French split on migrants

October 17, 1997

A NUMBER of prominent French academics are embroiled in a public dispute over immigration and nationality laws sparked by draft legislation.

The Government's failure to fulfil a pre-election promise to scrap a controversial law on immigration and nationality led first to protest petitions and then to a counter-attack by 11 well-known academics who argue for stringent immigration controls and call opponents "unrealistic" and "demagogical".

Underlying the polemic are the profound differences in attitudes to multiculturalism, ethnic diversity and national identity that mark French academia.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu of the College de France was among those who signed the first petition by 1,300 artists and intellectuals expressing "immense anxiety" that only 1,200 requests had been granted for residence and working permits out of a total of 90,000 submitted under a scheme to clear up the situation of immigrants without valid documents.

The petition calls for all those who came forward to be given papers in order not to be "duped" and not to risk a build-up of disappointed hopes. Instead of scrapping the laws which led to bitter conflict under the previous government, the Socialist Party now intends to amend them.

In a second petition, more academics, including historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, warned the government that they would call it to account and demanded an explanation for broken election pledges. The signatories include the priest of the church broken into by riot police last year to expel hunger-striking permit-seekers. They ask on the immigration issue, whether "the future is going to be ruined by old acts of cowardice which have already been proven unable to halt an extreme-right for whom all ambiguity is a gift".

The petitions sparked a response from a group of academics including philosophers Guy Coq and Alain Finkielkraut, sociologists Christian Bachmann, Juliette Minces and Pierre-Andre Taguieff and historian Emmanuel Todd.

They argue that selective immigration in science, technology and business is vital, but that the influx of unskilled immigrants should be stopped because of unemployment. They call for "a profound change in the world economic order" to redress the situation which encourages economic migration.

Most signatories are known for their "Republicanism", which in French academia refers to the universalist model of national identity, and strongly oppose multiculturalism and ethnicity, seen as a threat to that identity.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, a specialist in immigration, Islam and Iranian history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, said: "They differ from right-wing thinkers who demand zero immigration. But on the issue of immigration, assimilation and national identity, they differ little from the right and far-right in their fundamental approach."

The "Republicanist" school of thought holds sway in French academia, where the attitude to minority identities influences ethnic and immigration studies and ensures that feminist studies are marginalised and gay studies unknown.

The public row over immigration involves a small number of academics whose high media profile gives them far greater legitimacy and power than is the case in many other countries, according to Mr Khosrokhavar.

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