Electing to Forget History? The Politics of Immigration in the French Presidential Campaign

News Abroad

Ms. Lewis is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, where she teaches in the history department. Her book The Boundaries of the Republic: Migrant Rights and the Limits of Universalism in France, 1918-1940 will be published by Stanford University Press in late May.

If Nicolas Sarkozy is elected president of France on May 6, as polls suggest, he will be the first child of an immigrant to hold that honor. One would hardly know it. Although Sarkozy does not hide the fact that his father emigrated from Hungary, neither does he flaunt his background. The former interior minister is much better known for his uncompromising stance toward less fortunate sons of immigrants in France’s impoverished suburbs. The contrast to an American figure like Barack Obama is striking: Obama has made his father’s African heritage central to his own identity and message of optimism. Despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric common in American politics today, there is still a profound connection between our national story and that of immigration. We are a nation of immigrants, even if scholars such as Samuel Huntington wonder who “we” are becoming as a result.

French citizens may not personalize the immigration story the way Americans do, but the present electoral campaign nonetheless proves they are asking themselves similar questions: What makes a French citizen French? How can immigrants become French? On what basis may they be excluded? For all their differences, both Sarkozy and his socialist opponent, former government minister Ségolène Royal, have aimed to capitalize on these concerns. Possibly seeking votes from the extreme right, Sarkozy has called for an “immigration choisie”—a careful selection of a “chosen” few—which his detractors claim is merely a euphemism for discriminatory “quotas.” Even more controversially, in March he announced his desire to create a “ministry of immigration and national identity,” a move Royal quickly condemned as a scare tactic calculated to “conflate immigration and the threat to national identity.”

Yet Royal has trumpeted French identity herself, calling on citizens to display the flag in their homes and promising she’ll “see to it that the French know the Marseillaise.” Cynics accuse her of drawing as readily as Sarkozy on the cultural politics of the anti-immigrant demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has grandstanded on such questions as whether the famously diverse French soccer team knows the words to the national anthem. Indeed, prior to being eliminated in the first round of elections on April 22, the centrist François Bayrou claimed he was the only candidate who did not suffer from an identity “neurosis.” To Bayrou, Royal’s “obsession” with the flag is “American.”

This sparring over symbols highlights anxieties about French identity but does not address their source. To understand the origins of France’s present crisis, we must evaluate both the immigrant experience in all its historical complexity, and the more recent republican rhetoric that obscures that history.

That rhetoric dates to the 1980s, when Le Pen’s National Front (FN) party made dramatic gains in elections. Scholars and mainstream politicians alike tried to undercut the FN’s anti-immigrant platform by appealing to France’s tradition of civic, rather than ethnic, identity. Accordingly, early studies of immigration often focused more on the motors of assimilation than on agents of social differentiation. To discuss the latter, Le Pen’s opponents thought, would have meant falling into his trap. But in offering visions of the unitary republic as a counterpoint to the FN’s divisiveness, republicans fell into a different trap: Imagining they could make France whole again by insisting it always had been.

In fact, the republic has never been monolithic in its treatment of immigrants. The present discourse on immigrant integration would benefit from the recognition of this deeper historical context. Long before the boom years after the Second World War led many European states to recruit temporary workers, France established Europe’s first de facto guest-worker system. The First World War had just ended, and French industry, already reliant on immigration before the war, now faced the grim fact that about 1.5 million men had died and almost as many were permanently disfigured in the prime of their working lives. As in any guest-worker system, authorities expected workers to come on temporary contracts, receive guaranteed wages, and soon return home. Egalitarian in conception, the program was instituted through bilateral treaties that reproduced the uneven power relations prevailing within Europe and its colonial empires. Migrants from “friendly” states obtained rights as guest workers that others, including stateless refugees or subjects from French colonies, did not. A class of “most-favored foreigners” was born.

In the 1930s, full employment gave way to spiraling unemployment, and French citizens pressured the government to send the “guests” home. Yet the very effort of enforcing guest-worker policy had the perverse effect of exposing the limits of state control. For one thing, most-favored foreigners stretched their claims for rights beyond the workplace to the unemployment compensation bureau. Ceding to pressure from treaty states, local officials looked for other beneficiaries to cut. As a result, increasing numbers of European immigrants gained access to social rights identical to those that citizens enjoyed, while North Africans—including Algerian French nationals—were often among those excluded from such social welfare programs and encouraged to “volunteer” for repatriation. In today’s France, the beneficiaries of these policies are seen as “model” immigrants who willingly integrated, but it was also the state that integrated them, by incorporating them into the French social contract, which in turn allowed many to resist deportation.

Unemployment offices were not alone in responding to the depression with new forms of discrimination. Police, called upon to identify and force out all illegal immigrants, inevitably targeted some more than others. Disturbed by such inconsistent repression, the central government sought to expand its own control over policy implementation. Far from correcting the inequalities in treatment occurring at the local level, however, it codified those aberrations. Publicly maintaining guest-worker policy, the government issued confidential memoranda to local authorities decreeing multiple exceptions to it. In articulating priorities about who deserved exceptions and who did not, government officials turned France’s guest-worker regime on its head—favoring those families and nationalities they deemed stable and rooted, while making pariahs of the single, mobile men whom France’s migration policy ostensibly had been designed to attract.

This new calculus of privilege and prejudice was temporarily jettisoned in the lead-up to the Second World War, when a new national security agenda led to a broad-based crackdown on foreigners. But after the war, interwar improvisations emerged as official policy: some migrants were invited to work, and thus limited to temporary residency rights, while longer-term residency was granted to those deemed suitable for “privileged” status—now official policy lexicon—as permanent settlers. This two-track model remained intact until 1974, when France closed its doors to legal labor migration. Yet its effects linger, not least in the quality of housing in which the descendants of the less-privileged migrants now live. Even Royal’s proposals for legalizing the status of undocumented aliens, while far more liberal than her opponent’s, still bear an uncanny resemblance—in their preference for immigrants who can demonstrate French family ties or long-term residency—to the forms of discrimination that first emerged between the wars. Sarkozy’s rhetoric is even more reminiscent of the 1930s: on April 24, he denounced a proposed left-wing electoral alliance as a “common front of hatreds, intolerance, and sectarianism”—language echoing the right’s diatribes against the anti-fascist Popular Front coalition in another era of political uncertainty.

Many assessments of France’s current social crisis fail to consider its historical antecedents. Few commentators want to name the problem. Instead they presume that the republic offers a level playing field and that anyone who cannot play is simply not interested in the game. Yet the same republican institutions that aided immigrant inclusion also constituted, for some migrants, agents of exclusion. It is no accident that, aside from cars (symbols of mobility that nonetheless provide no real way out of the slums), the targets of anger among the second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants in recent years have been public buildings—such as schools, police precincts, train stations, or community gymnasia. Politicians such as Sarkozy construe these attacks as denigrations of the republic. But this mistakes consequence for cause. Instead, we might read such attacks on state institutions as calls to be let into the republic more truly and fully, to be counted as part of France’s “us.” Whoever becomes president next Sunday could begin an overdue process of national reconciliation by acknowledging the republic’s hidden history of inequality.

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Jason Blake Keuter - 5/3/2007

for those anxious to refute any of the following on trifling and petty grounds, please be advised that my keyboard is malfunctioning, so i cannot type capital letters.

this article points to an important fact about the european welfare state as a 'model' leftists employ to deride what's left of laissez-faire capitalism and individual liberty in the u.s;

namely, that the european welfare state model can only survive with immigrants in the future; but, more importantly, could only come into being on the backs of guest workers in the past. in other words, if one were to include africans, turks and north africans in assessments of the delivery of all the great things promised by the welfare state. if one wishes to criticize european racism, one must accept the death of the welfare state - and generally, the most adament critics of racism are also the greatest proponents of the welfare state. well, many libertarians and conservatives are adament critics of racism, but no one believes them.

were 'citizenship' easy to maintain, then all of the non-european workers who pay all the taxes but don't get many of the benefits would get the benefits. the end of racism, would thus dry up the welfare state teat. in other wrods, it would shrink the benefits of 'european' beneficiaries. thus, welfare state advocates rely on the racism they denounce in order to perpetuate the system they pretend works in the interests of 'justice'; in point of fact, it is a system built on exploitation and racism. nothing better dramatizes the racist foundation of the welfare state than the non-whites of the banlieus beating up the 'french' university students protesting liberalized labor laws that would take away cuhsy job guarantees that only those college students have a chance of getting.

so lay off sarkozy who represents the only chance france has to wean itself off of the welfare state and put an end to the fundamental reinforcer of pan-european racism. if you lay into sarkozy, you need to lay into statists in general. further, you need to face the facts of history, which say that the welfare state model in europe is a model of racist, economic exploitation.

George Robert Gaston - 4/30/2007

One should remember. When In 1958, Charles de Gaulle came to power and formed the 5th Republic, it was through what was essentially a military coup de état. Those generals who helped overthrow the 4th Republic aimed to fully integrate Algeria as a part of metropolitan France. The Algerian independence movement had been defeated. Ahmad Bin Balla’s release from a French prison to become the first president of Algeria speaks to the extent of that defeat.

In the end, De Gaulle would have none of it. He and other conservatives likely saw Algerian independence as the easiest methods of limiting North African immigration into European France.

Given the historical economic and social integration of France and its African colony, the act of divesting France of its Algerian Colony was considered a radical, if not disloyal act by a large number Frenchmen living in both Europe and Algeria, and also started what amounted to a small scale insurgency within France that lasted well into the 1960’s. In a sense, De Gaulle seemed to be willing to risk turmoil at home to limit the greater social and economic turmoil that may have been the result of unlimited Algerian immigration.