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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Anne Morillon

Sociologist, Collectif Topik, Rennes

The political and institutional objectives of recognising the place of migrant populations in French society (which struggles to see itself in plural terms) are the heart of this text. Yet our society’s cultural and linguistic diversity has been a reality for a very long time, immigration having been a structural and structuring phenomenon for French society since the mid-19th century. What is now changing is our view of it. Sometimes, it is seen as a source of wealth: the aim of The Encyclopedia of migrants is to honour the diversity of life stories, migrations and how these have left their mark on urban space. Sometimes, it is seen as too heavy a load to carry in an economically strained country and, especially since the tragic events of 2015, a danger, a security risk and a risk to French society’s cohesion. When it comes to the phenomenon of migration, contradictory forces are tracking across early 21st century France, between inclusion and exclusion, embrace and rejection, the constitutional state and state of emergency, equality and discrimination, recognition and denial, memory and forgetting…

Using as my basis a reflection on the emergence of a memorialisation, then of a history of immigration in France, I would like to look back at the complex, incomplete process of recognising the place of immigration and immigrants in contemporary French society.

Wilful blindness and the process of assimilating foreigners in 19th and 20th century France

The process which had been underway since pre-revolutionary France to make the regions politically, culturally and linguistically uniform led to the nation being represented as homogeneous. Cultural and linguistic groupings and ethnic and religious minorities were not recognised as such by the French Republic, which only saw the citizen – a kind of abstract political concept – while giving him equality “in return”. To control the plurality inherent to the phenomenon of migration, which questioned the very idea of one homogenous nation, the Republic came up with a response in the form of the “assimilationist” project. A foreigner no longer existed as such, becoming instead a part of the community of citizens. In the end, French society forgot (or simply stopped seeing) that as time went by its population was formed with a fairly significant population of foreign-born people, to the extent that even now, demographers believe one out of every four French people has their roots in immigration. The Republic’s institutions–schools and the army, but also the Church, factories and unions–played an important part in the assimilationist project and the cultural homogenisation of people from inside the nation (who would otherwise have had their own regional cultures) and from outside, who had arrived as immigrants.

In the 1990s, associations memorialise the past to show France in a new light

Over a period of about 15 years, initiatives to memorialise the past and its heritage led by associations and, later, public institutions, shed light on the place of successive waves of immigration in the history of contemporary French society. They highlighted what immigrants had contributed to France’s demographics, economy, society and culture.

A specific memory of immigration most likely first re-emerged in the work of historian Gérard Noiriel on the former Longwy ironworks in the 1980s. By looking into the history of all workers, including immigrants, he implicitly demonstrated why migration is absent (and illegitimate) in classic historiography and underlines why “immigrants’ memory” could usefully resurface for immigrants, their descendants and French society as a whole. In the early 1990s, the Association pour un musée de l’immigration (the AMI, or “Association for a Museum of Immigration”) created by Gérard Noiriel, fought for the idea of a space dedicated to the history and memory of immigration in France, albeit without much success. The Association des Travailleurs Renault de l’Ile Seguin (ATRIS, or the Ile Seguin Renault Workers’ Association) created in 1998 and the Mémoire Active association all came not long after, pleading the case for a memorial on Renault’s industrial site in Boulogne-Billancourt.

Moving towards the creation of memorial to immigration: the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration

Early in the new millennium, the idea started to get around. A study of the academic, political and legal feasibility of the project was entrusted by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to Driss El Yazami of the Génériques association, a group which had a significant, pioneering influence on how France’s history of immigration was to be memorialised, and to Rémy Schwartz (chief legal officer in the French State Council). The report was published in the “Documentation Française” French public records with the title Pour la création d’un Centre national de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration (or “For the creation of a National Centre for the History and Cultures of Immigration”). It supported the idea of creating a national centre dedicated to the history and various cultures associated with immigration, emphasising that there was intense social demand (especially from not-for-profit groups) and that this was a subject with a rich historiography which had been extensively renewed over the previous two decades. This research could be used to flesh out the history recounted in the centre, immigration being considered by historians as a blind spot in the nation’s story.

In 2003, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin tasked Jacques Toubon with drawing up the plans for the Centre de ressources et de mémoire de l’immigration (“Resource and Memorial Centre for Immigration”), the central question being how the history of immigration should be recognised as a part of the construction of the French nation. Between April 2003 and July 2004, researchers and activists each lent their expertise, experience and vision for the project. The Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (CNHI, or National Centre for the History of Immigration) opened its doors in 2007 with the Repères (or “Bearings”) exhibition retracing the history of immigration in France over two centuries. Located in the Porte-Dorée area of Paris in the former Musée des Colonies, the CNHI made an explicit link between colonial history and the history of immigration. While the CNHI’s coming into being was an important step in recognising immigration in France (it has since been renamed the Musée Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration), the fact that it was inaugurated by the President of the Republic seven years after it opened, on 15 December 2014, suggests that the state’s relationship with it was uneasy. Recognising French society’s debt to past immigrants in this way seemed somewhat irreconcilable with the controlled approach to migration which had been in use for over 40 years and, in more recent times, how the phenomenon was dealt with from a security point of view.

Renewed interest from institutions: heritage institutions and research into the history and memory of immigration in regional France

On top of the trouble stirred up by this memorialising initiative, the CNHI came up against a patchy awareness of the history of immigration in France. To improve the data around the subject, in 2005 the CNHI and the Agence pour la Cohésion Sociale et l’Égalité des Chances (ACSE, or Agency for Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunities) launched an appeal to start a national project about regional histories of immigration. The aim was to enrich the work around immigration’s history by looking at the subject on a different scale, the idea being that regional histories of immigration do not simply reflect the national history. These regional stories shed as much light on the phenomenon of migration in general as they do on the plurality of the history to be found in those regions. Such studies were sometimes determining factors in triggering awareness or, at the very least, a process of reflection on the place of immigration in provincial France. The researchers’ implication was that this awareness was vital if progress was to be made in the questions around the history and memory of immigration. This was the case in Brittany, for instance, where the research team which worked on the study wanted to link up with, or even launch, projects which would highlight their work and allow them to be a part of urban life. The Migrations exhibition ran from March to September 2013 at the Musée de Bretagne and was then adapted for Brest, Saint-Brieuc and even Brno in the Czech Republic, setting the scene for the roll-out of a “memory history” of immigration network. From 2011 to 2012, this was structured around the Musée de Bretagne in close collaboration with the Topik Collective and the socio-linguists at PREFics (Université Rennes 2).

Plural expressions of memory from civil society: moving towards the long-term recognition of immigration and immigrants in French society?

Various initiatives have come into being over the past 15 years, and they have taken various pathways. They are collective memories based on a single national origin and share a common experience of migration with a specific relationship to French society. One example would be the Spanish Republican’s memory of exile, which has been reactivated by their descendants who have formed an association to pay homage to their parent’s and grandparent’s struggle again fascism during the Spanish Civil War, but also in France during World War Two. This memorialisation against silence and forgetting also emphasises how immigrants were received in France in sometimes precarious or even inhuman conditions, but also with a sense of solidarity which was at times expressed on a local level to these refugees. The Indigènes de la République (“Natives of the Republic”) collective was the originator of more memorialising action in 2006, denouncing the heavy influence of colonialism in the way immigrants from post-colonial nations were represented and treated both socially and politically. This memory of domination, oppression and struggle is used in the fight against discrimination and in favour of citizenship. Immigrant memories were also deeply embedded in rapidly evolving urban spaces. “Memory” projects mobilised locals of all origins; public authorities; heritage institutions; expert historians, sociologists, archivists and protectors of heritage; and artists in working class areas of major French cities. These initiatives were often strongly encouraged by local government and aimed to maintain social cohesion in areas which were ruptured as much by the living conditions of inhabitants as by transformations in the buildings themselves. Here, memories of immigration intermingled with memories of the urban environment as immigrants and inhabitants of working class areas were one and the same people. This type of project was an opportunity to involve artists, with notable examples coming from L’âge de la tortue in Rennes which uses singular, intimate stories which go beyond collective history to highlight the universality of exile and migration as an experience, thereby changing our perspective on migrants, exiled peoples and refugees and putting them in their rightful place at the heart of the urban centre.

In place of a conclusion…

Writing the presence of immigrants into France’s history is a challenge taken up, consciously or not, by a diverse range of people through very different projects. The movement towards memorialisation does not follow a single route, instead it intersects multiple interests in contemporary French society, academic, cultural, urban, architectural, artistic, citizen-based, heritage-based — and, last but not least, political. In comparison with the previous decade, the years from 2000 to the present day have marked French society’s introduction to a more in-depth inquiry into these questions. What all these initiatives have in common is their desire to inculcate practices around and representations of migrants into a dynamic based on inclusion and equality. Recognition is progressing on this score, as the Other and her history are included in our shared history. Yet forces moving in the other direction are in play, and a belief in exclusion which currently forms a fairly large consensus among the French people is threatening to brutally sweep away all the work done up to now.