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The vicious French debate about migrations and national identity : some of its background reasons

dimanche 12 septembre 2010


(This an expanded version of a speech delivered in September, 2009, in Prag. On the same theme in French one can read

The theme of our debate today is quite large, so you can understand I won’t be able to touch all the topics concerned by the title of this « speech ».

To start with, I’ll give you some basic data which may be useful for our discussion.

France is a country of 64 million inhabitants today. Among these 64 million roughly 28 million, so a bit less than half of the population, are considered as potentially « active ».

At least 14 million people can be included in the working class as opposed to the 150 000 capitalists who hire more than 10 people. (For more details see « Classes and social categories in France », p. XX )

So today, France is an industrially advanced country, where the majority of the labour force works in the services sector or in the industry.

But this phenomenon is quite recent, historically speaking, because French farmers, countrymen and crafstmen have resisted very strongly to the industrialisation process (for more details see the text p. XX « Some reflections about the French working class »).

This is why migrations have played an important economic, social and political role in France, for 150 years.

Why have migrations been so important in French history ?

Several reasons can be pointed out :

- one of the results of the 1789 French revolution was the increasing number of small farmers, thanks to the dismantling of part of the big estates. As they wanted to keep their land, the farmers started, from the end of the late 18th century to « produce » less children, in order not to be obliged to split the land they owned or they had gained after the Revolution ;

- farmers and countrymen refused to come and work in the factories ; some sectors like the textile industry developed the practice of giving work to farmers living on the countryside, but this « home-made industry » could not work for the mines, and the big production units of the textile or metal industry ; some farmers accepted to work part of the year in a factory, and the rest of the year on their land ; but this did not fit either the necessities of a growing capitalist industry ;

- the State (specially Napoleon III who reigned between 1851 and 1870, in the second part of the 19th century), but also all Republican regimes from 1870 until the 5th Republic of De Gaulle which started in 1958, the State wanted to use the farmers and countrymen as a force to preserve law and order and social conservatism.

So capitalists, bourgeois politicians and the State accepted to « import » very early, I mean in the 1830s already :

- first a significant amount of qualified workers from Germany and Belgium,

- then, a bit later, they started importing non-qualified workers first from Europe (Spain, Italy, Poland), more or less until the First World War ;

- then after the First World War they imported workers from North and West Africa – from the French colonial empire –,

- later from Portugal (specially after the Second World War) and also from other parts of the world which belonged (like Vietnam) or did not belong to the French Empire (like China, and Turkey).

And this process still goes on today.

So what shoud be clear from the very start of our discussion, is that

1. It’s impossible to separate French national history from the history of migrations. Such a point of view is not linked to the fact that migrants have always been the poor and innocent « victims » of « bad » or « greedy » bosses – which they have been. Migrants played a central role in the definition of French national identity, the definition of the French Republic, the French Empire, the French school system, etc.

It’s only in 1851 that the French State starts collecting data about the foreign population living in France : 381 000 foreigners in a country of 38 millions inhabitants. And it’s between 1880 and 1900 that the immigration « problem » irrupted in the public debate.

2. It’s difficult to talk of migrations in a very general way. A German craftsman arriving in France in the 1830s, was not in the same situation as an Italian farmer arriving in 1850, a Russian Jew trying to escape antisemitism in 1890, an Algerian soldier of the French Empire arriving in 1914, a Vietnamese student arriving in 1925, or a Senegalese teacher coming in 2009.

Not only because obviously the periods are different but because each national group has had its own tools, associations, ways of dealing with xenophobia and racism and ways of struggling alonside French workers.

The booklet I gave you includes an excellent article about the history of Chinese migrations, and 2 texts about African, West Indian and North African migrants. These last 2 texts cover only part of the problems faced by the different categories of migrants, mainly the questions of racism and the rise of islam but many other points could be raised to have a more complete picture of the living conditions and, above all, of migrants struggles. Because, after all, it’s their struggles which primarily interest us as revolutionaries.

I’ll try now to explain how historically the themes of our debate have been interacting for the last 130 years.

The Third Republic is the starting point if we want to study this close relationship between migrants and the construction of the French nation state.

The Third Republic starts in 1870. From the beginning it wants to definitively integrate the workers and peasants inside the national state, to evade a second Commune. To accomplish this aim, the political power will develop all the necessary means of communication : railways, postal services, roads, etc. But it will develop also the education system : in 1872 there were 43 % of illiterates, only 10 % in 1914. This give you an idea of the efforts which were mobilized by the State.

The Republican primary school taught the love of the fatherland, the hate of the Prussians (the Germans), the idea that European civilisation was superior to the mores of the « savages » living in the French colonial empire.

The development of the press played a significant role both in constructing (and therefore often manipulating) a public opinion and in feeding nationalist, antisemitic or racist prejudices. The newspapers started using ordinary events (crimes, agressions, murders) to play on the fear of delinquance, to promote the necessity of a strong state, to condemn so-called marginal people.

When the newspapers dealt with politics it was only through the denounciation of a corrupted politician. They pretended to defend the interests of the cheated elector, or the robbed tax payer. The press was contributing to forge new popular mentalities.

The working class press and socialist parties started to present their own vision of society and this created a dividing line between the wage-earners and non-wage-earners, between the workers and the small bosses, a dividing line which was not so strong before in the craftsmen and skilled workers world.

The traditional petty bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers and craftsmen felt threatened by the development of capitalism (because of the development of numerous general stores) and were specially afraid by the socialist movement. So they created their own professional associations.

The capitalist class also organized itself better and created important bosses associations at that time.

The end of the 19th century is also a period which sees the birth of a new category of intellectuals : the experts. The complexity of the management of the public affairs and the intervention of the State in economic and social problems required the help of specialists. And these specialists will play a decisive role as regards the definition of migration policies, specially after the First World War. They were the ones who both discovered the crisis of natality and promoted the « importation » of foreign workers. They refused to use racial or ethnical criteria (at least openly like Gobineau or Drumont) and pretended to define more scientific norms, therefore making a difference with biological racist theories.

Between 1886 and 1914 there are around 1,2 million oforeigners in France, the 2/3 of them being Belgian and Italians. The Italians will stay the first foreign community in France until the 1950s. New minorities also appeared like the Russians and the Algerians, at that period.

All these foreign workers answered to the lack of manpower in the building industry, mines, metal industry, etc. They also enabled a part of the farmers and countrymen, who otherwise would have been obliged to go and work in factories, to get a whole range of municipal and local State jobs.

This foreign presence on French soil often provoked conflicts : local demonstrations against Belgian or Italian workers, physical fights and even strikes for the expulsion of foreigners, in the North, the Southeast and the East (Lorraine region), in sectors like the mines, building industry and old crafts.

These conflicts and events were used by the press which promoted the fear of the foreign spy, denounced political criminality (the anarchists) and social criminality (the socalled nomads, both Roms and workers still wanting to enjoy some freedom of movement).

The political rhetoric in favor of law and order used these local incidents, as the journals presented the foreigner as a spy, an anarchist, a criminal, a traitor and somebody who was stealing jobs from the French. The newspapers also ridiculed the colonized people and to the (internal) agressor/victim rhetoric, they added the (external) civilised/savage opposition.

In this situation, the Left was not courageous and principled enough to defend foreign workers because it would have meant to face a strong working class nationalism, so the socialists more and more struggled to « protect the national workforce ».

During the years 1889/1893 the State decided to count and register better the presence of foreigners in France but also established a link between their stay and their job.

An important debate was launched about French nationality : the 1870 defeat against Germany underlined the necessity of having a universal draft system. Therefore 1 million foreigners were made French before 1914. This definitely made the link between the notions of citizenship, the competition created by foreigners on the labour market and French nationality.

The Third Republic promoted assimilation but rejected the foreigners, the « barbarians » who were threatening the French nation and also rejected the colonial people, the « savages » because they were « big children ».

Discriminatory measures were taken by socialist municipalities to limit the numbers of foreign workers employed by companies contracted for public markets.

Several laws forebad foreigners to be trade union delegates, to create associations, etc. A new specialised police service was invented to register and watch the foreigners . Special files were created.

As an MP declared at that time, « a well-organised, well-regulated society can’t ignore the nationality of its members ».

The Dreyfus affair played an important role in the political transformation of religious antisemitism into a new form of racism. The old Christian antisemitism was a religious one. When it became a political ideology, it assimilated the Jew to a foreigner, a man without fatherland, a cosmopolitan banker, a nomad, etc.

In 1912, laws are also passed against the nomads expressing the hate and fear of the Roms in the countryside.

The First World War marks a second essential transformation in the history of migrations  : the Republican state decides to control them and puts an end to its former liberalism. It’s no more the journalists and politicians who play the first role, and shape the public opinion, but it’s the specialists.

In 1914, 45 000 foreigners are arrested and thrown into « concentration camps », many are attacked in the streets, shops owned by foreigners are looted by angry mobs, etc.

The Socialist minister Albert Thomas decides to impose a strict selection of foreign manpower. He understands that mass immigration is vital for the French economy in the war period.

225 000 colonial people are brought to work in France during the First World War. And 480 000 « indigènes » are recruited as soldiers for French imperialism.

This is the first massive contact in continental France between the « Whites », the « Blacks », the « Arabs » and the « Yellows » as they were named. The colonial workers are closed into military camps, controlled by supervisors who often belong to the colonial troups. Even if some strikes are organised against these new colonial workers, what seems to preoccupy the cops is more the « insolence » of these workers and the fact that they participate to strikes. The official national ideology was at that time very hostile to the mixing of races (« métissage ») and some politicians started to regret the arrival of these workers as romances flourished with French women…

During the 1920s 2 million foreigners plus 100 000 colonial workers (mainly Algerians) setted in France, making of France the first country in the world for its immigration rate.

The special Identity Card created in 1917 for the foreigners became the base of the whole migration control system. The difference between legal and illegal immigration introduced in 1893 was institutionalised.

The bosses of the big industries who were hostile to the State control and its regulation of the labour market discovered it oriented the migrant flows according to their needs. The State allowed them to massively recruit for the agriculture and heavy industries through the services of a special private company which toured different countries to recruit.

The debate started among the experts about the virtues and flaws of « European » and « non European » migrants. Apart from the traditional hidden racist arguments there were also 2 political ones : the French colons wanted « their » underpaid workers back, and the presence of colonial people on the continent may give them bad ideas. So a special North African police was created to « help » and watch them.

A huge bureaucracy developed in all the ministries in order to manage the migration flows.

The debate about assimilation continued and it’s funny to note that the Left criticized the State for having favoured Polish religious and national culture in the immigration to produce scabs. A good example of the traps of multiculturalism !

Lawyers, doctors, health specialists all wanted to have their word in the discussion. And all talked of « inferior races », unassimilable, uncivilised, primitive foreigners, etc.

The French CP had a radical langage for a few years, both anticolonialist and defending the miners, farm workers, building workers, etc. But most qualified workers , foremen and supervisors being Franco-French he did not attract a significant layer of migrants.

In 1924 a new law was passed by the Left to protect « national labour » and fees were given to those who were fired and stayed in France without work permit.

In 1927 a new law about naturalisation was adopted because of the population deficit. The rights of the newly naturalised French were restricted (i twas impossible for example to work in the public service). The Socialist Party approved it.

1931-1932 marks the begining of the crisis, with a certain delay.

450 000 foreign workers left France and unemployment rose very quickly.

A strong difference appeared between the big bosses who were in favour of migration and the small petty bourgeoisie who was hostile to it.

It ignored the fact that the war enabled to introduce taylorism in the industry, to force foreign workers to work in the agriculture and heavy industry, sectors which were not appreciated by Franco-French workers. The qualified working class benefitted from this system, were integrated in the Republican State, supported by the Socialist Party and its trade union, the CGT.

The years 1934-1939 saw the development of strong xenophobic feelings in the popular classes hit by the crisis.

Meanwhile the State repression had more and more sophisticated tools to control the migrants. In 1935, the central foreigners archives regrouped 1,6 million files. It was the biggets foreigners archive in the world.

The State expelled many illegal foreigners, including migrants who were married with Frenchwomen

Between 1931 and 1936 140 000 Polish workers were expelled.

To defend themselves and survive, many foreigners tried to stay and created small business. This new competition radicalized to the right, the shop keepers and craftsmen, but also the doctors, lawyers, law and medicine students

1936 saw an important general strike mobilizing 1,8 million workers. The teachers, postmen, railway workers, workers of the State sector in general did not participate to the movement even if they were the most syndicalized. That’s where the labour force was less qualified, among the sectors employing a high proportion of migrants (heavy industry, mecanical construction, textile) that one saw the biggest mobilizations. According to the excellent historian Noiriel, the migrants supported the Popular Front and the CP. And the CP was the main agent of their integration into French society from the 1930s to the 1960s.

But I have some doubts when he writes at the next page that in october 1937 the Left reinstored administrative controls to limit the Algerian immigration ; that the Popular Front did not even have a secretary of State in charge of migrations and adopted no positive measures in favour of the naturalized foreigners who were discriminated. And the Left government trusted Georges Mauco, a demograph which had the same hidden racist prejudices as his right-wing predecessors.

The measures of the Popular front (which were very limited and torn by force to the Left by the factory occupations) provoked the anger and fear of the shop keepers, craftsmen, professionnals and land owners. Hit by the crises, having the impression that the socalled social laws of the Popular front were cancelling or at least reducing the hierarchy between the social groups, the petty bourgeoisie felt afraid, bitter and humiliated.

The different far right groups tried to attract the attention of the middle classes, specially the royalists from « L’Action française », a very antisemitic movement. It combined the defense of catholicism with the idea that the Left was sold to the foreign powers, and that the Jews were « Heimatlos », without fatherland.

The year1938, with the coming world war, saw the growth of the « 5th column » theme, column whose members were obviously the foreign workers. New laws were adopted against illegal workers and imposed fines and even jail condemnations. Associations and newspapers created by migrants and refugees were forebidden.

In 1940, 300 000 Spanish people (over 500 000 who had crossed the frontier) aome back to Spain and 200 000 Italians, that is a forth of them, came back to Italy.

After the Second World War, the migration movements started again as powerful as in the 1920s. In 1975 the proportion of foreigners was the same as in 1931, 6,5 % of the population. And they came for the same reasons as before. French capital lacked labour force in the least attractive sectors of the labour market. In the 1960s and 1970s the factory line jobs were mainly attributed to foreign workers in the car industry and domestic appliances production.

Between 1900 and 1930 migration developed because of the resistance of the farmers and countrymen who did not want to leave their fields. After the Second World War migrations favoured structural changes of the whole labour force.

If between the 2 world wars the governments’ immigration policies blocked the traditional socioprofessional structures and favoured the small agricultural and craft entrepreneurs, after the second world war it accompanied the growth of the wage-earning system : the number of the professionals and high executives was multiplied by 3, the number of employees by 2. And the massive entrance of women on the labour market gave the factories a reserve of labour force which complement the migrants.

On both periods, migrations enabled the French nationals to enjoy a small upward mobility, to get more qualified jobs in the industry and the services. The new migrants, massively coming from the former French colonial empire, have been abandoned by the rest of the working class after the Second World War. And when the oil crisis started in the mid 1970s, they came back to the fore of the political debate, a place they have not left since then.

The new nationality code adopted in 1945 by all the Left and Rightwing parties (including the Communist Party) stated very clealy : « Assimilation must be the basis of all the qualities of a French citizen. »

Such a sentence shows how all political parties were unprepared to the changes which occured in the mid-1970s when immigration was officially stopped, when family regroupment developed and when male workers who had been regularly replaced by their brothers, cousins or neighbours, decided to settle in France. To give an example, between 1956 and 1975 around 50 % of the migrants came back to their native country and did not stay in France more than 2 years.

The Algerians represented an important fraction of the migrant working class and the Algerian War (1954-1962) was a traumatic experience. They became the « internal ennemy » during this period and one can say, in a way, this negative image has never disappeared and is regularly used by the Far Right or even by the Right.

Algerian workers lived in crumbling hostels or slums. The French Federation of the National Liberation Front had 130 000 members in France who gave money for the liberation of Algeria. Between 1962 and 1982 the Algerian immigration jumped from 350 000 people to 800 000. And the progression was the same or even stronger for the Moroccans (from 31 000 to 440 000), the Tunisians (from 26 000 to 190 000) and the Subsaharean Africans (from 17 000 to 157 000 in 1982).

The assimilation problem of immigrants for the State bureaucrats was no more seen as a biological or military problem (lack of loyalty) but as a social problem, a difficult « common life » between « ethnic communities », the danger of racial riots, etc.

New actors appeared in the social field. Many local associations pretended to solve the daily problems of migrants : reading and writing, dealing with the administration, keeping the children busy, helping women to be less isolated or to resist to their husband’s violence, etc. The State as a central agent of social control blackmailed these associations : « If you want to have my money, you have to behave a certain way and propagate a certain ideology. » Locally the political parties who distributed money to these associations also tried to recruit and control the young social workers and animators of these associations.

The late 1970s and early 1980 were also the period of the five-year Sonacotra rent strike (1978-1983) mobilizing 28 000 workers living in bachelors hostels heavily controled by former colonial state employees or militaries.

The 1970s were the worst period for racist violences linked not only to the acts of minute far right of fascist groups but to conflicts between the working classes. At least 70 Algerians were killed between 1971 and 1977.

In these years the Far Left played a decisive role in introducing in the public debate the exploitation of foreign workers, specially the OS (unskilled workers) of the car industry, and in denouncing racism in France. But the Far Left failed both to organize a significant part of these workers and to propagate more than a humanistic rhetoric about racism. Strangely the Far Left efforts rejoined the efforts of the State experts who tried to make the ruling class understand postcolonial migration was radically different from the European migrations and that racism was spreading in France.

The 2 factors could be used in 2 different and contradictory directions. The Right could accept this analysis and reject postcolonial migration to evade « racial riot »s. The Left could denounce the assimilating role of the State and stigmatize ordinary racists. Both happened.

During the 1980s the Communist Party came into deep trouble. Its housing policy, when it managed a municipality, was to find apartments in social housing estates for its electoral clientele : employees in the public service, qualified workers, white collar workers. This led the CP in most of the municipalities to accept less migrants and to oblige the Right to welcome more migrants in its municipalities, something obviously the Right did not want to do. Migrants were not interesting as voters (they could not vote) and as tax payers (they payed little or nothing because they had the lowest wages).

Each period of crisis in French capitalism has produced reactions of rejection against foreigners.

But since the 1980s the pro-nationalist and law and order rhetoric has taken a new face. The Republican Right in order to legitimize its migration policy started to use many political themes raised in May 1968 : it promoted social action and invested a lot of money in working class districts, hailed the respect of migrant identities and cultures, recognized the importance of islam, and even defended the expulsion of migrants in the name of antiracism. It defended secularism and feminist values. It defended migrant women against their brutal, machist husbands. It argued for more « diversity » in the ruling circles and on TV programs. All this evolution of the Right during the last 20 years has been accelerated since Sarkozy is in power, after the 2007 presidential election.

In front of this evolution of the Right, it’s not a working class alternative which appeared in the 1980s and until today but a humanitarian Left. Many organisations like SOS Racisme born in 1982 or the Reseau Education sans Frontières founded in 2004. The question is no more to organize foreign workers along French workers for a social revolution, but to guarantee or expand democratic rights for foreign or illegal individuals.

The crises has had all sorts of effects on the working class. I can only underline here some of them :

-  The crisis has deeply affected the foreign migrants but also the West Indian migrants who are French.
-  The massive appearance of women on the labour market and the disappearance of many jobs based on physical strength have had negative effects for boys. The new service jobs demand « relational qualities » which are not specially praised in the popular classes.
-  The school level asked by bosses is higher.
-  Obviously the crises has hit all society and the Franco-French workers as well. In the social housing estates the Franco-French who remained were lonely women, pensioneers, unemployed people, who did not have the means to buy a little house (a working class dream) or to move to a better building. The massive entrance of new migrants in the social housing estates, specially of Africans, led to a conflict between the Franco-French and the foreigners. The poor Franco-French became a minority in many buildings, in some mini districts and this contributed to push them in the direction of the National Front of the tough Right. This explains why many municipalities managed by the CP for dozens of years are now managed by the Far Right.
-  The transformations in the organization of the factories have also contributed to destroy or weaken all « working class » organisations, specially the trade unions. New forms of management were invented to impede massive strikes. Precarious forms of work were generalized (temp agencies, short term contracts, etc.). The big factories were dismantled and part of the work given to subcontractors who now hire workers for shorter periods. All this intensified the competition inside the working class and specially among Franco-french and foreign workers on the labour market.

The crisis of the Welfare state also contributed to more nationalist reactions inside the popular classes, helping the growth of individualism.

The media and their new social function have also contributed to influence the public opinion through polls and sensationalistic programs about migrations, racism, foreigners, etc. The theme of law and order and security has been massively propagated by the Right through the medias and it has played a negative role for foreigners and migrants, as they are associated to petty crime, rapes, lack of good manners, religious fanaticism, etc. From the 1982-1983 strikes in the car industry which were described as « islamic strike »s to the 2005 riots one has seen the repetition of the same derogatory clichés.

The National Front has been politically benefitting both by the social problems created by the 1975 oil crisis, and the subsequent crises, but also by the images propagated by the TVs and now Internet. Le Pen used the same rhetoric as the Far Right of the 19th century or the fascists of the 20th century but without the violent practices which used to be combined with this written and oral propaganda. So to vote Le Pen appeared as having no dramatic consequences.

Y.C. September 2009, Prag

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