Under the pretext that French citizens are equal before the law, there are no official statistics concerning their national or ethnic origins, nor their religious beliefs. These are considered private matters which should not be quantified. However, extrapolations suggest that between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the French population are naturalized, or second, third, fourth generation immigrants from France’s lost colonial empire. Denial of their existence as a minority has helped to hide underhand neocolonial meddling and profiteering by successive French governments and corporate companies. And, at a time when regional folklore and particularities have been generously encouraged, this denial has also turned them away from participation in the political process. This is changing and has reached a stage where their votes could decide the result of the two rounds presidential election, to be held in April and May.
Colonial immigration to France has been going on for over a century, but it was no more than a trickle until independence was granted. The last to achieve this, after eight years of liberation struggle, was Algeria in 1962. Algeria was France’s closest colony geographically, since Algiers is just 600 nautical miles across the Mediterranean from Marseille. And constitutionally it was close too, as it had almost the same status as did the metropolitan regional administrations. Europeans, mostly from France and Spain, had full civil rights and parliamentary representation, as did “natives” of Jewish faith, while “natives” of Muslim faith, nine tenth of the population, were only allowed a statutory representation by their tribal elders. This meant that, for the “French Muslims” who had joined the Free French Forces in 1942 and had fought in Italy, liberated France and occupied Germany, returning home meant reassuming a second class citizenship. Many refused and used their veteran know-how to organize the National Liberation Army.
Algeria was a part of France but Algeria was in practice segregated. When, after eight years of counterinsurgency by up to half a million mostly conscript troops, independence was brokered in Evian and a million Europeans left Algeria for France, they brought their racial and political prejudices with them, and these prejudices duly became those of a majority of metropolitan French, as the number of immigrant workers from Algeria increased significantly. (To a lesser degree, this increase also concerned workers coming from Morocco and Tunisia and, lesser still, from the twelve countries which used to make up French West Africa. And, lesser again, from ex-Indochina. Chinese immigration has only become significant since the 90’s.)
The 60’s were boom years for the developed world and France was no exception. Factories, multilane highways and building sites were going up all around the main cities, along with a huge demand for cheap labor. The new government of independent Algeria agreed to send young rural males to France, according to the needs of France’s economic growth. This commerce in human beings helped keep down the salaries of French workers and weakened trade unions, which were unable to cope with this influx of unqualified and often illiterate labor.
By the early 70’s, the mostly male immigrant population from Algeria and other African nations was at an all time high. Most of them were living in sordid conditions, dormitories and jerrybuilt huts, and sending all they could save back home to their families. But they had also acquired skills and, when the flow of non-European immigrants was stopped in 1974, it was deemed necessary that they should stay. Suddenly, public opinion discovered their plight. Literacy classes were organized, they were encouraged to naturalize themselves and it was made easier for their wives and children to join them in France.
All this time, Algerian workers in France had stayed as invisible as they had been under colonial rule. As they moved their families into aging apartment blocks on the outskirts of towns, these peripheral neighborhoods were abandoned by their French working class tenants and the invisibility was maintained. These are the “banlieues” , where riot police face petrol bombs, where cars burn, where rumored arms caches are never found. But this is now. And another and more recent piece of the puzzle may help to explain how it came about.
Algerian immigrants had learnt how not to be seen the hard way. Many had experienced the “ratonades”, pogroms organized by the police, the military and even civilians, in France as well as in Algeria during the war of liberation and the segregation that followed. But their children had not shared this experience, nor had those immigrants coming from West Africa, their neighbors and their school friends.
Algeria was only pacified in the 1870’s, Morocco in the 1920’s. This is recent history of bloodshed and mass murder, reinforced by the contemporary violence of the insurgency, 1954-1962. West Africa had endured five centuries of European exactions, but no actual war and few uprisings since the end of the slave trade.
North Africa has a population which is part Berber, probable descendants of the Numids conquered by Marius, and part Arab, since the 8th century. North Africans have an ancient written culture and a religion (Islam) of their own. West Africans have, to a great extent, lost their even more ancient Neolithic and Iron Age oral cultures and beliefs.
Almost all Europeans had fled independent Algeria, which meant that both sides kept in mind the old colonial relationship. In the independent West African countries, the European presence increased on the basis of peer group cooperation in health, education, security and defense.
North Africans have an identity which has sustained them in adversity and which they are loath to discard. West Africans have little to loose, with so few competing traditions on the path to being French.
Left to themselves, the North Africans in France might have developed a ghetto existence. It could not have happened to the West Africans, who have no strong common identity to fall back on.
Post-colonial France has brought together the inhabitants of two different worlds and submitted them to the same social exclusion. This could have set them in opposition to each other but, as their children mixed at school, it turned out that they complemented each other, in sport, music and stand-up comedy, where the self-deprecating humor of the North Africans is offset by that of the West Africans who, without compunction, joke about the colored and white society they live in. For the more traditional and older members, Islam has been a unifying force, as it is practiced far beyond the Sahara, to the banks of the river Niger.
This interaction took place out of sight, in the no-go zones on the edge of cities, and suddenly bust forth in the 90’s with marching and riots. Sport celebrities, variety artists and token representatives of varying darkness of skin were solicited by parties right across the political spectrum. Integration was on everybody’s lips. Special development and government aids to community organizations and to anyone able to offer a few jobs were promised, reduced and finally withdrawn.
Twelve years on, things are back where they started and, what with new clandestine arrivals, have probably worsened. Unemployment is higher than elsewhere, especially among the under 35’s, for whom opportunities are slim, living where they live and looking, speaking and dressing the way they do. French society at large remains as closed as ever, comforted by the ambient idea that terror is Muslim. In November 2005, the accidental death of two adolescents during a police round-up sparked off street fighting in nearly all the “banlieues”. A policy of law and order was imposed, which resulted in overcrowded prisons and a relative calm. Promises were made and the nation debated the pros and cons of positive action “à l’Américaine”. which somehow got translated as “discrimination positive”, which is full of innuendoes. In a country where women have claimed and gained such rights over the past thirty years, was it constitutional?
However, French society is not impermeable to the strangers in its midst. Countless are those who have moved from the dilapidated neighborhoods where they were brought up and joined the middle class. For obvious reasons and because they have justly taken advantage of measures concerning their sex, it has been less difficult for women. But what seems apparent is that the members of this socially mobile group have maintained their communal ties and have realized the importance of militant action and of demonstrating who they are and who they can be.
In the coming contest for the presidency and for a majority in the National Assembly, this political activity should show its first concrete results. The Center Left (Ségolène Royal) is as usual working at wining votes on their right. So far, they haven’t shown any sign of recognizing this budding political force. This could be risky as the Center Right (François Bayrou), fishing for leftist votes, might have a greater appeal. Either way, the new government which results from the vote can’t go on ignoring the new minority, which has constructed itself and which needs take its place among the Bretons and the Basques, the Savoyards, the Alsatians, the Normans, etc.
If it refuses change, French society will find itself following the path of extremism. And, though the choice seems nowhere as clear as in France, most other developed countries are in a similar situation. With respect to the developing world, the French have not always been exemplary. The electoral campaign which is starting should show what the example is to be this time.
KEN COUESBOUC can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org