The immigration history today, thoughts on research in progress

Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard
Université Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne


These 'thoughts' on research in progress were offered as a personal reflection, with no pretensions of universality. Immigration history is attracting a growing number of researchers with varied points of view, and as the discussion following my presentation showed, the debate is still quite open. I began by recalling my own focus, namely the research I have carried out since 1988 on the history of the Italians in the greater Paris area (which led to a thesis that was subsequently published [1]). This study dealt with a long period of time (from the 1880s to the 1960s) and was aimed at understanding processes of integration through the cases of two neighbourhoods in the east of Paris and two towns in the nearby suburbs. As with Gérard Noiriel's work on Longwy, the research attempted to impose the least possible separation, within the Parisian context, between the immigrants and the indigenous social environment. Another methodological imperative :  changes in scale (metropolitan area, national, international relations) were considered indispensable for the contextualisation imposed by historical analysis. The results emerging from the narrow study of the Italo-Parisian territories and their evolution from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s (and even later) brought out problems which the history of immigration as it exists today cannot completely respond. Since I was concerned above all with integration, it seemed to me (on the most obvious level) that it was necessary to question the generations differently :  successive generations of 'primo-migrants' (for the Italians, these came in several waves between the end of the 19th century and the 1960s) and the generations of their children, whose central role in the integration process must be analysed with specific problematics. On the other hand, I was aware of the considerable break that the social transformations of the 1950s and 1960s represented for Parisian society (as a reflection of the larger French society). The integration process was thus singularly accelerated for the children of the earlier migrations and profoundly modified for the new immigrants. This suggests the existence of a historicity of integration which has not yet been extensively analysed, since immigration history has tended instead to place the emphasis on recurring phenomena.

This brief overview then led to a reconsideration of certain themes already discussed in the editorial of a recent issue of the journal Le Mouvement social [2]. The first of these concerned research, which is already underway but not well known, on recent immigrations and those of the so-called 'second twentieth century' period. Another reflected the feeling that history has become less visible in academic discourse on immigration since the noteworthy beginnings of the 1988-1995 period. The discussion stressed the contradiction between this impression and the current burst of research on the history of immigration, along with the spread of issues which historians had been evoking since the 1980s (intervention of Gérard Noiriel). Among the possible explanations is the inevitable fragmentation of the research, which clouds the issues raised by the initial overviews of the problematics [3]. In addition, the successors to the small group of historians who played the role of pioneers (Yves Lequin, Pierre Milza, Janine Ponty, Ralph Schor, Gérard Noiriel, Emile Témime) have been slow in arriving on the scene, and many young researchers are forced to work with advisors who are only marginally interested in this field. This is especially unfortunate insofar as the demand for expertise arising at the same time in policy-making circles opens possibilities for a common historical analysis [4]. The most coherent body of current research efforts follows in the line of the studies initiated by Gérard Noiriel around the problematics of identity in terms of concepts and their national inflections. Another focus of global reflection is the comparative history of immigration law and immigration policies, notably around the work of Patrick Weil, who opened the debate on the history of immigration in France since 1945.

Many other crucial issues have been addressed by more isolated studies. Public opinion remains a preoccupation of the students of Ralph Schor in Nice and Pierre Laborie in Toulouse [5]. Philippe Rygiel's thesis (supervised by Janine Ponty) combines an essential issue'the analysis of immigrants' subsequent itineraries and social mobilities'and a rigorous methodology based on the use of computer tools. It takes up the paths explored by Maurizio Gribaudi for the workers of Turin, which are likely to inspire many disciples [6]. After a period of eclipse, the relationship between the immigrant worker's economic and social situations is enjoying a certain renewal of interest; in this context, Nancy Green's book on the history of the clothing industry is exemplary [7]. Other studies are underway on the construction sector and small businesses [8].

In terms of new fields of investigation, the question of the relationship between colonisation and immigration is arousing growing interest [9]. On the subject of the migrations coming from the former French colonial empire, for example, this issue is essential for bringing the question of ties between nation and immigration up to date. On the other hand, and contrary to the abundance of sociological literature on the question since the end of the 1960s, there are hardly any studies by historians on the conditions of economic and social integration among the latest waves of immigrants, notably those coming from North Africa. On the Portuguese, the studies of Marie-Christine Volovitch-Tavarès have provided insights which should be further developed by the completion of her thesis.

These questions should lead to new interrogations which have barely gotten underway on relations between the State's welfare institutions, immigration and identity. We may note the scarcity of studies on the regions of origin and immigration as a mobile phenomenon, not to mention the existence of diasporas [10]. The same weakness exists with comparative studies. If several works have already dealt with the variety of immigration models and policies, large-scale studies shedding light on the concrete reality of the differences between integration processes from one State to another are still in the pioneering stages [11].

In order to complete this overview, which mainly argued for a better knowledge of the recent period (which is, in my view, inseparable from a reflection on the long term), I briefly touched on my future research projects, which, not surprisingly, deal with certain phenomena linking French society and its immigrants since 1945. First of all, in an attempt to approach the political dimension of immigration, I have undertaken a study on municipal councillors of foreign origin in the Paris region. And to extend the problematics of the socio-urban space which I addressed in my thesis, I am thinking about a study of the break-up of the immigrant shantytowns [ bidonvilles ] and what became of the re-housed populations. Studies of this kind are hampered by the difficulty of gaining access to individual data sets and delays in research on French society during the three decades that followed the Second World War. Such research is now getting underway, and it is not impossible to think that immigration history could play a role in the social history paradigms emerging for that period [12].


[1] Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard, Les Italiens dans l'Est parisien-Une histoire d'intégration (années 1880-1960) (Rome :  Ecole Française de Rome, 2000), 803 pages. Preface by Pierre Milza.[Retour au texte]

[2] 'Immigration et logiques nationales, Europe XIXe-XXe siècles', Le Mouvement social , no. 188 (July-September 1999). [Retour au texte]

[3] Notably by Gérard Noiriel, Le creuset français (Paris :  Le Seuil, 1988), and La tyrannie du national (Paris :  Calman-Lévy, 1991). [Retour au texte]

[4] For Schor's students, see the research presented by Vincent Viet (La France immigrée) and Marc Bernardot (on the Sonacotra) in this seminar, which is intended in part to permit the discussion of recent research.[Retour au texte]

[5] See Yvon Gastaud's thesis on public opinion and foreigners during the Fifth Republic (in press). [Retour au texte]

[6] Philippe Rygiel, Mais où sont donc passés les immigrés d'antan ? Trajectoires sociogéographiques de familles issues de l'immigration européenne implantées dans le Cher pendant l'entre-deux-guerres , (Besançon :  Université de Besançon, 1996). Maurizio Gribaudi, Itinéraires ouvriers. Espaces et groupes sociaux à Turin au début du XXe siècle (Paris :  EHESS, 1987). P-A Rosenthal's recent book, Les sentiers invisibles. Espace, famille et migrations dans la France du 19e siècle , (Paris :  EHESS, 1999), relies on similar methods. [Retour au texte]

[7] Nancy Green, Du sentier à la 7ème avenue. La confection et les immigrés, Paris-New York 1880-1980 (Paris :  Le Seuil, 1998). [Retour au texte]

[8] Claire Zalc's research-in-progress on Italian shopkeepers in the La Villette neighborhood of Paris, several research projects on Italians in the construction industry. A colloquium devoted to Italian immigration and the building trades was organized in November 2000 in Caen. See also Y. Frey's recent thesis and presentation in this seminar on the immigrant labour force in the potassic basin in Alsace. [Retour au texte]

[9] Cf. the studies of C. Liauzu, R. Gallissot and E. Témime and G. Massard-Guilbaud's presentation in this seminar. [Retour au texte]

[10] C. Douki's thesis, Les mutations d'un espace régional au miroir de l'émigration. L'Apennin toscan (1850-1939) , (Paris :  Institut des études politiques, 1997). The studies on mobility and identity have been the province of geographers for recent immigrations (Portuguese, Soninké). [Retour au texte]

[11] J. Rainhorn is working on the comparison between 19th-century Italian immigrants in Paris and New York. [Retour au texte]

[12] Cf. the seminar 'Relire l'histoire des trente Glorieuses' (Rereading the history of the post-war boom), CHU-ENS Fontenay-Saint-Cloud/ CRHMSS-Paris1, held at the Ecole normale supérieure in Fontenay on Friday from 2 to 5 pm. [Retour au texte]

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