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Broken Mirrors: Race, Historical Memory, and Citizenship in 20th/21st-Century France, 2011
Geoffroy de Laforcade
Norfolk State University

The author is French and teaches at historically black Norfolk State University. In the fall of 2012, he had Tomas Robaina, Gloria Rolando, and Roberto Zurbano up to the US on an academic tour. AfroCubaWeb posts this as part of our efforts to shed light on the differences between racism in countries of interest. And yes, as we all know, American racism is among the most violent, but how does it differ from Cuban racism? Why is it that French and Cuban racism present so many similarities? Prof de Laforcade is also international coordinator of the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente.


This paper examines the ways in which slavery, republicanism and colonialism have impacted approaches to race and citizenship in contemporary metropolitan France. It traces controversies over the past three decades regarding nationality law and the role of immigration in French society, as well as publicly staged attempts to revisit the impact of racism, discrimination, and imperialism in French history, culminating in the current, very contentious policies of selective immigration, massive deportation of undocumented workers, and timid multicultural representation under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.1

1 The author wishes to acknowledge the International Journal of Comparative Sociology (Sage Publications): “‘Foreigners’, Nationalism and the 'Colonial Fracture’: Stigmatized Subjects of Historical Memory in France” 48:3, August 2006; and Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society (Wiley-Blackwell): “Racialization and Resistance in France: Post-Colonial Migrants, Besieged Cityscapes, and Emergent Solidarities” 9:4, December 2006, for the earlier publication of research and text used in this chapter.

In the aftermath of yet another explosion of youth riots in Grenoble in the summer of 2010, the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy unleashed an anti-immigrant political campaign directed not only against postcolonial communities but also the semi-nomadic Roma peoples, who have been massively targeted for expulsion. So fierce is Sarkozy’s attack that it has invited sharp protests from the United Nations committee for the elimination of racial discrimination, the Vatican, the French left, and many moderate forces on the right and center. The French National Commission for Human Rights (Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme: CNCDH) had published an alarming report, earlier in the spring, on the rise of violent racist anti-Semitic acts, against a backdrop of increased crime and delinquency that three years of tough law-and-order policies under Sarkozy had failed to curtail (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1 June 2010). The President, in his “Grenoble speech” on July 30 promised to crack down on insecurity by stripping delinquents and violent offenders of immigrant origin of their French citizenship, expelling entire communities of Roma people whose administrative permits were not in order (despite a European Union regulation that such permits be guaranteed by local authorities), and reviving the national debate on what constitutes “French national identity.” For all of its media-touted extremism and electoral demagoguery, however, the speech was but a reiteration of policy goals consistently pursued by the President since his service as Interior Minister in the 1990s and leader of the conservative movement in the early 2000s.

Following tough laws bearing the President’s name in 2003 and 2006, and one named for his Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, in 2007, a fourth legislative proposal was put forth by Sarkozy’s Minister of Immigration, Integration and National Identity (an ominous title, unprecedented in post-war French history), Eric Besson, in May of 2010. It called for the detention of illegal aliens, including minors, for a period of as long as eighteen months leading up to their expulsion, the curtailment of judges’ rights to defend their liberties against administrative sanctions, a definitive ban on the possibility of return for expelled foreigners, the drafting of a “charter of rights and duties for French citizens” guaranteeing their embrace of existing laws and customs, and the prosecution of French nationals guilty of providing solidarity with, or assistance to illegal aliens (cf. ADDE et al.).

These developments, which represent an escalation of State repression against foreigners, are not altogether new. A public controversy has raged for a quarter of a century in France over the causes of ongoing racist violence, and the perceived threat posed to the fabric of “national cohesiveness” by working-class youths of immigrant origin who are the primary victims of segregation and unemployment in the suburbs of major cities. The stigma of foreignness and dangerousness attached to “second and third-generation immigrants”—expressions designed to brand citizens (usually social outcasts) whose post-war family origins might be traced to individuals not born on the European mainland, yet who often hailed from then-French colonial possessions—has hovered for decades over constitutional and public policy debates. Subjects of contention have included citizenship, nationality, multiculturalism, discrimination, religious freedom, criminality, popular culture and police repression.

Fears of “foreign invasion” and “dissolution” of the imagined cultural homogeneity of France have infused the political discourse of mainstream political parties concerning lived and assigned experiences of “ethnicity.” The excruciatingly tedious public controversy has been entangled in webs of selective amnesia, denial and prejudice, over the role of colonial and postcolonial traumas in the official history of the French republic. Immigration in France emerged as a hot-button political issue first during the Algerian war of decolonization (1954-1962), when North African workers were routinely assaulted by supporters of the right-wing populist leader Pierre Poujade, by neo-Nazis, and by colonialist paramilitary squads of the Organisation de l’armée secrete (OAS). Such attacks echoed fears by the authorities that the slums served as a haven for proindependence revolutionaries. In October 1961, the acting police prefect of Paris (and former Nazi collaborator) Maurice Papon ordered a curfew on Algerian French citizens, prompting mass demonstrations that resulted in the massacre of several hundred Algerians in the French capital. Then, in the wake of the May 1968 labor and student uprisings, “foreign agitators” of mostly North African origin were deported in large numbers. At a time when two-thirds of immigrant workers residing on French soil were of European ethnicities, a government-commissioned report threatened an “unassimilable island” of Algerians by the turn of the century, prompting President De Gaulle’s Minister of Social Affairs, Maurice Schumann, to pledge a tightening of restrictions on the pace of immigration from the former colonial possessions (Witte 83-87).

In 1974, the independent Algerian government responded to wanton anti-Arab violence by unilaterally suspending all emigration to the defeated colonial metropolis; the government of then Prime Minister (and future President) Jacques Chirac also acted, suspending all non-European immigration to France. The flow of unskilled labor from North Africa into the national labor market, which until then had been not only legal but encouraged, was suddenly blocked, ostensibly to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves on French soil. Regulated for the first time in history, immigration was framed as a “problem” posed by post-colonial migrants only, and the frequency of illegal entries to satisfy labor demands grew steadily. Social violence directed against “foreigners” was blamed on their concentration in public housing, rather than on racism or institutionalized discrimination. The economic crisis of the 1970s invited further xenophobia across the political spectrum. The expression “seuil de tolerance”—threshold of tolerance, or “tipping point”—was suddenly in the speeches of politicians, right and left, designating the danger of immigrants’ growing visibility in French society.

In part as a result of the Algerian crisis, and in response to the frequent use of the Islamic faith as a banner of anti-colonial resistance, French officials had been concerned for decades with the question of Muslims and their place in society. The building of mosques and Islamic prayer rooms in factories had been encouraged as a means of undermining communist trade-union influence and discouraging cultural assimilation, in hopes that male North African workers would eventually return home—an assumption shared by French and North African governments. Arabs and Berbers, rather than foreign nationals from neighboring European countries, became the focus of public policy and political controversy (Castles and Miller 244-245; 262). Faith-based associations of immigrants, such as the Association des étudiants islamiques en France (AEIF), flourished, following a long tradition begun in the colonial era by the Fraternité musulmane in 1907, the Sufi-dominated Tijaniyya, Qadirrya and Alawiyya in the 1920s and 1930s, and the religious circles founded by the Association des oulémas algériens before the war (Diop 112-114). In the 1960s and early 1970, the Algerian war politicized these groups in a manner similar to the Iranian Revolution, the two Gulf wars and the global “war on terror” at the turn of the millennium. Like the “immigrant problem” itself, the question of Muslim representation and its potentially disruptive effect on the “fabric” of the French nation is deeply rooted in the history of French colonialism and its erosion in the post-war period. The tide seemed to turn when the left achieved executive power in 1981, for the first time since the world war. The government of Social Democratic President François Mitterrand gave immigrants new rights to create associations, on an equal footing with the rest of the population, triggering an efflorescence of new groups representing the mosaic of nationalities and ethnicities originating from North and West Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the Levant. Sunni and Shi’a Muslims formed large, politically moderate federations such as the Union des organisations islamiques de France (UOIF), the Fédération nationale des musulmans de France (FNMF), and the Fédération des associations islamiques d’Afrique, des Comores et des Antilles (FAIACA), all of which staked claims to pluralism, recognition, social and educational improvement, and vigilance against discrimination. In 1990 the Ministry of the Interior and Religious Affairs created an advisory body on Islam in France (Conseil de réflexion sur l’Islam en France) (Diop 116). On the surface, the state therefore acknowledged the institutional role of Islam in fostering social dialogue and channeling the grievances and aspirations of French Muslim communities, which had come to represent a sizeable and diverse religious minority.

Nonetheless, while there is nothing particularly “recent” or “new” about either immigration or Islamic social activism in France, immigrants and their descendants, and Muslims in particular, became the focus of heated controversy in the 1980s and 1990s. Their numbers did not particularly “swell,” as was often claimed. Indeed, the percentage of immigrants relative to the total population was the same at the end of the century as it had been during the Great Depression—roughly 7.5%. Diversity of origins was widespread even among the “majority:” in 1992, one in every four French nationals had a parent or grandparent who was not born a French citizen (Silverman 10). What changed was the visibility of culturally diverse, sedentary, socially marginalized working-class communities with family ties and origins outside of Europe, in an era of massive economic dislocation, welfare crisis, unemployment, social exclusion and policing of population movements. In the context of an increasingly racialized, “besieged fortress” rhetoric of nationalism, such people were stigmatized as “foreigners,” regardless of whether or not they had obtained French citizenship.

Mitterrand’s Socialist government also extended amnesty to illegal aliens, appearing to usher in a new era of openness and intercultural solidarity. Yet the decade of the 1980s is remembered today as the beginning of an era of heightened polarization on the issue of immigrants and the place of their progeny in French society. Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy responded to an early wave of wildcat strikes in the automobile plants of Citroën and Renault, in which North African workers figured prominently, by accusing Iran of destabilizing French society and promoting Islamic fundamentalism (Le Monde, 1 February 1983). Jean- Marie Le Pen’s neo-fascist Front national turned out its first spectacular electoral breakthroughs and entered into local coalitions with the mainstream parties of the right. When the latter returned to power in the legislative elections of 1986, then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac restricted the entry and residence rights of new immigrants and accelerated the pace of deportations in a crackdown on illegal aliens. Legislation broke new ground by challenging the “right of soil” (jus soli), which had theretofore automatically granted citizenship to persons born in France regardless of their parents’ nationality.

New social movements and anti-fascist organizations rose to the defense of immigrants and their families. S.O.S. Racisme (created in 1984) and France Plus (1985) gained broad appeal among youths who called themselves “beurs,” i.e., French nationals of Arab, mostly North African parents. The former defended the “right to difference” and introduced themes of multiculturalism into mainstream political discourse; the latter defended an assimilationist model of republicanism, while lobbying for greater Franco-Maghrebi representation in the major political parties. The Movement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples (MRAP) and Ligue contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme (LICRA) had roots in the older, radical anti-fascist republicanism of the post-war years; they also vigorously challenged racism and social discrimination through political and judicial lobbying throughout the decade. Two further tendencies emerged among the grass-roots “beur” associations that sprang up all over the country. One was represented mostly by artists, social workers and middle-class professionals of North African descent, who expressed themes of cultural hybridity while organizing for institutional equality and mainstream recognition (Radio beur, Nouvelle génération immigrée, etc.). The other was represented by more radical, confrontational associations with an agenda that included denouncing police harassment, ordinary racism, and the daily hardships of the unemployed in urban working class suburbs (Rock against police, Za’amour de banlieue, etc.) (cf. Blatt). The rise of xenophobia and hardening of conservative policies during the Chirac years (1986-1988), coupled with the articulation of an essentialist espousal of “immutable differences” among ethnic groups by the ideological New Right (cf. Taguieff), ultimately caused the reformist left, in particular the Socialist Party, to renounce multiculturalism and adopt a more cautious approach to the immigration issue. As historian Herman Lebovics put it: “The Socialists responded like old firehorses hearing the alarms ringing, as the Jacobins had in 1789 and the left again during the (late 19th century) Dreyfus case . . . The conservative republicanism of Jules Ferry came back again, this time as a farce” (Lebovics 139-140). In 1989, despite bi-partisan discussion of the problem under the stewardship of Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard, racist violence and the stigmatization of Muslims swelled following the expulsion from a public school in Creil of three young girls who refused to remove their headscarves (cf. Lévy). The National Front registered unprecedented levels of electoral support in local elections, and an aging President Mitterrand resurrected the hidebound slogan of “threshold of tolerance.” The left, fearing voter backlash in the wake of the right’s successes and the disintegration of the Eastern Socialist Bloc, catered to the perceived fears of the electorate that the fabric of unitary French culture faced an ominous threat of irreversible unraveling.

A wave of anti-Arab and anti-Semitic violence ensued, the most memorable events being the murder of three youths of Moroccan origin and the desecration of the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras in 1990. The republican system sought to erect barriers to institutional excesses; for example, the Communist Party successfully introduced legislation, known as the Gayssot Law, which made racist acts and speech, including the denial of the Holocaust, punishable by law (a gesture that would come under fire fifteen years later during the polemic over colonial revisionism and the role of parliament in setting the tone of historical scholarship and school curricula). The main topic of political debate during this era, however, was not racism but “integration.” Blame for the recurrent social violence was directed at the victims, and their concentration in public housing “ghettoes” seen as evidence of their reluctance or inability to “assimilate.” Youth riots broke out in Vaulx-en-Vélin, near Lyon, Sartrouville, on the outskirts of Paris, and in other impoverished urban districts. The Socialist government, eager to heal the wounds of political controversy and rally the right to its citizenship platform, abandoned its pledge to grant immigrants the right to vote in local elections. The borders were “sealed,” a policy of “repatriation” took effect, and the Prime Minister ominously proclaimed that “France is no longer a country of immigration.” In 1991 his successor Edith Cresson expelled undocumented workers with specially chartered planes. Conservative presidential hopeful Jacques Chirac publicly decried the “overdose of immigrants”, alleging that their “smell” and “noise” [sic] had reached intolerable levels (Witte 106-108). Predictably, the Socialists were routed in local and parliamentary elections in 1992 and 1993 and the far right continued its inexorable rise. To this day, the steady spiral of social violence and institutional crisis caused by the politicization of immigration since the 1960s shows no signs of abating, and it is inseparable from the trauma of decolonization. When the Nationality Code was subjected to reform in the 1990s, for example, one of the most pressing issues under debate was how to reconcile the dual Algerian and French citizenship held by the children born of Algerian parents after independence in 1962. Beginning in 1889, a child born in France was automatically entitled to citizenship provided he or she resided on national territory at the age of eighteen. By an act of parliament in 1993, however, children born of parents who had become Algerian by virtue of that country’s freedom were required to apply for French citizenship between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. Many who either remained unaware of the new requirements, or failed to produce employment documentation that would prove their continuous residency, found themselves eligible for deportation. In practice, the new requirements served as a reminder of their perennial colonial status. Even when the code was, in 1998, modified to address flaws in the policy’s implementation, none of the mainstream political parties would relent on the principle that youths born in France of immigrant parents needed to manifest their desire to become French. This has since empowered prefects to invoke delinquency, criminal behavior or bureaucratic glitches as grounds for denying some applicants the citizen status to which jus soli —the right of soil—would once have entitled them (Weil 2002: 168-181).

Thus socially and geographically marginalized youths of the suburbs, already the victims of soaring unemployment, discrimination and violent outbursts of racism, were exposed to the potential loss of their civil rights if the State found them unworthy of the nation into which they were born. In 2010, the rightist government of President Nicolas Sarkozy once again took the pretext of urban youth riots, this time in the Alpine city of Grenoble, to propose unprecedented legislation that would strip recent French citizens of their nationality if they were found to have committed violent crimes Sociologist Abdelmayek Sayad noted in the late seventies that, historically, to be an “immigrant worker” was to be a person (most likely a man) in transit, a nomad, a temporary guest with a provisional function, i.e., to work. Hence the very process of becoming sedentary, in a land where one was not viewed as “native,” was often perceived as a transgression, an affirmation of kinship structure and of social existence, of ties to the earth—in short, as ethnicized difference. The children born in France of such families, he argued, found themselves trapped in an ambivalent status: They were the outgrowth of a perceived anomaly, “between ‘ethnicized’ foreigner and ‘non-ethnicized’ national” (cf. Sayad; Kadri & Prévost). It was difficult for such individuals to shed such labels as “children of immigrants,” “second-generation immigrants,” etc., particularly if they refused to break entirely with the culture of their parents, or if the very perception of their identity by the mainstream—that is, its racialization—marked them physically and socially as being “outsiders.” The terms in which the debate on nationality were framed in the 1990s accentuated the burden of proof or merit that was placed on these youths to attain full equality in the republic; it underscored their inheritance of a kind of original sin, attributed to their parents, who had the nerve to remain in France when their labor was no longer needed. Sayad’s analysis remains of great pertinence to this day.

Public discourse in France often mistakenly assumes that the “republican model of assimilation” is as old as the Republic itself. In fact, during the period of colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century, the “assimilation” of subject peoples into the culture and politics of metropolitan France was actively resisted via the juridical arsenal of “indigeneity.” It was a status that confined them, geographically and socially, to an “outsider” status from which only a select minority could hope to escape. Cultural identities were conceived in immutable and essentialist terms, as intrinsically separating “colonial natives” from “French nationals.” The “nation” was defined as a natural, age-old, exclusive and spatially barricaded collectivity that conferred rights upon its citizens while limiting access to “foreigners,” even when they inhabited French territories. The promise of political equality notwithstanding, nationalism was as absolutist and hermetic in its imagined homogeneity as the most deterministic discourse of racial belonging. It was, in philosopher Etienne Balibar’s words, an “abstract communitarianism” centered on the State, its power to grant and revoke citizenship, and a transcendent claim to universalism. “Assimilation” was conditioned on the definitive renunciation of one’s origins, faith, customs, language and memory—in short, on “integration” into a preexisting, naturalized community of affinities vigilantly protected by ethnic-neutral republicanism, policed borders and the proclamation of a unitary concept of “True France” (Balibar 97-99; cf. Lebovics). Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe points to the aporia inherent in this logic of assimilation and integration: By denying cosmopolitanism, he argues, it violates its own precepts and ethnicizes French nationality. The latter is reified as a besieged fortress of sameness incapable of imagining the “other” (the former slave or colonial subject) through any other lens than that of cultural conformity or narcissistic duplication (Mbembe 140-141).

The ideology of French assimilation is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment and in the revolutionary turmoil of the late 18th century. Abbot Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, for example, defined it as an affirmation of the nation’s hybridity and a weapon against hereditary privilege. As the revolution came under siege, however, patriotism sometimes took the form of xenophobia directed against perceived foreign plotters and monarchists, a trend that was aggravated by the Thermidorian reaction and the Napoleonic wars. The Civil Code of 1804 did not define nationality as a right conferred by birth on French soil, but as a privilege of kinship; only in the second half of the nineteenth century did jus soli apply (cf. Liauzu; Noiriel), and by then the ideology of assimilation was rhetorically and institutionally inseparable from the colonial world-view of the Third Republic. It should also be remembered that the racist overtones of Jean- Baptiste Colbert’s 1685 edict known as the “Black Code,” which established an insurmountable boundary between freedmen and slaves, survived the revolution. In 1778 marriages between whites, mulattoes, and blacks were banned for reasons of purity of blood, and slavery, which had been briefly abolished in 1794, was reestablished by Napoleon in 1802. As Alice Conklin has shown in her study of the France’s “civilizing mission,” while the emancipationist rhetoric of universalism, inherited from revolutionary times, was neither unequivocally racist nor overtly contemptuous of equality, it was always caught in the threads of imperialist expansion and vulnerable to neo-traditionalist, conservative and xenophobic interpretations (Conklin 254-256).

In contemporary times, blindness to this “dark side” of the republican myth transcends political divisions between left and right in France. The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the definitive abolition of slavery focused neither on the heroism of the revolution in Saint- Domingue (Haiti), nor on the well-documented resistance of Africans to the trade and the plantation system. Instead, it celebrated the enlightened values and generosity of French liberals such as Victor Schoelcher and François Arago in 1848. It also bears remembering that the republican myth was forged not in an era of imperial splendor, but rather in a context of adversity and decline. Whereas in the 17th century the French empire encompassed Acadia, the St. Lawrence estuary, the Antilles and Guyana, the Mississippi valley and settlements on the west coast of Africa and India, by 1814 it had dwindled to Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, part of French Guyana and an isolated outpost in Senegal. The conquest of Algeria that began in 1830 was construed as more than just a defense against the encroachment of Britain on the Mediterranean shores; it was a source of national prestige, a reaffirmation of the glory of a bygone French imperial past (Addi 94-95).

Another more recent chapter in the history of the republican myth of French universality and assimilation consists in what historians have called the “Vichy syndrome,” in reference to the collaboration of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s France with occupying Germany during the Second World War (cf. Rousso). The French Committee for National Liberation in Algiers decreed, in 1943, the liberation of the Antilles, Réunion and Guyana from the collaborationist rule of the Vichy-based state. When the post-war government voted in 1946 to promote these colonies to the status of departments, thereby granting legal equality and citizenship status to former colonial subjects, the celebration of republican universalism obscured subsequent trends toward the acute economic dependency and institutional segregation that led the poet Aimé Césaire to break with the Communist Party in 1956 and denounce the former colony’s drift toward neo-colonialism (cf. Beriss).

Within metropolitan France, the post-war order was grounded in a myth of heroic resistance that sought to obscure the country’s shameful role in the deportation of a quarter of its Jewish population. It celebrated the liberation from fascism as an epic of national unity, and delayed for decades the public acknowledgement of the nation’s responsibility in the genocide; or, for that matter, its complicity in the crimes of colonialism (Moyn 46-47). When colonial wars were unleashed in Indochina and Algeria, the mainstream right and left were equally reluctant to question the civilizing mission of France, or to forsake the post-war consensus surrounding the universality and progressivism of the French republican model. Now as in colonial times, the fortification of national borders, which have never been impervious, between the metropolis and its periphery, and France’s claim to an exclusive status as the bearer of universalism against ethnic “communitarianism,” perpetuate the myth of republican supremacy even as polyvocal manifestations of cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism expose glaring fissures in the unitary edifice. While entire groups of former colonial subjects, such as French Antillians (who are not counted as immigrants) and harkis (Algerians who aided France in the independence war) struggle from a position of liminality to achieve equality in a society that enforces and ethnicizes their difference, the children of migrants from North and West Africa continue to be stigmatized as inassimilable due to perceived cultural incompatibilities, such as their Muslim faith or perpetuation of group consciousness. The passing of a generation of Jewish Holocaust survivors in France coincided with the emergence of commemorative traditions, demands for historical and cultural recognition, and growing public manifestations of group solidarity rooted in the shared memory of trauma and victimization (cf. Moyn; Pollack). Similarly, the descendants of migrant workers from the former African colonial heartlands have, from a position of geographic and social besiegement, responded to their perpetual criminalization and exclusion from the socio-economic and cultural mainstream by building what Sophie Bessis calls “reactive identities” (Bessis 134-138; 182), storming, in the process, the stage of controversy over French national identity and its roots in a contested past.

The comparison is not fortuitous between the rise of French Holocaust memory in the past quarter century, which unified politically and ethnically diverse communities of Jews behind a sacralized consciousness of genocide and anti-Semitism; and the eruption of claims to historical recognition among “Arabs” and “blacks” whose multifaceted experiences of imperialism, migration, stigmatization, and historical erasure are increasingly mobilized to underscore their greater cultural distance from the French mainstream than vis-à-vis each other. Yet the emergence of “Arabs,” a racialized identity ascribed indiscriminately to communities of Maghrebi origin, including Berbers from the Rif in Morocco and Kabylia in Algeria (cf. Silverstein), and “blacks,” who include Antillians and West Africans, among them Muslims, Christians and Pantheists, Wolof, Fulani, Mande-speaking peoples, etc., as voices in the French political arena, represents something more than just an affirmation of “non-integration” as decried by the guardians of republican nationalism. They inhabit, to borrow a concept from Avtar Brah, “diaspora spaces” in the sense that despite their representation as unassimilated “minority” identities, “these new political and cultural formations continually challenge the minoritising and peripheralising impulses of the cultures of dominance” (Brah 209-210). They do this through their entanglement with the selfdescribed “native” genealogies and histories of a “national” community which by excluding them, so to speak, forgets itself. Battles over historical memory are fought not only in the National Assembly, but also in the “banlieues” (suburbs)—enactments of what Didier Lapeyronnie calls “colonial theatre” (Lapeyronnie 210-211), where the “indigènes de la république” (natives of the republic) enter into cultural resistance by mocking the refusal of the system to acknowledge its responsibility in both fabricating and exoticizing their insurmountable “otherness” (alterité). The novelty of this proposal in French political and cultural discourse is reflected in the vehemence of mainstream opposition to it. Robert Farriss Thompson once stated: “To be white in America is to be very black. If you don’t know how black you are, you don’t know how American you are” (quoted in Fishkin 81). In France, a country where the study of colonialism was not included in university-level history curricula until the 1990s, to frame national identity in such terms is horrifying to the republican mindset; not only because of its racial undertones, which run counter to the myth of color-blind universality, but also because it represents nationhood in a manner that blurs the boundaries between master and slave, colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. The exclusion of immigrants and colonial subjects from the textbook story of French heritage since the Third Republic has been amply documented by historians Gérard Noiriel (1996) and Eric Savarèse (2000), who fault the invisibility of their experiences, struggles and contributions to the national past for the emergence of identity-based claims to recognition and redress. When a law was voted in February 2005 requiring that school curricula acknowledge the “positive role of France overseas,” a public uproar ensued over colonial revisionism and the legitimacy of government dictates in matters of historical memory. A petition of scholars denounced the legalization of “nationalist communitarianism” and warned of a backlash on the part of “groups thus prohibited from having a past” (Le Monde, 25 February 2005).

The idea that the overall legacy of colonialism is a positive one is not new in France. Scholars, lawmakers and politicians of the Third and Fourth Republics endorsed it publicly. The country’s “colonial vocation” was lost during Charles De Gaulle’s post-war tenure; from that point onward, “Frenchness,” once a rhetorical device of the “civilizing mission,” was turned inward. The survival of national identity was no longer threatened by a “native problem,” but, instead, with an “immigrant problem,” and the changing cityscape replaced the overseas territories as evidence of the danger. Yet even on the left, where the belief in their “integration” was generally more widespread, prominent advocates of reform were hesitant to either explore the colonial roots of the controversy surrounding them, or to critically examine colonization itself. Jean-Pierre Cot, Minister of Cooperation in the first Socialist government, wrote in 1984: “I do not believe that colonization has been discredited; I know it has had its day” (Cot 72). In a speech delivered on 11 November 1996, then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac stirred no controversy when he lauded “the importance and the grandeur of the work accomplished by France in the colonies, of which she is proud” (Le Cour Grandmaison 121). The conservative Union pour la France (UMP) tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation affirming this positive legacy in 2003, and when the 2005 bill was finally passed by parliament, numerous voices across the political spectrum objected to what they perceived as the unwarranted selfflagellation displayed by its opponents.

The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut signed a petition denouncing “antiwhite racism” and warned that resurrecting the country’s colonial past would “create a climate of civil war” (Le Point, 12 May 2005). Historian Pierre Nora added fuel to the fire by launching his own petition, signed by nineteen prominent scholars from across the political spectrum, against legal policymaking of any sort, arguing that historians should not be bound by standards of truth other than their own. Entitled “Freedom for History,” it called for the abolition of all laws pertaining to the past. When a law was voted in February 2005 requiring that school curricula acknowledge the “positive role of France overseas—including the July 1990 “Gayssot Law” that punished the negation of the Holocaust, as well as racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic acts; the January 2001 law recognizing the genocide against the Armenian people during the first world war; and the May 2001 Taubira Law in which slavery from 1500 onward was declared “a crime against humanity” (cf. Nora et al.). Nora later lashed out against the “terrorism of memory” exercised by legislators and activist groups, and deplored the “competition among victims” caused by identity-based claims for historical recognition among Jews, Arabs, blacks and others (cf. Nora).

This uproar surrounding the supposed civilizing role of France in North Africa echoed a similarly vehement campaign to counter the effects of the empowerment by Afro-French voices by the 2001 Taubira Law, which had been proposed in response to protests against the timorous official commemoration of the abolition of slavery three years earlier. In 2006 President Chirac declared May 10th, the date on which the Taubira Law was passed, a national day of commemoration dedicated to victims of slavery, and named the Martinican writer Edouard Glissant president of a planned “national center for the study of the middle passage, slavery and their abolition” (Le Monde, 20 January 2006). When grass-roots civil rights movements created the Representative Council of Black Associations, (Conseil représentatif des associations noires, CRAN), however, the office of the Presidency issued a statement calling the move a “step backward for the republic.” Once again, the issue of how young generations would be taught a painful episode in French history had polarized public opinion (cf. Weil 2005). The Taubira Law had been passed in response to a silent demonstration of 40,000 people in May 1998. By declaring slavery a “crime against humanity,” legislators had hoped to channel the frustrations of Antillian public opinion and stem the tide of demands for more radical measures. Yet the intense activity of grass-roots organizations such as the Collectif devoirs et mémoires, formed by Franco-Congolese-Martinican sociologist Jean-Claude Tchicaya, rapper Joey Starr, and Communist Revolutionary League spokesperson Olivier Besancenot, continued to press for a greater awareness of black history in French society, and to weigh in on the debate of how it should be taught in schools. Furthermore, like the US-based National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’Cobra) and similar organizations in Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere, civil rights movements in France had begun articulating demands for financial reparations to atone for slavery and colonialism (Libération, 22 February 2005).

These movements are by no means peripheral to post-colonial France’s agonizing over its imperial past. By articulating a kind of ideological insurgency against the reigning republican consensus, they have invited backlash from bearers of the status quo, resulting in a climate of “culture war” that sets the tone of debates over public policy. In the first decade of the new millennium, the overall proportion of foreigners in the work force was lower in France (5.6%) than in the 15 core European nations (7.6%) and the expanded 25-member union (6.3%) (République Française. Premier Ministre 47). Yet France has become, over the past two decades, a country (since 1993) without the right of the soil; where access to permanent residency and citizenship have been rendered procedurally burdensome; and where the granting of hospitality to undocumented foreigners has been criminalized. Since the election of the conservative former Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, to the Presidency in 2007, “immigration,” once actively encouraged by the State, has been elevated to the status of a threat to national security. What historian Pierre Tévanian (2004) calls “the ministry of fear” has allowed ruling class politicians, intent on privatizing and liberalizing the French welfare state, to mobilize consensus around law-and-order policies that target immigrants and working-class youths of the “banlieues” as obstacles to national regeneration.

Global trends are also at work in the ongoing stigmatization of foreigners. In 2006, in an effort to legislate which workers would be admitted into the country and which would not, then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy crafted the “law of selective immigration” (“immigration choisie”). The law was inspired by Mode 4 of the General Agreement in Trade and Services (GATS), which seeks to reduce permanent migration to industrialized nations and regulates the flow of specific categories of skilled and professional labor from the global South to the global North. The policy, still in effect, was meant to encourage the temporary immigration of highly skilled and professional workers to satisfy specific labor market needs (in research, information technologies, training, and other priority fields dictated by the needs of the private sector), as well as unskilled and semi-skilled workers in such areas as seasonal agricultural labor, construction, public works, hospitals, hotels and restaurants. It imposed restrictions on family groupings, standards of literacy in the French language, threats of deportation for divorcees suspected of marrying to acquire residency, and abolished amnesty for illegal aliens having resided in France for a decade or more. In some overseas French territories, such as Guadeloupe, French Guyana and Mayotte, police investigations were required before a French father could legally recognize the birth of a child to a non-French mother (<>, 30 March 2006; 27 August 2010). Implicit in the wording of the legislation was the longstanding distinction between so-called “good” immigrants, who came to perform needed tasks, and thereafter were expected to return home; and “bad” immigrants, who were out to take advantage of the French welfare system, and who typically choose to remain at all costs. Historically, ever since the creation in 1917 of a special identification card for foreign workers, the French state has positioned itself as the guarantor of police controls and vowed to regulate the flow of immigrants. It has always, however, adjusted its willingness to enforce legislation to the circumstantial needs of the labor market. Surveillance was intensified on the eve of the Second World War, culminating in the ordinance of 2 November 1945, which was the first systematic effort by the state to regulate all aspects of immigration. This measure gave the Office national de l’immigration (National Immigration Office: ONI) a monopoly on the recruitment of foreign laborers and conditioned the granting of residency permits to the possession of a legal work contract. Because post-war economic growth was high, a boom in the influx of workers from foreign countries caused government controls to remain largely ineffective, with certain nationalities being exempted from ONI regulations. Italians entered freely as citizens of a European Economic Community nation; Algerians were guaranteed entry and equal rights with French workers by virtue of the Évian accords granting their country independence; West Africans were unrestricted; and scores of other nationalities were able to find employment by entering the country on tourist visas or even illegally. Only in 1972, when the economic expansion began to stall, were measures taken to deny amnesty to laborers who arrived on French soil without a legal work contract, leading to a wave of protests and hunger strikes in over a dozen cities between 1972 and 1975. In 1974, labor migration to France was officially halted in response to the oil crisis, causing authorities to crack down on workers and their families and tighten surveillance of the borders. Beginning in 1977 the pace of deportations was accelerated and the rights of immigrants wishing to bring their families into France were drastically curtailed. In 1980, stopping immigration and diminishing the number of foreigners residing on French soil were declared government priorities, as immigrants became increasingly associated, in public discourse, with unemployment, delinquency and threats to security.

Following setbacks of the left in local elections in 1983, when the farright Front national (National Front: FN) stirred panic among voters and brought the “immigrant threat” to the fore of mainstream political debate, successive Socialist governments turned their attention to distinguishing legal and properly “integrated” immigrants from undocumented ones, and began legally restricting family reunification while reintroducing financial assistance for the return of unemployed aliens to their “homelands.” Rising unemployment and the pressure of right-wing political parties, which allied themselves with the neo-fascist FN and stigmatized foreigners in general as “threats to national identity,” caused the Socialist left to progressively disavow its commitment to multiculturalism and compete with the right for credentials of “toughness” in the face of the immigrant “threat.” From 1986 onward, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac launched a wholesale attack on immigrant rights, restoring the power of prefects to order deportations without a judge’s approval, and formalizing the “control of immigrant flows” by requiring visas for citizens of postcolonial states.

Mitterrand’s re-election in 1988 failed to permanently reverse the momentum of repressive government policies. While the 1989 Joxe Law restored some protections for foreigners with family ties to French citizens and complicated deportation procedures, legislation promulgated in 1991 and 1992 increased repression against persons aiding the entry of undocumented foreigners and prolonged authorized detention periods for asylum applicants. Prefects were given the power to revoke tourist visas and mayors encouraged to investigate French citizens who provided hospitality to foreigners or expressed the desire to take them as spouses. Legislative elections in 1993 again returned the right to power, two years before the expiration of Mitterrand’s second term. This time, the entire nationality code was reformed and the automatic acquisition of French nationality for immigrants born on French soil (jus soli) was revoked. Unprecedented restrictions were placed on the ability of immigrants to claim equality before the law. New measures known as the Pasqua Laws drastically curtailed the rights and hopes not only of undocumented workers, but of all foreigners seeking to remain permanently in France or settle durably with their families. As a consequence, an entire generation of children of immigrants born in France, already victimized by rampant unemployment and deteriorating living conditions, was deprived of the right of soil; thousands of foreigners who had previously been protected from deportation became hunted illegal aliens; workers who had previously paid into social security were excluded from its protections; identity controls and police operations against racially stigmatized groups increased. A growing number of foreigners went underground, exposing themselves and their families to a life of indigence, ill health, precarious housing, and illegal labor (Lochak 29-45).

The ideological roots of the present-day crisis in the formulation of immigration policy can be traced back to depression-era French society, when Georges Mauco, a prominent government expert on immigration until his retirement in 1970, articulated a doctrine of regulated migratory flows based on the changing needs of employers. His ideas were conspicuously biased against unskilled workers from the colonial realms. By virtue of “age-old habits that contradict the profound orientation of our civilization,” they were, he argued, a potential threat to the cultural fabric of French society, and thus should be discouraged from establishing permanent residency (Weil 1995: 74-99). Mauco’s views on immigrants then are strikingly reminiscent of mainstream political discourses on foreigners today. He wrote in 1932: “That mob of immigrants, some of them uprooted and poorly adapted, has led to an increase by one-third of the crime rate in France, and thus has indisputably had a demoralizing and destabilizing influence. No less pernicious is the moral decay of certain Levantines, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and other ‘wog’ merchants and traffickers. The intellectual influence of foreigners, though difficult to discern, appears above all opposed to reason, delicacy, prudence, and moderation, traits that characterize the Frenchman” (Amselle 153). Republican principles notwithstanding, French authorities have never proclaimed their openness to unregulated flows of migrants from the decolonizing world. The post-war boom demonstrated that workers from the “South” fulfilled a critical economic need, but they were suspected of benefiting from the protections of the newly formed welfare state, deemed “inassimilable,” and viewed as a transitory presence. The “immigrant dream” would be subordinated to the necessities of capital, the social protections of French citizens guarded against interloping, and the cosmopolitan alteration of “universalistic” French culture deterred. In another Chirac-era example of the policies enforcing this hidebound premise, a May 2005 decree allowed prefectures to detain entire families, including young children, in special administrative retention centers, pending the expulsion of a family member—a deprivation of freedom prohibited by the International Convention on the Rights of Children, and if it were to lead to a collective expulsion, explicitly forbidden by the European Convention on Human Rights. The decree immediately met with a barrage of criticism from human rights and civil advocacy groups, who denounced a pending crackdown on undocumented workers and their families, particularly youths enrolled in public schools. In order to placate them, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, at first backtracked, suspending the deportation of undocumented families of school-age children until the end of the academic year. He then ordered, on 13 June 2006, that families with children either born in France or who had resided there since the age of thirteen be granted residency permits, a policy of “selective clemency” that was outwardly touted as opening a door of opportunity for undocumented immigrants before the full application of the law.

Families who qualified for the amnesty rushed to the prefectures in large numbers, backed by a powerful grass-roots movement of activists organized in the Réseau education sans frontiers (Network for Education Without Borders: RESF). A civil disobedience campaign ensued, supported by prominent public figures and elected officials, as well as teachers and educators from all over the country. It called for the “adoption” of individual children who were at risk of deportation and encouraged sponsors to hide them from the authorities, even at the risk of hefty fines and prosecution. The movement received logistical support from teachers’ unions and rapidly coalesced into a broad, ad-hoc civil rights protest in which African American heroine Rosa Parks was extolled as a symbol of public defiance (cf. Réseau Education Sans Frontières). This stunning turn of events forced Sarkozy to revise his initial estimation of the number of immigrants who would qualify for amnesty upward from 2,500 to 6,000—and prompted him, in order to avoid being accused of weakness by his political base, to place a ceiling on successful applications before the expiration of the deadline. As deportations of ineligible school-age children began with the close of the academic year, mobilizations against the measures intensified, propelling the plight of thousands of undocumented workers to the fore of political controversy, and bringing the immigration policy of the conservative government under intense public and legal scrutiny.

Broad grass-roots and trade union mobilization in defense of the “sans papiers,” or undocumented immigrants, emerged in 1996 in response to ill-conceived political-administrative policies targeting the so-called “problem of immigration.” The movement’s premise was that the problem of the growing numbers and social exclusion of undocumented families was the direct result of, rather than the justification for, increasingly repressive anti-immigrant legislation. Charles Pasqua, a former Interior Minister and archconservative initiator of the most restrictive measures against foreigners, is remembered for having triggered the “sans-papiers” movement. In September 1986 a first law bearing his name severely restricted the conditions of legal entry and inaugurated a wave of collective deportations on specially chartered flights. In August 1993 Pasqua tightened conditions for the acquisition of residency permits and stranded thousands of immigrants in an inextricable web of illegality. Three years later, almost to the day, the occupation by three hundred undocumented Africans (mainly from Mali and Senegal) of the churches of Saint-Ambroise and Saint-Bernard in Paris ended in their violent evacuation from the latter, provoking the first wave of massive protests against the arbitrary use of force against men, women and children who, facing severe social distress, braved threats against them to raise awareness of their plight. Harsher legislation (including the further criminalization of assistance to undocumented immigrants by then-Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debré) and more clamorous protests ensued. Another occupation in 2002 of the basilica of Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, would set the stage for Nicolas Sarkozy’s aggressive pursuit of a definitive framework for the elimination of the problem of undocumented workers, paving the way for the emergence of the RESF in 2004, the escalation of the conflict in the fall of 2005, and the violent police evacuation of a building occupied by “sans-papiers” residents in Cachan during the summer of 2006.

The precedent set by the repressive attack on the church of Saint- Bernard in 1996 is significant in many ways. First, a broad solidarity movement with the “sans papiers” drew religious, trade union and civil rights organizations into the defense of undocumented workers for the first time. Academics, lawyers, and prominent personalities in French society coalesced into a “College of Mediators,” led by theatre director Arianne Mnouchkine, who pressured the conservative government of then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé by ensuring that hunger strikes and immigrant defiance remained in the public limelight as the crisis unfolded. Second, the issue was ostensibly “racialized,” or displaced from a law-and-order issue to a question of racial and ethnic discrimination, when the riot police who broke into the church divided occupants between whites, who were assumed to be legal, even if they were not, and blacks, who were assumed to be undocumented, even when, in reality, many of them were wellestablished community leaders involved in the solidarity movement.

Third, the government followed up on the crackdown by promulgating the Debré Laws, which criminalized the protection of undocumented foreigners by French citizens while closing the door on amnesty for longterm illegal residents (cf. Cissé). The left-of-center Socialist government of Lionel Jospin, elected in 1997, failed to repeal the Pasqua and Debré laws, instead promulgating legislation that, by selectively granting residency papers, compounded the problems of the remaining “sanspapiers” and strengthened their determination to resist (cf. Hargreaves). As the right and left competed for electoral support, the very identity of the victims was blurred. Many of them had lived in France since the 1970s or 1980s, and had for long periods exercised their work and residency rights legally, before having their permits revoked or finding themselves caught in the crossfire between shifting laws and hostile prefectures. The Socialists paid a price for their indecisive challenge to the prevailing republican nationalist orthodoxy and for their unwillingness to disassociate themselves from repressive bureaucratic solutions to a fundamentally social problem: Lionel Jospin was eliminated in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, surpassed by the neo-fascist Jean- Marie Le Pen. Following the return of the parliamentary right to power that year, the aggressive legalism and use of State force by Nicolas Sarkozy gave fresh impetus to the collective mobilization of immigrants from all ethnic and national backgrounds, as well as local associations, trade unions and parties of the anti-establishment left, behind the cause of the “sans-papiers.”

In response to ethnic/communitarian movements, many of them based in impoverished working-class suburbs carrying a stigma of social exclusion and dangerousness, and in the face of civil defense campaigns sponsored by human rights and left-wing organizations, successive French governments have targeted undocumented migrants for deportation and sought to curb the channels through which they arrived—enrollment in universities, family reunification, tourist visas, etc. An intensification of ideological campaigns was intended to convince voters that immigrants, many of them confined to exploitative and precarious work situations or in dire need of unemployment and welfare relief, are a threat to the employment and well being of nationals, and thus unwelcome on French soil. The concept of “tipping point” (“seuil de tolerance” in French), popularized in the 1960s by Chicago-based social scientists intent on limiting the influx of African Americans from the impoverished South, was and still is routinely invoked to describe the situation of French society in the face of immigrants from the former colonies, whose “inassimilable” qualities are often described in ethnocentric or racist terms, and whose most vulnerable category—undocumented workers— bears the brunt of government retribution by legislative means. Changes in the economy have also contributed to the dramatic degradation of immigrant rights and conditions of hospitality in France. To begin with, the political decision to suspend the immigration of workers from former colonial dependencies in 1974 did not reflect a decline of the demand for their labor; rather, it aggravated their exposure to exploitation by unscrupulous employers by forcing them into illegality and increasing their ostracism in society. As workers became sedentary and were joined by their spouses and families in ensuing years, jobs also became more irregular and the mobility of laborers increased. During the crisis of the mid-1980s, when public disapproval of immigrants was heightened by the fear of long-term unemployment and fanned politically by the far right, the policies associated with neo-liberal globalization—economic restructuring and the “modernization” of labor law—transformed the productive apparatus of the French economy and destabilized the rights of workers in general.

The 1983 “Delors Plan” launched by the Socialist government accelerated mass layoffs and tore into the model of “ouvrier specialisé” (semi-skilled worker) that had characterized the typical immigrant industrial laborer in such sectors as the automobile industry, where nearly half of the workers who lost their jobs were of immigrant origin. By 1990, 40% of the industrial jobs held by immigrant workers in 1975 had been eliminated (Marie 150). Because they were more readily available for short-term employment in outsourced and unskilled occupations, and given that newly arrived women from postcolonial societies presented themselves en masse for informal and temporary hire, immigrants were three times as likely as nationals to fall prey to the restructuring of the labor market and fill positions in the increasingly Taylorized service sectors, where they formed a highly visible “underclass” of hyperexploited workers. At the same time, their over-representation among the chronically unemployed, which hit women and youths the hardest, and their geographic segregation in “ghettoized” suburbs isolated them from the networks of solidarity and support that had sustained immigrants in the era of highly unionized industrial employment. Finally, in the court of public opinion, illegal employment—the “black market” of undeclared workers in construction, sweatshops, etc.—became increasingly associated with illegal migrants, despite the fact that it affected workers of all backgrounds equally, in the context of an increasingly competitive and deregulated economy marked by high unemployment and the declining power of organized labor. As the precariousness of social situations increased for all sectors of the working class, the “threat” of competition from undocumented workers subjected to low wages and job insecurity was increasingly decried by many who had traditionally enjoyed a privileged position in the labor market. Blue-collar voters gradually abandoned the communist and socialist parties in favor of right-wing populist platforms that stigmatized immigrants as the cause of unemployment and economic uncertainty.

In the public discourse of politicians from all mainstream political parties, the protection of undocumented immigrants from the “slave-like” conditions of illegal employment justified their singling out as its sole victims, and added to their portrayal as a “problem.” Their willingness to take black-market jobs was just further “evidence”—along with female circumcision, polygamy, crowded tenements, and the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women—that these immigrants could not possibly integrate into French society. This tendency to exaggerate the role of immigrants in deepening the social pathologies of French society, rather than address the structural transformations in the economy that have aggravated living and working conditions for the working class in general, is a common feature of public discourses on the “crisis” of the French economy and welfare state: ‘It’s bad, but foreigners make it worse’. Recent history has illustrated the extent to which the rhetoric of “ethnicization” has permeated French public discourse on immigration. It drove Nicolas Sarkozy, in the period leading up to his election as President in 2007, to mimic the populist and xenophobic language of the far right, with alarmingly successful responses in opinion polls.

In 2002, he came out against a policy of general amnesty and issued an administrative order asking the prefects to be vigilant against “procedural fraud” in applications for residency permits motivated by family reunification (Le Monde, 24 January 2003). By virtue of his inclination to suspect immigrants of systematic cheating, Sarkozy restricted the right of undocumented workers who suffered from serious medical problems to receive government medical care and decreed their eligibility for expulsion, overruling, in the process, protections that had been provided by parliament in conservative legislation passed in 1995 and 1997. Sarkozy’s obsession with coercion and repression, and his wholesale identification of post-colonial immigrants with violence and disorder, became increasingly evident in his handling of the social crisis that shook France in the autumn of 2005.

Between October 27 and November 17, a wave of violent youth uprisings broke out in suburbs all over France following the accidental death by electrocution of two immigrant youths fleeing police controls in Clichy-sous-Bois—a death which Sarkozy, who called the protesters “delinquents” and “riff-raff” (“racaille”), ostensibly blamed on the victims. In the months leading up to the rioting Sarkozy had escalated his rhetoric ostracizing the youths of the suburbs, promising to “clean up” crime and blaming the violence on drug dealers, gang leaders and Islamists. In addition to mass arrests and interrogations, the worst wave of riots in the recent history of France prompted Sarkozy to invoke a 1955 colonial-era emergency law to establish a curfew in the suburbs, and to link the endemic violence to the presence of undesirable immigrants on French soil. Prefects were ordered to detain and expel rioters of foreign origin irrespective of their residency status. In an interview, Sarkozy declared that the rioters “may be perfectly French from a juridical point of view. But let’s be clear: as a result of polygamy and the acculturation of certain families it is more difficult to integrate a youth from black Africa than it is a young French citizen of a different origin” (Muccielli and Le Goaziou 70) This ideological displacement of public discussion from the social and economic factors of the rebellion onto the “immigrant problem” as its root cause was omnipresent in the media. The fear that gripped French society during the three weeks of rioting, in which few commentators on the mainstream right or left saw anything but an irrational outbreak of youthful criminality, was overwhelmingly informed not by the underlying causes of desperation and anger that fueled the rebellion, but by the “foreign” face placed upon it. As Tyler Stovall has persuasively argued, the casting of suburbs in France as a post-colonial urban space in which new definitions of identity, citizenship, and exclusion are contested is not just related to recent developments in ethnic segregation and social marginalization. It can be traced to a deeper historical phenomenon of movement from a rural to an urban society in which the “dangerousness” of working classes has instilled fears first of communist revolution, then of foreign invasion. Both of these collective fantasies represent transitional moments in the emergence of new social actors and the redefinition of the national culture (cf. Stovall).

In July 2004, the French government published a report on “high-risk” working-class suburbs, or “quartiers sensibles surveillés” (sensitive supervised neighborhoods), which purported to evaluate the threat of “ghettoization” (“repli communautaire”) on the basis of eight criteria: a large proportion of immigrant families, some of them practicing polygamy; the presence of grass-roots organizations structured along ethnic lines; the existence of foreign-owned retail shops; the establishment of Muslim places of worship; the visibility of “eastern” forms of dress and religious signs; anti-Semitic and anti-Western graffiti on the walls; the presence in public schools of recent immigrants with poor French language skills; and the difficulty of maintaining a population of native French inhabitants. All of these manifestations of “ethnicization” and “non-integration” were defined in the report as abnormal and threatening (cf. Tissot). Absent from the criteria were the ominous over-representation in these suburbs of unemployed workers (24.4% in 1999, up from 18.9% in 1990); the dramatic deterioration of educational, daycare and health support services within them; the propensity of police forces to target them for random identity controls and punitive anti-crime operations; the progressive disengagement of the government from public housing construction and maintenance; and the flight of white middle classes caused by joblessness, poor public school performance, the selective granting of home ownership loans, and rampant fears of cosmopolitan multiculturalism.

This alarmist description of an abhorrent cityscape, which is impoverished, exotic and dangerous, spatially and culturally removed from the “normal” social fabric of an idealized, ethnically homogenous, economically mobile and socially egalitarian society, identifies as “foreign” all manifestations of cultural distinction and social solidarity that are rooted in ethnic origins. Working-class urban districts, once viewed as bastions of occupational solidarity and epic labor struggles, are depicted as volatile enclaves of cultural diversity in which immigrants subvert the efforts of the host society to integrate them, thereby attracting the blame for the dangerousness and incivility that cause them to periodically erupt in aimless and apolitical violent rioting. In effect, as Etienne Balibar (1991) and others have argued, “immigration” has become a subterfuge for “race.” The targeting of foreigners under the guise of republicanism ethnicizes French nationality by sustaining the ahistorical myth of the separateness and impermeability of nations, reviving colonial-era typologies of difference, and infusing public discourse with a cultural nationalism that thrives on the fragility of class-based, local and international solidarities.

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Geoffroy de Laforcade, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean History and Director of Internationalization, Office of International Studies and Service-Learning, Norfolk State University, Virginia (USA)
Acting Vice-President and Coordinator of International Programs and Partnerships, Samaná College Research Center (Samaná, Dominican Republic)

TEL: (757) 510 3120
FAX: (757) 823-8253

* Chapter 6 in Transculturality and Perceptions of the Immigrant Other: “From-Heres” and “Come-Heres” in Virginia and North Rhine-Westphalia, Edited by Cathy Covell Waegner, Page R. Laws and Geoffroy de Laforcade, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011

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