In the history or historiography of France, little attention has been paid to the impact and influence of immigrants on the development of the French nation. This differs greatly from America's construction of its own historical development which explicitly acknowledges the role of immigrant communities. It was only really in the 1980s that French historians really began to look seriously at the question of the influence of immigration. This neglect is all the more surprising when one considers that, over the last two hundred years, France has received more immigrants than any other European country. By 1930 in fact, France had a higher percentage of foreigners in its population than the United States.
France's role as a terre d'immigration in the history of migration movements from both within and without Europe has been significant. More often than not, most migration flows into France during the nineteenth century involved migrants from neighbouring countries (les pays voisins or les pays limitrophes like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Poland etc) who were attracted by the opportunities in manufacturing, construction work and agriculture. There was considerable regional variation here: the coal, steel and textile industries were important to Belgiums who crossed the border into north-eastern France whereas, in the south, Italian and Spanish immigrants were attracted by the agricultural work available. Internal population movements from rural to urban were not sufficient to fully meet the labour needs of a France busy industrializing itself. One might argue that mass immigration into France doesn't really begin until the 1850s when the Second Empire's (1852-1870) economic expansion and industrial growth created a demand for labour that could not be met nationally.
This process continued and increased in scale under the Third Republic (1870-1940) during which time France emerged as a major industrial power (it had hitherto trailed behind Britain in terms of its industrialization and remained a predominantly rural and agricultural economy). In 1851 foreigners had only accounted for around 1% of the total population. By the mid-1880s (i.e. in just thirty years) this had increased to nearly 3%.
Both during and after the First World War (1914-1918), France continued to actively recruit foreign workers for its munitions factories (during WWI, of course) and to help resolve its domestic labour shortage once the war had ended. Polish immigrants were particularly numerous and by 1931 represented half of all the foreign workers in the mining industry. Politics played an important role too with many political exiles entering France from Italy (after Mussolini's accession in 1922) and Spain (both during and after the Civil War of 1936-39). There were also smaller numbers of Armenians fleeing Turkish persecution and Russians hostile to the Bolshevik Revolution who began to settle in France in the 1920s. Immigration reached a peak around the early 1930s after which point, economic depression led to a major decrease in the overall number of foreign workers. Some went willingly, in response to a labour market that had contracted and no longer offered the promise of a better life but others were removed by force. In the 1930s the French government went so far as to forcibly repatriate Polish immigrant workers by the trainload.
This decrease in immigration continued until the mid-1950s when, after a poor start, the French government's attempts to recruit an immigrant workforce, began to bear fruit. Some immigrants during the late 1950s and 1960s, in fact, entered the country illegally and were `regularized' ex post facto by a government happy to see the labour shortage improve and foreign workers occupy low-paid jobs that French nationals were reluctant to accept.
In the immediate postwar years the French government recognised the need for immigrants to assist France's economic reconstruction and to offset France's old enemy, la dénatalité française (low population growth). Although there were different opinions as to the nature of France's immigration policy, it was agreed by most that European immigrants were preferable to Africans or Asians. Although no ethnic quotas were specified in the French government ordinance of 2 November 1945 (the basis of France's postwar immigration policy), the newly-established Office National d'Immigration (ONI) only opened recruitment offices in Italy. The problem for ONI was that Italians, and other Europeans with the exceptions of Spaniards and the Portuguese, weren't particularly interested in settling in France. During les trente glorieuses France's foreign population doubled from 1.7 million in 1946 to 3.4 million in 1975. (Hollifield 1994: 147)
Initially French politicians and planners had aimed at meeting France's need for labour by encouraging "culturally compatible" immigrants (i.e. European) to settle in preference to those from the Third World. However, growing levels of prosperity in Europe meant that far fewer Italians, Spaniards, Portugese etc. were attraced to France. The shortfall was met instead by migrants from France's colonies or former colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Differences in living standards amongst European countries had pretty much levelled out after the war (particularly after the creation of the EEC in 1957) thus lessening the demand for what is called intra-European immigration. By contrast, however, there were still considerable disparities in living standards between European countries and those belonging to what is called the Third World, a term used to designate those countries within or near the southern hemisphere characterised by low levels of economic development and immigrants from these countries were numerous.
It is something of a paradox that while most European countries in the postwar period were withdrawing from their former colonies in Africa and Asia and creating closer political and economic links with other European countries, the trend in migration movements as the opposite. France began to receive fewer and fewer immigrants from Europe and more and more from its former colonies in north and Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.
Colonialism created the most effective channel for migration movements into France. As the major colonial power after Britain, France could call on a potential workforce from what is called the Maghreb (North-West Africa: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), certain countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Senegal), Indochina (South-East Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and the DOM-TOM (Départements d'outre-mer and Térritoires d'outre-mer) like Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana (in the Caribbean) and Reunion Island (in the Indian Ocean).
From the middle of the 1950s the Maghrebis (i.e. those from the Maghreb) have been the most significant group of immigrants into France. The vast majority of these were not from Morocco or Tunisia (which were former protectorates of France rather than colonies as such) but from Algeria, the jewel in the crown of the French colonial empire.
Before the Second World War there was minimal Algerian immigration into France. There were a few exception to this: during the First World War, for example, so-called `native' troops were recruited into the French army and thousands more were sent over to relieve the labour shortage in France. They were only recquired temporarily and were repatriated at the end of the war when they became `surplus to requirements'. Between the wars, there was some temporary Algerian immigration to France with the new settlers returning home once they had made enough money to be replaced by another.
The accomodation available to immigrant workers was far from adequate In 1956 the government had up a state-run agency called SONACOTRA (Société Nationale de Construction pour le Logement des Travailleurs) to build hostels for these workers. The aim was not entirely altruistic as it was hoped that the hostels, which were designed mainly with single men in mind, would discourage family settlement. What was different however, about these immigrants from the Maghreb was that, by and large, they had come to stay. In time too, their families would come over and settle in France too. What one witnesses from the 1970s onwards is the so-called féminisation de la population étrangère, or the increase in women from other countries coming over to France to join their husbands or their fathers (family reunification or family settlement).
Throughout much of les trente glorieuses immigration was a marginal issue in French political life. Immigration was largely the business of a few government ministries and agencies in consultation with key employers and trade unions and the governments of the sending countries. During this period immigration was largely depoliticized and seen as an essentially economic matter. Moreover, it was widely assumed that the migrants who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s from North and Sub-Saharan Africa would return home after having earned some money in France and that their residence would be short-term.
By the late 1960s this assumption began to be called into question and by the early to mid-1970s, at least in terms of political opinion and public perception, things began to change. In response to perceived increasing numbers of immigrants entering the country, France began to tighten it immigration policy. The growing economic crisis from the mid-1970s onwards - war in the Middle East and the resulting oil crisis in 1973 led to a recession that hit all major Western economies and which, of course, spelt an end to les trente glorieuses - added impetus to this process. In 1974 the French government officially stopped inward immigration. It was meant to be provisional but by 1977 the ban was made permanent.
Lionel Stoléru, the Minister of State for Immigrant Workers tried to encourage many immigrants to return to their country of origin. He began by offering them financial incentives (l'aide au retour) but these incentives were mainly taken up by Spanish and Portuguese immigrants who were happy to return home after the death of Franco in Spain in 1975 and the fall of Salazar in Portugal in 1968. The invitation was not taken by the real target: the Maghrebis. Stoléru went even further and produced proposals for forced repatriation. These proposals, however, failed to gain full parlimentary support.
There was, however, no ban on European immigrants or asylum-seekers and indeed those in certain professions. The ban, as you might have guessed, was aimed at immigrants from the Third World. The French government tried to ban family reunification under the 1974 ban but this was overturned in 1978 by the Conseil d'État, France's highest administrative court.
Paradoxically, it is after the block on new immigrants from the Third World that they become more and more visible within French society. Whereas, in the past, immigrant workers were often men living in hostels with other immigrant workers separated from the French, more and more were reunited with their families, or started families of their own and began to move into the housing estates and suburbs and working-class neighbourhoods alongside other French families. Unlike earlier generations of immigrants (i.e. the Italians), they were distinguisable by the colour of their skin and other somatic (relating to the body) features and by their religion (Islam rather than Catholicism). They were recognisably different, other and they were here to stay.
Maghrebis were met with far greater hostility than the many immigrants from Indochina (Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian asylum-seekers, the so-called `boat people') as they were considered relative self-sufficient and were valued for their entrepreneurial skills. Moreover, with their attachment to Arab culture (food, dress, music etc.) and to Islam, the Maghrebian community were perceived by many, not least by Jean-Marie Le Pen and his supporters in Le Front national, as a threat to the integrity of French national identity. Perceived as a culturally alien and unassimilable mass, the Magherbis represented, particularly during political flashpoints like the Gulf War, a menace to French society.
Questions began to be raised about the threat to social cohesion that these ethnic minorities were posing, particularly in the increasingly deprived 1972 the sociologist René Giraud articulated the concept of the seuil de tolérance (threshold of tolerance). By this he meant the point at which the numbers of a minority group became too high for social cohesion to be maintained. If, for example, the numbers of minority groups became too high on a suburban housing estate, social unrest and conflict between different ethnic groups would become inevitable. Moreover, any breaching of the threshold of tolerance by minority groups would entail the exodus of members of the dominant groups, inevitably leading to mono-ethnic ghettos. This theory was a flawed one - it did not, for example, specify the precise percentage that would breach the threshold of tolerance - but it was an enormously influential one.
In the space of just a few decades, immigration had gone from being an essentially economic phenomenon to a social problem of the highest order at the heart of political, cultural and religious debates in France. But to what extent do those immigrants, and their children and grand-children, of non-European descent represent a threat to French national identity? Is the `problem' of an apparently unassimilable and culturally alien population really all that new? And what of the immigrants, and their children and grand-children, themselves? How have they coped with living in France? How have they conceived of their own identities?
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