources appropriate to their role, including a personal telephone. [97] In 1976, with the introduction of parliamentary assistant contracts, they were assigned personal aides, whose presence within the walls of the Palais was accepted by the Questure. Many of the deputies chose to install these aides in their new offices rather than in their constituencies, so as to be able to delegate tasks associated with their legislative work. [98] Finally in 1977, a direct dialing system enabled external callers to reach telephone numbers throughout the Palais without going through the switchboard. [99] In this final transformation, the Questure chose to transfer calls for deputies to their respective offices, thereby switching telephone secretarial duties from civil service staff to the parliamentary assistants. [100] This brought about the disappearance of a single collective responsibility for telephone services in favor of a pluralized and individualized responsibility, although it continued to remain a delegated activity. [101]


  • [1]
    There are many accounts of these circumstances. For an overview, see Pierre Guiral and Guy Thuillier, La vie quotidienne des députés en France, de 1871 à 1941, Paris, Hachette, 1980, chap. 4.
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    There is evidence for such a use in other contexts, however, notably the commercial sector. See Patrice Flichy, Une histoire de la communication moderne. Espace public et vie privée, Paris, La Découverte, 2004, 120.
  • [3]
    This was the date that the first licence for the operation of urban telephone networks was awarded. See Catherine Bertho, Télégraphes et Téléphones. De Valmy au microprocesseur, Paris, Le Livre de poche, 1981, 196.
  • [4]
    Nicolas Roussellier, Le parlement de l’éloquence. La souveraineté de la délibération au lendemain de la Grande Guerre, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1997.
  • [5]
    Marc Abélès, “Political Anthropology: New Challenges, New Aims”, International Social Science Journal, 49(135), 1997, 319-32.
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    Madeleine Akrich, “The De-Scription of Technical Objects” in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law (eds), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1992, pp. 205-24.
  • [7]
    Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder, “Steps towards an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces”, Information System Research, 7(1), 1996, 111-34.
  • [8]
    The Questure is the office responsible for administrative and budgetary matters relating to the National Assembly and is run by a council of elected members known as quaestors.
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    The key elements of this documentation are gathered in the collection of the General Secretariat of the Questure, shelf numbers 12 P 78 to 12 P 84.
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    13 P 16, “Téléphones de la Chambre des députés”, 1909. For more information on the “Gatulle notes”, see Assemblée Nationale, Petite histoire du Palais-Bourbon par Georges Gatulle, Bordeaux, Elytis, 2011.
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    Patrice A. Carré, “Un développement incertain: la diffusion du téléphone en France avant 1914”, Réseaux, 9(49), 1991, 27-44, esp. 33.
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    13 P 16, 1909. The theatrophone was a popular service until the end of the 1920s. For more on this subject, see Danièle Laster, “Splendeur et misères du théâtrophone”, Romantisme, 13(41), 1983, 74-8.
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    13 P 16, 1909.
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    12 P 79, letter from the Chamber architect to the quaestors, November 1880.
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    Delphine Gardey, Le linge du Palais-Bourbon. Corps, materialité et genre du politique à l’ère démocratique, Lormont, Le Bord de l’eau, 2015, chap. 3.
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    Delphine Gardey, La dactylographe et l’expéditionnaire. Histoire des employés de bureau (1890-1930), Paris, Belin, 2001, 134-6.
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    It should be remembered that in broad terms it was several years before anyone, including Alexander Graham Bell, thought of organizing telephonic intercommunication into a network.
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    12 P 79, 1880.
  • [19]
    13 P 16, 1909.
  • [20]
    13 P 16, 1909, p. 6 ff.
  • [21]
    12 P 78, decree of the Questure, 13 January 1882.
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    Hervé Fayat, “Le métier parlementaire et sa bureaucracie”, in Guillaume Courty (ed.), Le travail de collaboration avec les élus, Paris, Michel Houdiard, 2005, pp. 29-48, esp. 37.
  • [23]
    Delphine Gardey, Le linge du Palais-Bourbon, 147-50.
  • [24]
    In the sense described by Anselm Strauss as “a kind of supra-type of work” (Anselm Strauss, “Work and the Division of Labor”, The Sociological Quarterly, 26(1), 1985, 1-19, esp. 8).
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    For information about the lithography department, see shelf number 13 P 11.
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    Julien Le Magueresse, Répertoire numérique détaillé des archives du Secrétariat général de la questure. Notes historiques (1899-1945). 13 P 1-75, National Assembly, library and archives department, July 2010.
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    For the information systems department, its duties, and issues around its performance, see Jonathan Chibois, “Du logiciel libre pour l’Assemblée nationale: liberté du code versus liberté des usages”, in Camille Paloques-Berges, and Christophe Masutti (eds), Histoire et cultures du Libre. Des logiciels partagés aux licences échangées, Framabook, 2013, accessed 13 March 2018,
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    Virginie Julliard, “Une ‘‘femme machine’ au travail: la ‘‘demoiselle du téléphone’”, Quaderni, 56, 2004, 23-32.
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    12 P 78, “Rapport de l’année, 1919”. In fact, salaries for the Chamber’s telephone operators were based on those of the more senior exchange operators. These women were graded as employees (rather than auxiliary staff) of the Post, Telegraphs and Telephones (PTT) administration, which brought them a range of benefits.
  • [30]
    Over the years, the Palais Bourbon was successively or simultaneously connected to a number of exchanges, including Opéra and Wagram, although Gutenberg seems to have been the principal among them.
  • [31]
    Delphine Gardey, La dactylographe et l’expéditionnaire, 6-7.
  • [32]
    Susan Bachrach and Jean-Michel Galano, “La féminisation des PTT en France au tournant du siècle”, Le Mouvement Social, 140, 1987, 69-87.
  • [33]
    Delphine Gardey, Le linge du Palais-Bourbon, chap. 7.
  • [34]
    Chantal de Gournay, “Paris boude le téléphone”, Réseaux, 9(49), 1991, 61-71.
  • [35]
    As calculated by the author, on the basis of 500,000 calls between 604 deputies in 1928 and 80,000 between 613 deputies in 1920.
  • [36]
    Jean-Louis Briquet, “Notabili e processi di notabilizzazione nella Francia del diciannovesimo e ventesimo secolo”, Richerche di storia politica, 15(3), 2012, 279-94.
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    12 P 81, “Communications interurbaines du 22/07/1936 au 18/06/1937”. Average estimated by the author, using all the billed units for the period, calculated on the basis that each unit represents a three-minute call.
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    12 P 81, “Note concernant les communications téléphoniques interurbaines demandées par MM. Les Députés non abonnés au téléphone, de leur domicile et n’ayant pas de compte ouvert à l’Administration des téléphones”, 11 May 1894.
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    12 P 78, “Rapport sur la gratuité des communications interurbaines”, 30 January 1929; 12 P 82, “Extrait du tarif des abonnements téléphoniques”, May 1929.
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    12 P 78, “Graphique des communications téléphoniques de toutes natures (1882-1924)”, 17 March 1924;
    12 P 78, “Rapport de fin d’année 1928”, 8 January 1929.
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    Catherine Bertho, Télégraphes et téléphones, 268-9.
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    Catherine Bertho, Télégraphes et téléphones, 316.
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    Olivier Costa and Éric Kerrouche, Qui sont les députés français? Enquête sur des élites inconnues, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2007, 107 ff.
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    Pierre Guiral and Guy Thuillier, La vie quotidienne des députés, chap. 4.
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    12 P 78, “Graphique des communications téléphoniques de toutes natures (1882-1924)”, 17 March 1924. Photographic credit: National Assembly, Communications department.
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    12 P 78, 31 December 1916.
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    12 P 78, letter from the quaestors to members of the Bureau (the Assembly’s executive board), 7 March 1902.
  • [48]
    12 P 78, “Rapport de l’année 1916”, 31 December 1916.
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    Madeleine Akrich, “The De-Scription of Technical Objects”.
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    Patrice Flichy, Une histoire de la communication moderne, 119.
  • [51]
    Hervé Fayat, “Le métier parlementaire et sa bureaucracie”.
  • [52]
    12 P 78, “Rapport à MM. les Questeurs”, 10 May 1890.
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    12 P 78, “Rapport de fin d’année 1914”, 16 January 1915.
  • [54]
    Éric Treille, “Écrire par délégation. Pratiques d’écriture des assistants parlementaires de députés socialistes [Political Ghostwriting: Writing Practices of Parliamentary Assistants of Socialist MPs]”, Mots: Les langages du politique, 85, 2007, 97-106.
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    Marc Abélès, Un ethnologue à l’Assemblée, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2001, 139.
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    Philippe Mallein and Yves Toussaint, “L’intégration sociale des technologies d’information et de communication: une sociologie des usages”, Technologies de l’information et societé, 6(4), 1994, 315-35, esp. 317.
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    Catherine Bertho, Télégraphes et téléphones, 231-45.
  • [58]
    Catherine Bertho, Télégraphes et téléphones, 240.
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    Annabelle Boutet and Jocelyne Trémenbert, “Mieux comprendre les situations de non-usages des TIC. Le cas d’Internet et de l’informatique”, Les Cahiers du numérique, 5(1), 2009, 69-100, esp. 88.
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    Vincent Caradec, “‘Personnes âgées’ et ‘objets technologiques’: une perspective en termes de logiques d’usage”, Revue française de sociologie, 42(1), 2001, 117-48.
  • [61]
    André Garrigou, “Vivre la politique: les ‘quinze mille’, le mandate et le métier”, Politix, 5(20), 1992, 7-34.
  • [62]
    Nicolas Roussellier, Le parlement de l’éloquence, 53.
  • [63]
    12 P 78, 7 March 1902.
  • [64]
    12 P 78, “Année 1901”, 2 January 1902.
  • [65]
    12 P 78, 2 January 1902.
  • [66]
    It would be true to say, echoing Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, that it was only a posteriori that the telephone operators recognized the value of the register as a boundary object. See Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”, Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 1989, 387-420.
  • [67]
    12 P 78, “Rapport de fin d’année 1923”, 31 December 1923.
  • [68]
    13 P 16, 1909, p. 35.
  • [69]
    13 P 16, 1909, p. 40.
  • [70]
    12 P 79, “Rapport relatif à l’installation du service téléphonique à la Chambre”, July 1920; 12 P 78, “Rapport de fin d’année 1933”, 9 January 1934; 12 P 78 “Rapport de fin d’année 1925”, 12 January 1926.
  • [71]
    12 P 78 “Constitution des équipes au standard les jours de séance”, 15 November 1920.
  • [72]
    13 P 16, 1909, pp. 25-6.
  • [73]
    13 P 16, p. 26; 12 P 79, “Rapport sur les besoins présents du service de téléphone”, 15 September 1929.
  • [74]
    12 P 78, 30 January 1929; Thierry Renoux, “Les moyens d’action de l’Assemblée”, Pouvoirs, 34, 1985, 76.
  • [75]
    12 P 78, “Exposé du service téléphonique”, December 1900.
  • [76]
    12 P 78, 31 December 1923.
  • [77]
    12 P 78, 31 December 1923.
  • [78]
    12 P 78, “Rapport de fin d’année 1926”, January 1927.
  • [79]
    12 P 40, “Consignes pour les concierges du Palais”, 5 November 1907. The similarity between the concierge and the telephonist in terms of reception duties is demonstrated by the fact that, for a long time, the Chamber’s telephone lines were transferred at night and on Sundays (via special switching arrangements) to the concierge’s lodge at the main entrance in the Cour d’Honneur.
  • [80]
    12 P 78, 2 January 1902.
  • [81]
    12 P 78, 31 December 1923.
  • [82]
    12 P 78, December 1900.
  • [83]
    12 P 78, 31 December 1923.
  • [84]
    12 P 79, “Mise en service du téléphone automatique: utilisation de l’appareil”, 1933.
  • [85]
    12 P 78, 31 December 1923.
  • [86]
    Delphine Gardey, La dactylographe et l’expéditionniare, 182.
  • [87]
    For example, a short newspaper sketch of November 1925 features a telephone conversation between a deputy at his home and a Chamber usher: Adrien Vély, “Ingrate patrie!”, Le Gaulois, 29 November 1925.
  • [88]
    For example, Madeleine Campana’s autobiography contains a few lines referring to the priority given to calls requested by deputies (Madeleine Campana and Jacques Jaubert, La demoiselle du téléphone, Paris, J-P Delarge, 1976, 23).
  • [89]
    Susan Leigh Star and Anselm Strauss, “Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work”, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 8(1-2), 1999, 9-30.
  • [90]
    Or–to follow Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar–the telephone operators, as the interface between the human and non-human elements in the cooperative network governing the Chamber’s use of telephones, could not have any place other than within the black box enclosing its operation. See Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Beverley Hills, Sage Publications, 1979, chap. 2.
  • [91]
    Steven Shapin, “The Invisible Technician”, American Scientist, 77(6), 1989, 554-63.
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    Jérôme Denis and David Pontille, “Workers of Writing, Materials of Information”, Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 6(1), 2012, 1-120, esp. 3. (English translation at, accessed 16 March 2018:
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    Claude Gibel, “L’évolution des moyens de travail des parlementaires”, Revue française de science politique, 31(1), February 1981, 211-26, esp. 221.
  • [94]
    2016-050/5, “Organisation d’un service nouveau de sténo-dactylographie à l’usage de MM. les Députés pour leur correspondence parlementaire”, January 1933; 2016-050/6, “Répartition par service des cadres et effectifs”, September 1946.
  • [95]
    Éric Phélippeau, “La formalisation du rôle d’assistant parlementaire (1953-1995)”, in Guillaume Courty (ed.), Le travail de collaboration avec les élus, 63-80.
  • [96]
    It is difficult to be certain on this point, since most of the parliamentary administration archives for this recent period are not currently available for consultation.
  • [97]
    14 P 58, letter of 10 February 1978.
  • [98]
    2005-034/50-51 (consulted with special permission), letter of 31 March 1976.
  • [99]
    Claude Gibel, “L’évolution des moyens de travail”, 216.
  • [100]
    As confirmed by Thierry Renoux, “Les moyens d’action de l’Assemblée”, note 7.
  • [101]
    I am very grateful to the archivists of the National Assembly for their solicitude and their patience in responding to my questions during this research. I would also like to thank Valérie Schafer and Jérôme Denis for their constructive comments on the first draft of this article.

This article deals with the transformation of the profession of MPs in France during the Third Republic, caused by the installation of the telephone and the creation of a service in charge of its operation at the Palais Bourbon, since 1881. The analysis of the historical archives of the Chamber's quaestors shows that, due to various constraints, the appropriation of this means of communication was singular: it took the form of a delegated use. Instead of phoning by themselves, MPs progressively unloaded their calls on the telephonists, usher in a new dividing up of parliamentary work. The formalization of MPs' telephone use then illustrates the rationalization of French parliamentarism at the beginning of the 20th century.


  • Telephone
  • MPs
  • Parliament
  • Third Republic
  • Infrastructure
  • Administration
Jonathan Chibois
Currently finishing his doctoral thesis in political anthropology at EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), Jonathan Chibois is working on the material infrastructures of state power, studying the information systems of the French National Assembly. His publications include “Twitter et les relations de séduction entre députés et journalistes: la salle des Quatre Colonnes à l’ère des sociabilités numériques”, Réseaux, 188(6), 2014, 201-28. Since 2011, he has maintained an academic blog on the Hypothèses platform, <> (Institut interdisciplinaire d’anthropologie du contemporain (IIAC), EHESS, CNRS UMR 8177, 105 Boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris, <>).
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