Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Postcard from Paris

By Claude Fischer

Spending a bit of time in Paris turns your correspondent’s thoughts to America. (It’s an occupational preoccupation). I was particularly struck by these posters in the Metro:



The first reads, roughly, “Our ancestors were not all Gauls”; the second, “One French person in four derives from immigration.” Yet another placard shows a 19th-century bricklayer at work overlain with the legend, “Your grandfather in a museum.” The posters are part of a public relations campaign just launched by the French Museum of Immigration History to press the notion that “the history of immigration is every [French person’s] history.” More broadly, these posters appear to be part of  French elites’ larger effort to diffuse severe tensions around current third-world immigration by normalizing it, by casting today’s newcomers as just more of what came before. This is an historical stretch and the campaign has already ticked off the xenophobic right which focuses attention on crimes by Arab- and Sub-Saharan African immigrants against “real” Europeans.

That France seems in need of a campaign to instill there what has here been a long accepted cliché, endorsed by both left and right, that we are a “nation of immigrants,”says a lot about the difference between America and Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And it says something else about that difference today.


Current debates in the U.S. Congress over immigration focus on economic and fairness issues: Will “comprehensive” reform help or hurt the economy, reduce or expand the federal deficit? What is more unfair – letting those who entered illegally stay or breaking up families that include the undocumented? Yet, we know that much of the emotion in the debate concerns the deeper question of whether native-born Americans feel threatened or excited by the cultural variation that immigration brings. The French debate puts our current concerns into perspective.

A slightly higher percentage of American residents (about 12.5 percent) are foreign-born than of French residents (about 11 percent). But the social disruption is greater there. About 7 percent of the French population is of North African or Turkish origin, another 1 or 2 percent are from sub-Saharan Africa. France, like the U.S., has many undocumented (“sans papiers”) residents. (Also, about 4 percent of the French population is “Outre-mer,” living in overseas departments around the globe; those who move to European France are not officially immigrants.) Thus, France, particularly the Paris region, receives a large, racially distinct, and heavily Muslim flow of immigrants. Given birth rates, second-generation immigrants are forming a rapidly growing portion of French youth.

This level of racial and cultural diversity is historically new to France, roughly a development of the last few decades (despite the Immigration Museum’s p.r. campaign). Although many of the immigrants come from French-speaking nations, former French colonies in particular, the cultural contrast they present to the host population is notably sharper than that between our greatest source of immigration, Mexico, and America. The French have been going through severe conflicts over this new diversity, at levels reminiscent of the U.S.’s 19th century fights around Catholic and Jewish immigrants.

One long struggle, starting about 1990, concerned the question of whether Muslim girls would be allowed to wear head scarves in the public schools. Students’ insistence on wearing the hijab challenged France’s longstanding policy of laïcité (secularism) which demands that public institutions be free of religious influence. (It also offended the emerging feminist movement.) The controversy soon spun into a wider, highly emotional debate about the increasing numbers and cultural assertiveness of Muslims in France. In 2003, France adopted a law banning any manifest religious symbol in the public schools. Several years later, the government banned facial coverings in public, clearly targeting the most traditional Muslims.

In late 2005, a serious of riots broke out in les banlieues, the suburban districts where France’s poor and unemployed are concentrated in large housing projects. (This is the opposite of the America’s social geography.) Largely North African and Sub-Saharan African youth burned thousands of cars in hundreds of cities over several weeks. Their immediate complaints were about police abuse, but their larger complaints were about discrimination and chronic unemployment. One reaction was tightened restrictions on immigration. The violence also helped Nicholas Sarkozy, the tough-talking and -acting Minister of the Interior in 2005, get elected President in 2007. His victory was followed by more banlieues riots.

As a final marker of the French tensions is the political power of the right-wing National Front party. It has run on explicit law-and-order and anti-immigrant stances and has made a few strong electoral showings since 2002 (although political arrangements have curbed the actual number of seats the party holds). The comparable American case might be the Know-Nothings of the 19th century.

At home

For all the intensity of the immigration issue in the United States today (including detentions and deportations), it does not seem to touch the nerves of our society to the painful degree it appears to in France – nor to the degree that it did in the 19th-century when Americans seriously debated whether eastern and southern European immigration meant the end of America as they knew it. That debate was often carried out with clubs and torches, bloody street wars and lynchings. Today’s controversy is, both by historical comparisons and by cross-national ones, at least the French case, one we should be able to handle soberly.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.