Swans Commentary » swans.com October 4, 2010  



Special Issue on Immigration


Rainbow: The Colour Of France


by Marie Rennard



Pic: "Logement ouvrier immigré" - © 1971 Jean-Claude Seine - Size: 17k

Logement ouvrier immigré,
Trappes, 1971; © Jean-Claude Seine

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(Swans - October 4, 2010)   France has always been a land of immigration. As early as the twelfth century, some corporations, like the ones that gathered bankers, were nearly exclusively composed of foreigners. During the Middle Ages, the country hosted theologians like Thomas d'Aquin, who was Italian, and later, by the time of the Renaissance, various artists like Leonardo Da Vinci settled in the country, welcomed by the kings of the time whose prestige partly relied on them.

One of the most famous prime ministers of the ancien régime, Mazarin, was Italian, and Necker was Swiss.

Most royal marriages implied alliances with foreign countries, and the kings of France were sons of Italian, German, Spanish, or Austrian princesses who enjoyed arts, music, and the theatre -- all fields mainly in the hands of Italian artists.

The royal armies also counted many immigrants since the country couldn't supply enough men to fill the ranks.

This was however a limited immigration, and if peasants from adjacent countries occasionally came to work, they hardly ever definitively settled in France.

The French Revolution in the 18th century was the real starting point of the history of immigration. For the first time, with the creation of the notion of nation-state, the proclamation of equality between all citizens and the notion of jus soli, a difference between French citizens and foreigners was made -- a notable distinction coinciding with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that drained a massive immigration.

The revolutionary movements developing everywhere in Europe attracted workers from Germany around 1820, from Poland after the failure of the insurrections of 1830 and 1863, as well as many persecuted Russian Jews.

The industrialisation movement (textile, railroad, and shipyard) drew immigrants from England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and mostly Belgium, (1) which provided miners who settled in the north of France.

This flow increased again after 1870, and in 1881 France counted one million immigrants -- 3% of her population. Various reasons explain this regular increase. After the 1870 war, the birth rate strongly decreased, the French rural populations moved to towns, and the peasants of neighbouring countries, especially Italy, came to France to escape misery.

In 1900, these Italian immigrants became the most important foreign community in France, working in Paris (bricklayers), (2) the south (Marseille), and the east (steel industry), holding the hardest and most underpaid jobs.

Employers tried to organize the hiring of the foreign workforce, and in 1889 the Third Republic adopted a law to define a "nationality code." The children of foreigners born in France would become French citizens if one of their parents was born in France, and the children of immigrants born in France would be given the French nationality at their majority except if they refused it. Moreover, all children born in France would have to serve in the army.

However, nationalist feelings, arising everywhere in Europe by the end of the 19th century, provoked the first real xenophobic wave in France. Foreigners were accused of disloyal competition, seen as enemies of the "fatherland," or even primitives carrying illnesses. In the north of France, Belgians were regularly attacked -- and everyone still remembers the slaughter of Aigues-Mortes in 1893, when seven Italians were killed by the crowd and fifty severely injured.

These ratonnades (3) became so frequent that the government took measures to control the flow of foreigners. In 1888, they had to be registered at city halls to be allowed to work. After 1893, they were required to carry a feuille de 46 sous, (4) ancestor of the residence permit.

The beginning of the 20th century, La Belle Epoque, saw a period of economic prosperity again, and xenophobic feelings faded away. Many foreigners developed small enterprises or shops, and in 1914, 43,000 foreigners from 52 countries joined the French army for the First World War. Beginning in 1912, the Algerians had to serve in the army. About 172,000 joined the Senegalese fusiliers (5) and the soldiers from Indochina, Morocco, and Madagascar to form the famous "Black Force." Initially the enrolment was voluntary, but the French government soon used compulsory recruitment, provoking rebellions in Algeria and Haute Volta.

As early as 1915, hundreds of Belgians joined French women in the arms factories, and to face the war effort, the government recruited 400,000 foreign workers. Working cards were imposed and the free movement of people abolished.

In 1916, the French army recruited workers for the industry in the colonies: 370,000 men, mainly in North Africa and China.

After four years of a bloody war, France had lost 1.4 million men -- 10% of her active male population -- and needed immigrants again. Their number doubled in thirteen years, reaching 7% of the total population, the highest rate in the history of the country. France, in 1931, ranked first for the number of immigrants, before the U.S. who was closing its borders with the Immigration Act. The French government signed immigration conventions with several European countries, among which, again, Italy, Poland, and (former) Czechoslovakia, and granted salary equity and social protection.

In 1927, a new law was voted to ease access to French nationality. Three years of presence on the territory now opened the path to naturalization when it had been ten previously, and French women who married foreigners were no longer forced to abandon their nationality.

The recruitment of foreign workers became a private affair in 1924 with the Société Générale d'Immigration, which represented employers' interests, and took on 500,000 workers from central Europe -- to which must be added a massive immigration of Algerians, who did not appear in the statistics since they were deemed...French.

The north of France welcomed the Polish; the Russians settled in Paris; the Italians remained faithful to the Lorraine; the Armenians who fled Turkey chose the Rhône Valley.

The year 1932 marked the return to general xenophobia. With the Depression, a new law limited the employment of foreigners. Unemployed workers were deported to their countries of origin, and anti-Semitism grew as Jews from Germany took what they hoped would be safe refuge in France. Under the pressure of medical doctors, lawyers,and musicians, the refugees would, however, be forbidden to exercise these professions.

In 1936, the Front Populaire attempted to change the negative populist currents, but in 1938, under no less than the radical French prime minister Edouard Daladier the "undesirables" were gathered in camps, as well as the Spanish refugees who were fleeing from the (Franco) Nationalist dictatorship.

War again...and again, in September 1939, France recruited 120,000 soldiers from her colonies. The foreigners were the first victims of the defeat at the hands of Germany. The Spanish republicans were sent to Nazi camps; (6) the foreigners forced to work in Germany. In 1940, a decree permitted the internment of foreign Jews, and the French Jews from central Europe were "denaturalized." In 1941, the first trains left France for the concentration camps, and in 1942, at the beginning of the implementation of the "Final Solution," the French government organised the deportation of all Jews, including the French ones.

Immigrants, however, played a decisive part in the defeat of Hitler. Many of them joined the resistance. Spanish, Polish, Italians, who were denounced by the Vichy government -- like the members of the Manoukian cell (7) -- as terrorists and members of the Anti-France were committed to defeating the Germans. As an example, Marseille ended up being liberated by a regiment of Algerians and Moroccans...

After the defeat of Germany in 1945, France, as ever, needed foreign workers to rebuild the country, but this time the government supervised the immigration policy through the National Office for Immigration and passed agreements with several countries that could provide a workforce.

However, the need for workers was so high that until 1974, immigrants reached France without working contracts and fixed their situation after they had obtained a job. By 1968, only 18% of the newcomers had been registered by the Immigration Office. Spaniards were now the major immigrant group, soon exceeded by the Portuguese, who were fleeing the Salazar dictatorship. They totalled 50,000 in 1960, and 750,000 in 1975.

Beginning in 1947, Algerians could move freely between Algeria and France. In 1954, at the beginning of the War of Independence, 200,000 lived in France. After independence, in 1962, Algerian immigrants had increased to 350,000 and 700,000 in 1975.

The majority of the immigrants during the years that spread from the end of WWII to 1975 came from rural populations, and two-third of them worked in industry, under-qualified and underpaid. The lack of housing forced them to gather in workmen's huts or shantytowns surrounding Marseille, Lyon, or Paris. Men came alone first, but soon enough they were met by their families. In the 1950s, the French government launched a housing policy, building transit cities and the shantytowns disappeared during the second half of the 1970s, just before the racist tensions emerged again with the first oil shock.

The first anti-racist law was voted in 1972, the same year Jean Marie Le Pen created his xenophobic Front National.

The economic recession led to the suspension of the welcoming of still much needed permanent immigrants. The Arab community became, after the Italian one in the 1930s and the Jews in the '40s, the latest French scapegoats.

Immigrants were now offered money to go back "home," but few were willing to accept the offer. In Marseille, graffiti read "Kill the Arabs." Within months, 50 of them would be murdered, and only one killer arrested...and merely condemned to a suspended five-year sentence.

Things calmed down in 1976. The immigrants left their shantytowns for wider cities of rent-controlled housing (HLM), known as les cités.

A new wave of immigration from Asia changed the landscape of some areas in Paris. Approximately 18,500 "boat people" asked for the status of political refugees in 1976 -- 45,000 in 2005. The status of refugee became more and more difficult to obtain. As a consequence, the number of irregular immigrants rose faster than ever before.

In the 1980s, the French government decided to reduce the number of new arrivals and to help the cultural integration of regular immigrants, and a wide antiracist social movement rose (e.g., Touche pas à mon Pote [Don't Touch my Pal]). French seem conscious of their history, proud of the richness of their melting pot, and desirous to live together, though the Front National for the first time gathered 14.38 % of the votes at the presidential election in 1988. An epiphenomenon, bloviated the political spheres of that time, still proud of the football team "Blanc-Black-Beur," (8) which won the 1998 World Cup.

Still, immigration (legal or illegal), integration, and racism remain key words in the social and political life of the country. In 2005, France counted 3.5 million foreigners, 40% of them coming from other European countries, 32% from North Africa (the others coming from southeast Asia, Turkey, and black Africa) for a total of 5.7% of the population.

A wide part of the North African community, which faces the strongest racist opposition, lives in cheap, hastily-built cities, and is the victim of poverty, under-education, and unemployment.

Despite their good cultural integration and the highest rate in Europe of mixed marriages, a strong anti-Islamic feeling has been prevailing for the last ten years. The extreme right epiphenomenon gathered almost 18% of the votes at the presidential election in 2002, and has ruled large towns everywhere in the country for more than ten years (e.g., Orange, Marignane, Vitrolles, Toulon, etc.) with 60% of the votes.

In a national context of unemployment, economic crisis, and permanent financial scandal, French president sarkozy is once more using the traditional recipe, seasoned with his personal taste for insecurity: Frighten the people by designing a scapegoat, one who is different, who kills sheep in the bathroom of his low-cost apartment financed by the taxes of poor, white, hard-workers, who fraudulently gets allowances for the children he makes to his several wives, whose innumerable teenager boys drive BMWs paid for with drug deals, and burn the cars of honest people...one whose muezzin possibly calls for the jihad. (9)

We've been reminded this summer that Romas, like Jews or Arabs, also worked as scapegoats. People who refuse to buy houses, to go to school, to get rid of their louse...

People who are French or European citizens, and who did not commit any crime or offence, except their strong refusal of integration.

How did this start? Mid-July of this year, policemen tried to stop a car for an identity check. The driver -- a young Roma aged 22 -- did not stop. A policeman shot him dead.

The next day, his parents and friends attacked the police station of the village and vandalized shops. No doubt the people who did this should be judged -- and an inquiry is on. But the occasion was way too good for President sarkozy, obsessed with clannishness, to provide people a distraction from the corruption affairs that have become the usual titles of French newspapers. He convoked an "emergency committee," his speciality, and claimed everything will be done to put an end to the problems caused by the Romas. Four hundred thousand (second-class) French citizens are offered to the popular prosecution -- hundreds of them sent back to Romania -- a massive voluntary return of an ethnic group illegally made collectively responsible for an isolated act. Bravo!

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, said Twain. The history of immigration in France, at least, rhymes perfectly.


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1.  It is commonly accepted as a fact that white immigrants integrated themselves much more easily than, for example, Africans. This is untrue. French workers hated the Belgians, as well as the Italians, and paki bashing was a very popular way to let off steam.  (back)

2.  See Les Ritals, François Cavanna. "Rital" is the pejorative name French people used to designate the Italians in the 1930s.  (back)

3.  Paki bashing (or violent "bullying" in the U.S.), from the "raton" (small rat), a pejorative way of designating North Africans.  (back)

4.  I.e., the price immigrants had to pay to be delivered the document allowing them to settle in France. The laws relative to immigration have known 35 changes between 1950 and 2010.  (back)

5.  200,000 men, of whom 30,000 died. In 1959, the French parliament decided the pensions given to the former fighters of the colonies would remain at the level of the year of their accession to independence. Fifty years later, in 2006, after the film Indigènes evoked the part played by the colonial troops during WWII, a revalorisation of their pensions was voted.  (back)

6.  5,000 of them died in Mauthausen.  (back)

7.  "If some French loot, steal, commit acts of sabotage, and kill... It's always foreigners who order them. It's always unemployed people and professional criminals who act. It's always the Jews who inspire them. It's the criminal army against France. The brigandage does not represent an upset patriotism; it is the foreign conspiracy against French life and against the sovereignty of France."
Pamphlet written by the Vichy government and handed out by the German authorities to justify the execution of members of the Missak Manoukian's cell of the Resistance.  (back)

8.  Beur qualifies the second (and following) generations of North African immigrants.  (back)

9.  This portrait is quite close to the one that was made of Jews during WWII.  (back)


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Published October 4, 2010