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African diaspora in France

Karima Laachir

My area of research focuses on the African diaspora in France, which mainly consists of the North African or Franco-Maghrebian diaspora. Descendants of North African immigrants in France or so called “Beur”, French citizens of North African descent, still carry the image of the North African immigrant with its violent colonial residue that relegates them to the margins of French society. Even though the Franco-Maghrebians are less physically visible as the racial other, they are perceived as a racially ‘different’ group because of their supposed cultural, ethnic and religious differences, which are deemed inferior and incompatible with French values. Hence, they are still seen as the Other of France despite their French nationality and their strong link with the culture of the French urban banlieues where they were born and brought up.

French fraternity and equality are supposed to offer all members of society the same rights and privileges and protection under universal principles of justice, but France’s diasporic populations are still marginalised and excluded because of their ‘different’ origins.

In my research, I examine the processes of racialisation of those seen as ‘foreign’ even though they are French nationals in contemporary France. I examine how the process of assimilation is manipulated by the State’s power (or power relations) as it is based on the total cultural conformity of individuals and groups. Gérard Noiriel (1991) identifies this process of exclusion of certain French nationals from equal rights as a form of ‘tyranny of the national’, which is due to the fact that these ‘ethnic’ groups such as the Franco-Maghrebians are essentialised as inherently ‘different’. Etienne Balibar (1992, 11) recognises how these processes of racialisation and nationalisation of the State saturated the hierarchical structures of the State’s institutions. Therefore, Balibar argues for a certain égaliberté, a concept that perceives égalité and liberté as strongly linked. However, the French model is based on the belief that any form of recognition of ‘difference’ can lead to the division of society into distinct groups and thus can lead to tension and struggle.

As French citizens with certain common but diverse cultural and religious ‘Maghrebian’ identifications that come from their common history and the history of their parents’ migration to France, the Franco-Maghrebians problematise the cultural and historical mechanisms of belonging to France as they provide an alternative to notions of blood, ‘race’ and bounded national culture. In my research, I analyse the cultural production of France’s diasporic population (literature, film and music). With their mixed origins, cultural multiplicity, they resist the authority of the ‘constructed’ and ‘mythical’ national purity and cultural determinism, since their position on the threshold between communities (the French and the North African immigrant communities) and national camps (the French and the North Africans) allow them to offer a basis for solidarity that transcends ethnic absolutism and national belonging. They also problematise the belief in common memory as the basis of particularity as they reveal the contingent political dynamics of commemoration, especially in their relation to their parents’ colonial and anti-colonial memory. They interrupt the idea of genealogy and geography as the basis for belonging to a nation because of the double bind of their own identities.

A Brief History of North African Diaspora in France
Migrants from Africa to France after the Second World War were predominantly from North Africa. Immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa has always remained relatively small in comparison with that from North Africa. African immigration to France is strongly linked to the history of French colonialism; the French depended heavily on African troops from the colonies in the two World Wars; most of the soldiers were repatriated after the war and only a small number stayed. However, it was in the post-war period that North African immigration to France was activated because of the shortages of labour within France and the enduring effects of French colonial policies in the colonies, which had pushed the peasants to proletarianisation and poverty. France, however, has refused to consider the phenomenon of North and West African immigration as being historically bound to colonialism. When France ordered the stopping of labour immigration in 1973 (following racist attacks on the workers in Marseilles), family reunion started and thus a new phase in the history of immigration began. The immigrants and their families were located in very poor housing conditions in the form of bidonvilles and then transferred to cités de transit ending finally in HLM banlieues on the periphery of French society with more or less the same poor housing conditions.

If the immigrants were considered for a long time as a temporary foreign labour force and thus had to be kept outside political and social affairs, the most recent realisation of their settlement in the host countries has given rise to a ‘sociological approach’ that still grants them a marginal place in society. The immigrants and their descendants are used to ‘strengthen’ the coherence of the main community and thus reinforce the dialectic of proximity and distance, which situates the immigrants and their descendants (who are French citizens) in a position of social foreignness and territorial exteriority. A more thorough scholarship that focuses on the cultural and social domination of the immigrants has appeared, questioning and challenging the French fragile republican values on integration, and issues like national identity, alterity and racism and how the figure of the ‘Maghrebian immigrant’ raises the issues of social relations based on difference. However, the cultural specificity of North African diaspora has been little studied until now as it has been constructed in terms of the ‘double culture’, that is, a culture that cannot integrate with the French one because of their irreducible differences. The emergence of Islam in the public sphere has made Islamic rituals visible and thus has raised the idea of its incompatibility with French ‘secular’ values.

For a long time, the North African immigrants have remained faceless and invisible in French society. But by the 1980s, the invisibility of the single male migrant workers of the 1950s and 1960s was strongly challenged by their descendants or so-called “Beur” who have been marking the public space with their various artistic, literary, political and social interventions. The North African Diasporic population or the Franco-Maghrebians are still perceived, like their parents, as immigrants, which implies the exclusion of these young people from French society, as they are seen as having the same status as their parents though they have not migrated from anywhere. They are defined by their belonging to the context of their parents’ immigration and thus linked to the history of their parents, which constitutes a part of their identity but not the only element of it. This is done for the purpose of classifying them in the same economic roles as their parents (never to climb the social ladder) and thus denies their ‘Frenchness’. The debate as to whether they can be integrated into French society is still ongoing, while most, if not all of them, believe that they already constitute a part of that society.

Black European Diasporas
Franco-Maghrebian or “Beur” novelists, artists and film-makers expose France's colonial crimes because the silence about them means that according to the law of the return of the repressed, colonial racism would come back to haunt post-colonial France. Thus, one can clearly see the urgency in their texts of recovering and commemorating their parents’ forgotten and silenced history.

The presence of black diasporas in Europe’s is strongly linked with Europe’s history of colonialism. Black diasporas not only include African, Afro-Caribbean diasporas, but also those of the Indian subcontinent who are perceived as “blacks” in Britain, that is as “Other”. I am extending my research on European diasporas to compare the French and British diasporas and how they negotiate notions of nationhood, citizenship, belonging and cultural in-betweeness. I examine how a common experience of diasporas is translated through transcending barriers of ‘race’ and nation and creates new alternatives for solidarity and affiliations. The history of colonialism plays an important role in establishing historical and cultural genealogies. In my research I argue that the importance of recovering this colonial and anti-colonial memory would help the diaspora populations in Europe (whose grandparents and parents were ex-colonial subjects) to lay the violence of the colonial past to rest and work towards a future where their post-colonial immigrant parents would be seen as historic figures bound to Europe’s colonial past and not as intruders with no relation to their host countries and where their descendants would stop being seen as immigrants. In other words, their presence in Europe does not come from nowhere-- or as it is officially represented in official discourses, they were a mere labour force that was needed for a short time to help build the economy and then be disposed of later-- but it is strongly related to the imperial history of their host countries and thus is linked to its contemporary history.

The rewriting of colonial history gives voice to individual narratives in the sense of writing history from the point of view of those who have been written out of this history, the displaced and the excluded, a minority history or counter narratives to official histories. Rewriting the memory of immigration is also crucial because it is a clear refusal to lock the parents within the sole logic of economic production, which subjugates them to being a dominated group. Franco-Maghrebians, for example, question the way the teaching of French history glorifies only those seen as ‘great people’ while denying those like their parents who had built railways, worked on farms and in industries, contributing immensely to the wealth of the country and in the making of its history.

Colonial history and its violence must also be perceived in relation to their effects on the life of diasporic populations in contemporary Europe. Their parents suffered silently from colonial racism, humiliation and de-humanisation when they arrived in Europe. Therefore, one can argue that the tracing of such a memory has certain political claims that link past exclusion and racism with the contemporary one in an attempt to mirror and project the continuity of certain past attitudes into the present.

Questions for my Chosen Workshop

Representing Black European History

  • Great European Empires like France and Britain have managed to exclude in the representation of their official history the subjects of their colonies who had fought along with the European soldiers in the First and Second World Wars with the same determination as their European fellows. Certain memories that consolidate the vision of the grandiosity of the countries are cultivated but others are negated. In a similar way, Paul Gilroy (2000, 5) argues that at a time when the memory of anti-Nazi war is being commemorated and recovered, one must ask the way in which such commemoration takes place in terms of excluding the non-white narratives: "is the presence of non-whites--West Indians, African Americans, and other colonial combatants-- being written out of the heroic narratives that are being produced in this, the age of apologies and overdue reparations?" This raises the question of "What role might their stories [non-white combatants] have if we could write a different history of this period, one in which they were allowed to dwell in the same frame as official anti-Nazi heroism" (ibid.). The history of the anti-Nazi struggle and the active role of the colonised subjects as a crucial part of it can be used to forge "the minimal ethical principles on which a meaningful multiculturalism might be based" (ibid., 6).

  • How does the idea of the ‘Empire’ with its hierarchical ‘racial’ differences that subordinate those seen as ‘inferior’ still exercises influence in contemporary European societies, especially countries with great imperial traditions such as France and Britain?

  • What is the significance of remembering and commemorating anti-colonial memory for diasporic people in Europe?

  • How does colonial violence still haunt post-colonial Europe?

  • Black Diasporic people’s affiliation with their ancestors’ colonial and anti-colonial memory does not restrict itself to a politics of blame, but extends towards a critique of the existing mode of thinking about colonial history. The latter is still marked by exclusion. Diasporic voices aim at opening history up to pluralistic representations of history and memory.

  • The history of African immigration to Europe and imperialism.

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