This term describes attitudes and policies that French companies in the19th and early 20th century France had to ameliorate the living conditions of their workers. It was a combination of private sector altruism, self-interest and social control. In an era before national health and retirement programs (and the infamous HLMs) companies had various schemes to improve the lives of their personnel and to change their habits: better hygiene, reduction of alcohol consumption, and help for mothers and children. Part of the goal was to improve production (epidemics were not good for owners or workers) but they also wanted to discourage strikes and atempts by the working class to get laws voted in their favor that were not in the interests of industry. Laws like the one that was passed in 1919 that limited the working day to 8 hours.
Affordable housing was part of that and it took many forms: apartment complexes, barracks, dorms, and houses (single-family or duplexes). Around factories and mines entire complexes were constructed called cités-ouvrières. Here is a short video about one called la Cité Lafarge which was built in two phases - the first in the 1880's and the second in 1913.
I also recommend this article about worker housing in a region of the Maine-et-Loire Department. Same era as above but the housing was constructed around the extractive industries (like mines). One page 3 they talk about single-family housing developments that were built after the First World War. These were clusters of little houses with gardens. This population density (300 houses in one area) made it possible to have the kind of amenities that turns a planned housing development into a community: post office, police station, sports, music, and churches. The companies themselves often organized events for the workers. The article also points out that these communities and companies had an important role in the integration of immigrants: Poles, Czechs, Italians, Spaniards and Moroccans.
As I was reading all of this I had to wonder if I had seen vestiges of this mentality in one of the companies I worked for here in France long ago. It was an old company founded in 1912 and still had a very strong identity when I worked there. My colleagues and the management proudly described it with smiles all around as both paternalistic and franco-française. Looking back, the culture shock was profound (I'd never experienced, or even imagined, anything like it) and yet I think it was very effective in integrating me not only into the company, but also into the larger society.
One of the rules was about speaking French at work which was perfectly normal but at times it was even extended to situations where I was dealing with fellow English speakers. If they spoke any French at all, I was supposed to use French. If they didn't, management used me on several occasions to shame the non-Francophones. "If an American can learn to speak French, then you, ladies and gentlemen, have no excuse." They had high expectations for integration but this was balanced with my sense that they genuinely cared and were willing to help in the process. If integration is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, they made sure that it went down with a spoonful of sugar.
If you have some time to kill (about one hour) this video is very interesting and is the most complete tour of the subject I've found. This is Antoine le Bas speaking about Le logement ouvrier : de l'utopie à la réalité and is available on the Net through the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine. Some great pictures and comments about worker housing in places all around France. Enjoy!
16.Le logement ouvrier : de l'utopie à la réalité par Cite-architecture