The outsiders en bloc

Immigration, 'Race' and Ethnicity in Contemporary France
May 9, 1997

France 1997: 100,000 protest against Jean Marie Le Pen's extreme rightwing Front Nationale conference in Strasbourg, the symbolic capital of Europe. Meanwhile in Vitrolles, southern France, the FN captures a fourth municipality as the parliamentary passage of the contentious Debre legislation ignites fierce national debate for its strengthening of residence requirements. As with last year's highly visible expulsion of the sans papiers - the documentless - from St Bernard's Church in Paris, these actualites have reaffirmed immigration as the central question of society and politics in France.

Alec Hargreaves is a professor of French who has produced a work with a social science bent. The publisher obviously hopes that it will appeal to both French specialists and social scientists, notwithstanding the reluctance of Brit-centric researchers to look beyond their own shores. This in itself is a shame. Our near-neighbour France makes an interesting comparison with the United Kingdom, having a number of points in common, notably a colonial legacy and the need to come to terms with it. There are also a number of differences. These include the republican concepts of citoyenette (citizenship) and laicite (secularism), which are cardinal French values, and the new betes noires such as the banlieues - neglected suburbs latterly the scene of racial unrest - and the DOM-TOM, French Caribbean and Indian Ocean Islands that have not been granted independence and whose people are still discriminated against in mainland France, despite having full French nationality.

Grounding his observations in official sources, journals and the significant French literature in the field, Hargreaves is nothing if not thorough. But his opening gambit, that "immigration continues apace", is highly contestable, or at least ambiguous, given that official figures have indicated the reverse (eg those of the Department of Population and Migration show a halving of incoming persons from 1990-1995, as recently reported in Le Monde). Hargreaves himself underlines the unreliability of the official totals: for example, once immigrants acquire French nationality, they become subsumed en bloc into "the French" for statistical purposes. Heavy on numerical data, the book's opening chapters on socio-economic factors are solid, if occasionally stolid.

Things change gear, however, with the chapter on ethnic identification and mobilisation. The second generation of North African Maghreb youth and antiracist activity are discussed, drawing on popular culture and the mass media. In this chapter, and in the following one on national identity, Hargreaves seems to find his voice. Further differences between France and the UK emerge. In the UK, multicultural tolerance dictates; immigrants are considered and calculated as "ethnic minorities". In France, the model is one of "integration" (the mot juste that has replaced the unfashionable "assimilation"), and the gradual erosion of ethnic difference until immigrants have fully blended into French society.

Hargreaves claims that "the cultural and political bodies of nations seldom coincide exactly... By their very nature immigrants cut across this homogenising imperative". Islam, France's second religion, looms large in the popular imagination as a national threat, but Hargreaves rejects such fears in his consideration of the state's (mis)handling of the notorious legal challenge to Muslim pupils wearing the traditional veil in schools. He writes: "The biggest long-term obstacle to 'integration' lies not in the cultural heritage of recent immigrants and their descendants but in the barriers placed in their way by the French themselves."

Perhaps the book account lacks an ethnographic element, which could have provided a respite from the figures. The voices of the immigrant subjects are notably absent from this rigidly empirical approach. Oddly, the entire subject of politics - including the rise of the FN and both left and right responses to do it when in power - is relegated to the final chapter.

The book's useful time line is already outdated; but this is excusable in a book of this kind. While no earth-shattering new ground is covered, Immigration, 'Race', and Ethnicity in Contemporary France provides an exhaustive introduction for anyone interested in the subject and lots of pointers to further reading. With Europe at the centre of political debate, this book deserves a wide readership across disciplines and frontiers.

Rupa Huq is researching a PhD in youth culture at the University of East London; she is currently at the University of Strasbourg.

Immigration, 'Race' and Ethnicity in Contemporary France

Author - Alec Hargreaves
ISBN - 0 415 11817 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £13.99
Pages - 267

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