Academics answer racism

April 11, 1997

French lecturers are challenging the prejudice that makes scapegoats of immigrants

Immigration has become a focal point of study and concern in French academia over recent months as National Front gains, stringent new nationality laws and the protest movement of the sans-papiers have combined to keep the issue high on the public agenda.

One sign of that concern has been a snowballing series of petitions and public letters of protest originating within academia since last summer's expulsion of hunger-striking sans-papiers by riot police from a Paris church.

"Many academics now feel the need to take a stand as citizens as well as researchers," said socio-anthropologist Christophe Daum. "They are fed up with seeing immigrants used as scapegoats for a problem that the French have with their own identity.

"Things are beginning to move. Researchers are mobilising - they are in the field, linking up with immigrant associations, conducting surveys," he said, pointing to the well-attended colloquium he organised last month in Paris with panels of both academics and immigrant community leaders.

There is also a burgeoning interest in migration and ethnic relations among students at all levels according to Dr Daum and to Philippe Dewitte, an associate researcher at Paris VII University and editor of the review Hommes et Migrations.

"It's just unbelievable, the number of students from first years to PhD level who are now calling the review asking for documentation on immigration issues," he said.

Dr Dewitte is convinced that interest is spurred by concern at the rising tide of racism in France. "One recurrent theme they are choosing to work on is that of the image immigrants have - as if racism is a question of image," he said.

As head of an association for speakers of the Mali language, Soninke, in France, Malian sociologist Mahamet Timera has also noted a fixation with image and appearance. "The young people who contact the association equate identity with ethnicity, it's as if they echo the increasing French definition of the ethnic basis of nationality. Even when they have French nationality, these young people typically say: 'I'm Malian, you just have to look at me'," he said.

In his lectures, Dr Daum has witnessed the same level of interest in immigration issues as Dr Dewitte has as editor of his review. "I planned to spend half a session with postgraduates on the recent history of immigration legislation and ended up twice having to do a two-and-a-half hour session," he said.

In parallel with that stir of interest, the social sciences are going through a shake-up in the traditional French paradigm of ethnicity and identity, still strongly marked by France's political centralism and universal model of French language, education and culture in the name of Republican egalitarianism. This heritage means that today immigration is seen predominantly in terms of integration - how best to absorb immigrants into French society. "Academics in one school see integration as a civilising process which means immigration is not a long-term problem because people end up becoming assimilated," said Dr Daum. "For that group, any talk of multiculturalism is seen as a slippery slope to communitarianism."

Opposing this model of Republican integration are those who defend multi-culturalism as part of a fundamental right to be different. "A third trend in France today is to argue that French cultural hegemony is out of date because of Europe," Dr Daum said.

Dr Dewitte said the multiculturalists are still outnumbered in French academia. "Some believe we can live with differences - but they are a minority," he said. "Researchers in France are right in the political debate over differences - it's quite clear when anyone starts a research project on immigration whether they intend to demonstrate the dangers of communitarianism or the benefits of multiculturalism."

France's "spectacularly" different approach to immigration studies compared to its neighbours is not only due to the Republican model which formerly triumphed over Breton or Basque differences, says Dr Dewitte.

"The French use history to develop their theory of integration because France does have a 150-year history of mainly European immigration to draw on, whereas it is more recent in many other European countries," he pointed out.

A number of French researchers are engaged in studying an emerging trend in migration and development which is also particular to France.

As a former colonial power, France receives most migrants from the Senegal river valley shared by Mali, Mauritania and Senegal in the impoverished Sahel region of Africa.

These migrants keep a strongly organised link to the development of their home villages and are now gradually being acknowledged by the African and French governments as significant partners in development projects.

In the greater Paris region, more than 400 Senegal Valley village associations help build infrastructure at home as well as operating as a mutual benefit fund for those working in France.

"There has been very little research done on this role migrants play. They are studied as immigrants in a host country, they are studied at home in their country of origin but the contribution of migrants to their home economy and the impact on their home society is less well known," Dr Daum said. French researchers studying this aspect of migration have highlighted both the potential new role for migrants when they are involved in development policy and also the dual dimension it gives to migrants' identity and citizenship.

But Papa Dieng, a PhD student from the Senegal river valley who is completing his doctorate in Paris, is not convinced by these French interpretations.

"This talk of a new trans-national citizenship is typical French hot air. All the talk about integration is part of the old colonial obsession with assimilating other peoples. Just leave them as they are," he said.

Mr Dieng is sceptical about expectations of the migrants' rolein development but he is also keenly interested in the phenomenon of people contributing to their home economies. "How can the migrant associations be expected to succeed where governments and NGOs have failed? It's the first time migrants have been asked to undertake development," he said.

After his doctorate, Mr Dieng intends to return to Dakar, undoubtedly to teach, but also, if possible, to set up a centre for migration studies - and this time it will be an African one.

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