In search of: 

Part II

France: A look back at a history of migration

  by Fabia Wong Contributing Columnist

In the late autumn of last year, my husband and I cycled along the Canal du Midi, a 17th Century feat of engineering that traverses 240 km of southwest France. We were captured by the tranquil beauty of the Hérault – a landscape of gently rolling hills and vineyards, saturated with tones of evergreen, ochre, and deep red. Long stretches of the Canal are lined with platane trees that have stood for hundreds of years, and powerful white mares with yellowed manes yet roam the fields. The countryside, dotted with hamlets and farms, and many of the villages seem untouched by the passage of time.

Its scale and ingenuityThe foundational story of France spans millennia, from the Gauls, the Roman invasion and the Merovingian kings, to bloody revolution, empire and the Republic, now in its fifth iteration. Each civilization, changing of hands and spillage of blood has left an indelible mark on a profoundly complex culture, one that is so often presented as a monolith but is far from it.  As General De Gaulle questioned, comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? Equally as varied is the conversation around the changing face of France. This is where we hope to put down roots and build our lives. It is the third country I have called home this last decade, having left Canada for the Netherlands seven years ago, and for France last year. To me, France is a country of natural beauty and man-made elegance, transcendence and passion for life, philosophy and tradition, and of revolution. It is an ancient country, facing new challenges and that makes it a fascinating and occasionally unnerving time to relocate here. The discourse surrounding race, culture and immigration differs dramatically from the North American one I have grown up with – unsurprising, given the vastly different histories, peoples and pressures at play. Still, there are instances of convergence. For instance, the Hérault apparently served as an inspiration for Renaud Camus’ Le Grand Remplacement, a relatively marginal conspiracy theory that has received increased coverage, partly it seems because of the light shone upon the theory by The New Yorker, for its impact on the American far-right.[1] This theory advances the notion that forces of globalization condemn the (white) “French people” to be overtaken, outnumbered and eventually demographically eliminated by people from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa – notwithstanding the fact that the statistics collected by the relevant national institutes simply do not support this possibility. And in the context of migration, in some ways the European crisis and the accompanying political evolution mirror what is happening in North America. The emblematic migrant at the center of these crises falls squarely into the category of “other”, by virtue of his skin colour, faith or both. And so, as the collective compassion of the West has plummeted, far right, openly xenophobic parties have risen to or are rising to power in several EU member states. As addressed in the first article of this two-part series, the Macron government recently introduced a series of amendments to France’s asylum law. The law, which is generally aimed at increasing the efficiency of the asylum claiming process, potentially to the detriment of claimants’ due process rights, does not address to any significant degree measures aimed at assisting new immigrants to integrate.

The Battle between Christians and Moors at El Sotillo
Artist:Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, Fuente de Cantos 1598–1664 Madrid). Date:ca. 1637–39, The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.

The US and Canada are popularly conceived of as countries built on immigration. But France has also witnessed mass movements of people over the centuries. If some of these movements are often conceived of as invasions, at least from an historical point of view (for instances, the Celts and the Romans during antiquity, the Moors and the Brits during the Middle Ages, the Prussians and Germans in more recent history), immigration is an integral part of the construction of France as well.  Perhaps one of the most dramatic recent examples is the movement of people to and from the colonies. The dark legacy of France in Algeria, from colonization to the bloody Algerian War of Independence, is indivisible from an informed discourse around contemporary immigration. Commencing in the early 20th century and continuing until the 1970s, Algerians moved en masse to the French mainland, in several waves. Until Algeria declared independence from France in 1962, this movement of peoples was not technically considered “immigration”, as Algerians were French subjects. Still, as per A. Sivanandan, colonialism and immigration are part of the same continuum – “we are here because you were there”. The unfolding of related events and measures taken by the French state over the decades is instructive, as it shows the consequences of a haphazard, reactive policy, with repercussions still visible today. The French arrival in Algeria in the 1830s brought waves of French “settlers” or Pied-Noirs to a Muslim-majority territory, ultimately numbering in the tens of thousands. Colonialism wrought destruction upon a complex, traditional system of land use, replacing it with a Western property rights system that weighed heavily in favour of the new French population, resulting in the transfer of millions of hectares to the colonizers. The imposition of frequently openly discriminatory legal and governance structures extended to other facets of life, leading to the breakdown of tribes and traditions that offered important protections to rural populations that were vulnerable to the performance of the harvest. This contributed to mass impoverishment and large-scale migration to urban centers, including to the French mainland, where during and following World War I, huge numbers of Algerians were recruited as labourers. [2]  At the conclusion of the Second World War, France was in the middle of Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty post-war years during which the country saw a dramatic rise in its standard of living and demand for labour. A significant and unchecked flow of persons from the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) into France continued until 1974, when the economy began to slow and the government took steps to stop the influx, to control entry into France and to encourage the voluntary return of immigrants to their country of origin.  

“Beyond the differential treatment Algerians faced in their own territory, particularly those of the Muslim faith, migrants to the mainland faced further exigencies. Housing was limited, resulting in the creation of slums and bidonvilles or shantytowns built on the periphery of large cities like Paris, Nanterre and Marseille.”

  Beyond the differential treatment Algerians faced in their own territory, particularly those of the Muslim faith, migrants to the mainland faced further exigencies. Housing was limited, resulting in the creation of slums and bidonvilles or shantytowns built on the periphery of large cities like Paris, Nanterre and Marseille. These unofficial settlements were left neglected by the French state for decades, and were notorious for their poor conditions of life. Where the state did decide to intervene, those incursions often involved surveillance and brutality, while basic services remained lacking for extended periods of time. For example, children inhabiting the bidonville of Nanterre were not integrated into the French schooling system until 1967.[3]
As an attempt to cope with housing the new population, in the 1950s and 1960s, the state built emergency structures around France to house workers from Maghreb, the Foyers de Travailleurs Migrants. Subsequently similar structures were built in the Ile-de-France region for workers predominantly from Sub-Saharan Africa. The structures were built rapidly at low cost, as they were initially intended for temporary use, but remain inhabited by the workers – now retired – and have aged poorly. It was only in 1997 when the State invested in their renovation with the intent to convert the buildings into social housing, a process which is still far from completion due to the complexities and expense involved in the work (e.g., the conversion of 20,000 rooms less than 7.5 square meters, or 80 sq. ft.).[4]

© Guillaume Duchemin

This represents only a sliver of the historical Algerian experience in France. What would be more complicated if not impossible to accurately set out are the adverse consequences still endured by persons of Algerian origin today, deriving from the policies France implemented in response to the Algerian migration until at least the mid-seventies. A 2018 report produced by the French Ministry of the Interior indicates that for the last three decades, an immigrant born in Algeria is three times more likely to be unemployed than an immigrant born in Italy.[5] A study conducted in 2012 by the National Statistics Bureau of France[6] concluded that the children of Algerian (and Italian) immigrants are overrepresented in the cohort of students who do not end up completing their education or obtaining a diploma.[7] Today, the descendants of migrants from Algeria and other former French colonies are disproportionately represented in the banlieues of Paris and other large cities. Tensions in these neighborhoods have occasionally boiled over; one recalls the riots of 2005 in Paris, and recently, unrest in Nantes in response to the killing of an unarmed man by police. National studies indicate that generally, while the children of immigrants are doing better than their parents in terms of poverty, they are considerably worse off than their native counterparts; immigrants and their descendants are less represented in the French public service than their native counterparts, and more than a quarter of immigrants feel that they have experienced discrimination. These discrepancies are significantly more pronounced in immigrant populations from the Maghreb and Africa, relative to migrants from southern Europe. There are reasons to remain optimistic. They are rooted in France’s tradition of intellectualism and renewal, its robust democracy that has managed not to stagnate into a two-identical-party death-match, and in its independent judiciary. Still, of course, there are also reasons to worry. By the time this column is published, the French senate will have debated a proposal to eliminate the word “race” from the Constitution, an amendment first proposed by Francois Hollande’s Socialists in 2012 and passed this summer at the National Assembly.  The relevant constitutional clause provides that the Republic guarantees equality before the law of all its citizens, without distinction based on origin, race or religion. The proposed deletion of “race” is premised on the “scientific non-existence” of race – that is, the genetic identicalness of humans of all colours, and confusingly, the fact that the word was originally inserted to oppose Nazi racist theory in 1946. It is unclear how the historical context surrounding the insertion of the word renders it less relevant today, and it is even less obvious how the lack of a genetic basis deprives a social construct as powerful as race of its impact or reality.  The constitutional project is bewilderingly obtuse in its insensitivity to an issue that is very much alive in France. It is unclear what kind of practical difference, if any, this amendment will lead to in the legal treatment of racial discrimination as France is a signatory to various international treaties prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and moreover has enacted domestic criminal and other legislation proscribing such discrimination. Still, given that the proposed amendment is being considered alongside a simultaneous proposal to add to the constitution a reference to sex as a ground upon which distinction before the law is forbidden, the amendment sends a problematic message regarding which French citizens are deserving of constitutional protection. There is no such thing as perfect hindsight and it would be ill advised to draw facile causative connections between policy and results, given the complexity of the issues at stake. But denying or failing to learn from the legacy of a haphazard approach to migration would be an opportunity lost, and would place new vulnerable migrant communities in an even more perilous situation. Whether aware or accepting of it or not, we – both immigrant and native alike – are inheritors of a legacy of peoples and their histories, and to some extent, our lives today are proof of the errors or of the successes of forces that came into being and were exercised before we ever existed. Poor or unconsidered policy makes for an ideal breeding ground for populism and xenophobia. There is enough here, confronting us in daily life, to suggest that colour-blind (or history-blind) and ad hoc legislative action has been, is and will continue to be insufficient to protect us from a divided, anti-minority and unsafe future.  
  About the author: Fabia Chenivesse-Wong. Fabia studied and practiced law at a regional law firm in her hometown of Toronto, Canada, before moving to The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2011. For six years she worked for UN tribunals, prosecuting international crime. Currently based in the south of France, she writes about gender, race, culture and the law.      
[1] Willams, T.C. (2017), “The French Origins of ‘You Will Not Replace Us’”, The New Yorker, 4 December 2017. [2] For a more detailed discussion, see Stora, B. (2004) Histoire de l’Algérie coloniale, 1830-1954, and House, J. “The colonial and post-colonial dimensions of Algerian migration to France”, University of Leeds. Retrieved from: [3] Gastaut, Y. « Les bidonvilles, lieux d’exclusion et de marginalité en France durant les trente glorieuses », Cahiers de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 69 | 2004, mis en ligne le 10 mai 2006, consulté le 30 septembre 2016. URL : [4] Caisse des Depots des Territoires, «Habitat – Foyers de travailleurs migrants: un monde a part », 10 Sept 2010. [5] Aunay, T. «Infos Migrations: Le statut d’activité des immigrés entre 1968 et 2013», Département des Statistiques, Des Etudes et de la Documentation, No. 93, février 2018. [6] «Insee Référence – Immigrés et descendants d’immigrés en France», 2012. [7] Brinbaum et al., « Insee Référence – Les enfants d’immigrés ont des parcours scolaires differenciés selon leur origine migratoire», octobre 2012.