Immigrant France. The development of a policy, 1914-1997.

Vincent Viet, historian,
Institut de l'histoire du temps present, CNRS

22 January 1999

In this presentation of his recently published book on the same topic, La France immigrée, construction d’une politique 1914-1997 (Paris :  Fayard, 1998), Vincent Viet chose to focus his remarks on his approach and thus to trace the development of French immigration policy from the perspective of administrative structures. Recalling that there are very few studies of this kind (that of Jean-Charles Bonnet on the inter-war period is a notable exception), he observed that while related studies in political science are quite detailed for the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, these remain very sketchy for the earlier periods. In particular, the repercussions of the crisis of the 1930s, the two world wars, decolonisation and especially the Algerian War on immigration policy do not seem to have been the subject of in-depth research. He also noted that scholarly production has now tended to ‘decolonialise’ itself, in the sense that the denunciation of colonialism underlying the scholarly investigations of the 1970s has given way to less impassioned forms of research. As for the numerous historical, anthropological and sociological studies dealing with immigration, most of these focus on a specific immigrant community. Studies of ‘inter-ethnicity’, which abound in the Engish-speaking countries, are quite rare in France (cf. Nancy Green). Similarly, studies of relations between nationals and foreigners or between immigrants and nationals are extremely rare, and this constitutes a grave omission which can lead to errors of interpretation, analysis or perspective.

The study of immigration policy in terms of administrative structures provides a good opportunity to grasp interdependencies, interactions between situations or differences of historical, legal and social status between nationals and foreigners or among the different categories of foreigners. Indeed, in the name of one and the same concern for social cohesion, these structures were supposed to integrate foreigners into France while protecting its nationals from the competition which might arise from the foreign presence in the areas of employment, housing, vocational training, social protection, access to medical care and so on.

Viet then went on to stress the extremely important role played by the question of labour in the historical construction of immigration policy. Demographers and jurists have probably emphasized the contribution of citizenship legislation to the formation of the French population, and even to the social integration of foreigners, but it must be understood that this law could not have functioned without the existence of migratory flows brought about by the French economy’s needs for labour power. Conversely, the economic immigration could very well have done without a generous citizenship legislation, whose only real justification, until the 1950s, was the powerlessness of French society to ward off its demographic decline by increasing the birth-rate (in other words, by national remedies). In practice, immigration fulfilled two essential functions, one economic and the other demographic. But with the exception of two periods, the depression of the 1880s and the major crisis of the 1930s, it was above all the needs for labour power which, over the long term, offered a guarantee, a justification and a necessity for organized and non-organized immigration.

The importance of the labour-force issue was called into question, however, between 1974 and 1984 because of the halt of economic immigration and need to integrate foreigners in an extremely depressed economic context. This was an unprecedented situation. First of all, because immigration policy had renounced its traditional form of regulation which, in periods of recession, consisted of sending foreigners back to their home countries, either through incentive schemes or measures of constraint. Second, because it was no longer only a question of duties towards foreigners but also one of rights of foreigners—the right to family reunification, the right of union participation, the right of association and so on. This transformation requires the person analysing structures to diversify the angles of approach and seek out the causes of the clear functional dichotomy which emerges between structures aimed at the integration of foreigners (an issue during the 1980s) and others committed to the struggle against clandestine immigration and the control of migratory flows.

If we want to understand this dichotomy, it is indispensable to look into the genealogy and earlier references of the structures involved in immigration issues. This approach, which amounts to analysing the trajectory of immigration policy from the standpoint of its administrative structures, is doubly justified. On the one hand, we are in an area where the State’s kingly prerogatives have been and still are quite vast, even if they have long been limited by international commitments (quite often bilateral) and much more recently by the organization of the Schengen area. On the other hand, these structures may be considered as actors in the sense that they initiate and influence political orientations; they may also be considered as signals insofar as their creation and disappearance, but also their metamorphoses, shed light on these orientations, and finally, they may be considered as carriers to the extent that they express and renew traditions and principles (structures as vehicles of compromise).

The questions resulting from these observations are the following :  through what process has immigration policy become official policy? How has it been organized around structures emerging at different periods of time? How can we assess the role of the structures in the development of this policy?

The hypothesis advanced by the author is that this policy has been constructed by successive adjustments aimed at renewing the compromises inherited from its 1945 juridico-institutional matrix and earlier practices in the face of the events and changes that have gone beyond it. Viet has attempted to determine whether this policy was still based on the compromises inherited from its past or whether it was, on the contrary, moving away from them (certain responses are provided in the book). His analytical framework involves the analysis of public policies (conceived as interdependent), but he draws on the classic tools of historical reflection. Thus, he developed his hypothesis in terms of the periodisation that follows.

1. The First World War and the inter-war period

This was the period of administrative practices, with the beginnings of official policy on immigration. The Great War laid the foundations for a labour policy integrating migratory issues in its applications. In order to fill the voids caused by the mobilization, public authorities had in fact to take measures that went against the liberal tradition of the State’s non-intervention in the recruitment of foreign and colonial labour. Regulatory structures for these different categories of labour (foreign, colonial, Algerian) thus appeared in several ministerial departments (SMOC, SMOE, SMOA), the co-ordination of which was gradually assumed by the Ministry of Labour which, since it was not itself an employer of this workforce, was considered to be an impartial distributor.
This strongly interventionist policy was reflected in the negotiation of labour agreements with foreign governments and the introduction of an identity card for foreign workers. The categories which emerged to distinguish between the national civilian workforce, the colonial workforce and the foreign workforce, the conscript workforce and prisoners of war were in fact the result of the specialization of the administrative structures. It would be a mistake to think that they reflected forms of discrimination :  the war effort simply implied a rational use of the labour force, which, for the sake of efficiency, led to the definition of new categories, notably (in the terminology of the period) complementary ones. The aim was not to protect the national labour market but to maximize the use of human resources in the context of a patriotic war which could not afford any exclusions. That said, the foreign and colonial workforces were mainly employed by establishments working for the national defence and thus for the ministries (rather than private industry).

The First World War did not, however, establish an official immigration policy. The main concern of the politicians was to come back to the liberal practices of the Belle Epoque. Was it that of the administration as well? At the end of the war, the structures which had just been created in fact remained in place. There was even a division of roles between the administrative structures, which saw their functions confirmed, and the employers’ organizations, which were grouped together in 1924 in a powerful company for immigrant labour, the Société générale de l’Immigration. Employers were responsible for recruitment, but the foreign workers’ contracts had to be stamped by the foreign labour departments, and medical exams were carried out by doctors authorised by the administration, while regularisations of status and naturalisations remained under the control of the public authorities. This mixed organisation of immigration reflects a compromise between practices prior to the conflict and wartime interventionism.

Foreigners’ access to the labour market was regulated in the context of this mixed organisation. First of all by a 1926 law stipulating that, for one year following their arrival, foreign workers could no longer, be employed in an occupation other than the one for which they had been introduced (as of 1938, the same system would be applied to Moroccan and Tunisian subjects of the French ‘protectorates’ working in metropolitan France), and then by the law of 10 August 1932 on the percentage of foreign labour, the enforcement orders for which were drawn up in consultation with the union organisations.

In a certain way, this preference, which is hardly specific to France (cf. Weimar Germany in 1922), gave labour policy a national character which it did not have during the First World War; it also contributed to relegating immigrant workers into the most undesirable jobs. The resulting restrictions on the distribution of the labour force limited the operating space of labour policy during the crisis of the 1930s when the substitution of national workers for foreign workers often turned out to be impossible. This is why the policy on the return of foreigners was selective—it mainly affected under-skilled workers or those who could be replaced by the national labour force. The public authorities nonetheless came to understand that unemployment was rising while the companies were suffering from a flagrant lack of skilled workers, and they came to the logical conclusion by merging the departments of the national labour force and those of the MOE into a central labour department at the Ministry of Labour (ML). Two years later, this edifice was complemented at the central administration level by a General Directorate of Labour and Manpower, which was intent on linking (and no longer juxtaposing) questions of national and foreign labour forces.

Labour-force policy was thus developed in two periods, the First World War and the crisis of the 1930s. Its foundations were not, however, of the same nature as those of labour policy, which, since the end of the nineteenth century, had been concerned with the legal protection of workers. Indeed, labour law essentially universal, which is to say, indifferent to the origins of the employees it claims to protect. By contrast, labour-force policy, which is based on a right of entry and residence, is aimed at regulating access to the labour market and certain occupations. This is a major difference which explains the Ministry of Labour’s difficulty as of the late 1930s in linking together two essentially divergent policies at the level of its central and external structures. Here, we are probably at the heart of Republican law, which has as its historical “mission” the creation of undifferentiated spaces whose access is nonetheless regulated.

2. Vichy (1940-1944)

Viet sets his research apart from studies devoted to foreigners during the Vichy period because, in his view, these underestimate the ‘interactions’ or ‘kinships’ of situations between nationals and foreigners by implicitly postulating that the latter suffered more from the coercive measures than the former. The situation was in fact much more complex. It is clear that being a foreigner under the overtly xenophobic Vichy regime was a factor of vulnerability. But this regime also attacked the figures of the “Anti-France”, who could be French citizens (communists and Freemasons). Its largely indigenous anti-Semitism, moreover, largely blurred the pre-war boundary of nationality that existed between French and foreign Jews, even if the latter were particularly hard-hit by the persecutions.

If we examine the archives of the Relève (relief troops) and the Service du travail obligatoire (forced labour division, known as the STO), we see that the workers sent to Germany were basically French nationals. It is not until March 1944 that the dispatching of foreign workers became a priority. More than 700,000 French workers were transferred to Germany, while there were over 2.5 million foreigners in France in 1939. The question is thus the following :  given the considerable ‘political cost’ represented by the STO, why didn’t the Vichy regime, with its xenophobic ideology, send more foreign workers to Germany? And why didn’t the national preference, which was a legacy of the interwar period, come into play?

In fact, both the chronology and a certain number of short-term factors must be taken into account. Under the volunteer system, the proportion of MOC and MOE sent to Germany was high (between 22 and 23 %, considerably higher than the percentage of students and colonials workers in the French labour force), which was not the case for the Relève and the STO. In addition, it is indispensable to take into account labour-market trends (unemployment until the end of 1941, followed by a scarcity of labour), the economic strategy—or rather, strategies—of the Third Reich and the foreigners’ nationalities (citizens of the Axis powers, the Allied powers or neutral countries).
The Vichy regime would probably have liked to send a larger number of foreign workers to Germany but it could not do so for a variety of reasons which were :  a) diplomatic (the French State was bound by international commitments made before the war); b) technical or structural (reinstatement of the law of 10 March 1932, MOE employed in strategic industries, dispersion of refugees by the Commission for the Struggle against Unemployment [CLC]); 3) the resistance of the civil servants in the regular labour administration and the CLC; 4) because it had developed practice of exclusion which deprived workforce policy of a considerable number of hands.

Several conclusions may be drawn from this survey : 
1) The national preference could not be implemented within the context of labour-force policy. Analysis of this policy shows that, relative to the interwar period, there was a radical reversal of administrative practices. The logic of the STO led the regime to treat French citizens subject to the STO with the same police tactics that the Third Republic had applied to foreigners.
2) The interruption of the right to asylum was above all symbolic :  3 percent withdrawal of citizenship, 800 political refugees handed over to the German authorities (a large number in symbolic terms but few in quantitative terms);
3) Xenophobia intervened in the joint handling of the Final Solution, because it was above all the foreign Jews who were victims of the persecutions (this is an essential fact), but it could not function in the context of labour-force policy. In short, the labour-force policy had to adapt to Vichy’s policy of exclusion but the converse cannot be verified.

3. Creation of an immigration policy (1945-1974)

It was within the High Council for Population and the Family, attached to General De Gaulle’s provisional government, that the principles of the new immigration policy (NIP) were defined. Its basic points included :  (1) repopulating France in order to compensate for its demographic decline by taking into account shortages of labour in various industrial sectors; (2) selecting the foreign elements likely to be introduced onto the territory and (3) setting up a programme of implantation and assimilation for them. The NIP came out of a historic conflation between structural problems and short-term circumstances arising from the reconstruction; it undertook a hypothetical readjustment between what should have been done in the past and what should be done to meet the needs of the present and make up for lost time in the future. This policy was, however, quickly caught up in purely short-term considerations.

The public nature of this policy was confirmed by the creation of the National Immigration Office (ONI), a public authority placed under the dual supervision of the Ministry of Labour and Social Services (MTSS) and the newly created Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP). The ONI was given a monopoly over recruitment but administrative organization was largely carried out on the same bases as before 1939. With regard to population, this policy was not free of ambiguities. The concern for increasing the birth rate made it a last resort while giving it a very selective, if not racialist nature (fear of the disintegration of the French ‘ethnic group’ or ‘race’). If the criteria of assimilability and desirability defined by Georges Mauco were overruled by the Council of State, a cultural preference in favour of European immigration—and this was not unique to France—was undeniably maintained within the structures of the MSPP. The law clearly excluded any discrimination based on the migrants’ ethnic origin, but it did not provide sanctions for selective practices.

Labour-force policy initially overshadowed population policy, with new entries dictated much more by the analysis of the economic situation than concerns with repopulation. In particular, the readjustment of the components of the French population, notwithstanding the fact that this was central to the MSPP’s concerns, came up against constraints which were both objective (housing shortage) and legal (free circulation of the Muslims of French Algeria between Algeria and metropolitan France as of 1947). But these constraints did not rule out the cultural preference in favour of an immigration coming from Europe (Family-Culture Plan, financial aid for the settlement of families from certain countries, ONI missions in the foreign areas selected). Those responsible for migration issues made every effort to bring Germans and Italians, with financial incentives for the installation of their families, in order to counterbalance an Algerian migration which had become uncontrollable. They subsequently favoured the entry of the Spanish and Portuguese. Such efforts to attract these populations were based on the prejudice that they were culturally more assimilable than populations coming from North Africa or more distant countries (cf. the reports of the Population Ministry inspectors).

b) Colonial deregulation and social measures

How did these structures attempt to integrate foreigners into French society? Public authorities relied first of all on international agreements, which were quite often bilateral, before implementing the social measures which at present, along with the control of flows and the struggle against clandestine immigration, constitute one of the most important lines of French immigration policy. When did social measures in favour of foreigners begin?

Before 1945, such action was limited to forms of social services, with most of the effort coming from associations or international departments like the Department of Social Services for Emigrants (SSAE), which received financial support from the State. Following the Liberation, public authorities were to carefully eliminate the social cost of immigration—French employers were required to take charge of the vocational training of migrants and find them housing. This system functioned well as long as the foreigners’ entry complied with the procedures set out in the order of 2 November 1945, which is to say, until 1957. But the cracks began to emerge even before this date because of the increasing numbers of spontaneous migrations between the three Algerian departments and metropolitan France. Indeed, the law of 20 September 1947 on the status of Algeria had recognized the equal rights and duties of the Muslim French of Algeria (MFA) and non-Muslim French citizens, and this equality implied free circulation between Algeria and metropolitan France. But how were these Algerian migrants, who formed a floating population that was underprivileged, illiterate and under-skilled, to be integrated into French society?

Since the status of French citizen accorded to the MFA ruled out the creation of particular bodies, the central administrations identified the needs of this population in function of their traditional competences. Each of the ministries attempted to grant them the rights of the national preference and the benefits of social measures that offered both priority status and compensation (housing).

Two parallel systems thus took hold. The first was based on a special body of common law, applicable to foreigners who benefited from guarantees concerning employment and housing provided they were lawfully in France (order of 2 November 1945). Its dynamic equilibrium eliminated the social question because employment, guaranteed by the scarcity of labour and the growth economy, was its driving force. In a certain way, the system was virtually integrated because the costs of settling the foreigners was shared between the employers and the migrants themselves, already provided with jobs. The second system was, by assimilation, based on the common law applicable to the MFAs and French citizens alike and functioned in a totally different way. The driving force was not employment but the law itself. The Muslim population was, in any case, deprived of the material guarantees which would have placed it in a better situation than the foreign labour force in terms of law and conditions alike. In short, the gap separating it from the native French population was considerably greater than that between nationals and foreigners, who benefited from guarantees. Assimilation had thus created an entirely new border, which was all the more sensitive because it was based on a tension between equality of rights and inequality of conditions in civil society. But for the first time in French immigration history, it also opened a vast field of social measures for the public authority.

Social action was thus born from the problems raised by the Algerian immigration, but it did not assume its specific nature until the Algerian War, in December 1958. By 1956-57, this war had put the main administrations to a severe test, given the conflict between the social programme of the MFAs and the desire to restore public order (leading to a vast mechanism for control). It was only in December 1958, with the creation of a Social Action Department for the MFAs, which was attached to the Prime Minister, that a separation was imposed between the social tasks and those of maintaining order. Massenet was assigned to coordinate the social measures aimed at the MFAs present in the metropolis with the Social Action Fund (FAS) which had been set up under the Constantine Plan (and which was allocated on both sides of the Mediterranean). The FAS and the Sonacotral (the public enterprise for the construction of housing for Algerian workers, founded in 1956) were thus mobilized to counter the shantytowns stemming from an Algerian migration which was increasingly familial. This orientation came too late, however, to alter the course of a war which, in the wake of General De Gaulle’s speech on self-determination in September 1959, could only have a political outcome. Without exerting any decisive effect, social action was thus the main heritage of the Algerian War. In 1964, the Algerian exception (special system) was renewed, but social action was extended to all foreigners (extension of the allocations of the Sonacotral, which became the Sonocotra—without the specific mention of Algerian workers—in 1963, as well as the Department of Muslim Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior and the FAS).

The social dimension of immigration policy thus resulted from the encounter between an exceptional common law which refused to admit it and an exception in the common law which demanded specific forms of social action.

c) The growth of the 1960s

The extension of social measures became all the more necessary insofar as the legal framework for immigration policy had, by 1957, ceased to resist the runaway growth of the economy. To meet company labour-force needs, the exceptional procedure of regularisation was generalized, and the immigration of false tourists encouraged by bilateral agreements doing away with visas for short-term stays. The adaptation thus became essentially quantitative, while, paradoxically, preserving its Malthusian nature. The direction to be taken was determined more by the economic situation than the imbalances within the French population or the real labour-force shortage.

In the space of one decade, from 1957 to 1968, the scheme conceived at the Liberation was overridden by three phenomena :  economic expansion, decolonisation (which was not a sudden rupture) and finally, European integration. The result was a veritable role reversal :  with decolonisation, nationals of the former colonies went from a status of “relative or protected French” to that of “absolute” foreigners, while, with European integration, citizens of other European countries went from the status of absolute foreigners (whose arrival was nonetheless favoured) to that of relative ones. The fact that this process took a considerable amount of time (nearly 30 years) was due first of all to the fact that the economic expansion reinforced the competition between countries of immigration and as a result, tended to dry up the available sources of labour in Europe, but also to the fact that the cultural preference in favour of an immigration of European origin had to come to terms with a tradition of assistance stemming from the ‘civilizing’ ideal of colonization (as was long reflected in the right to citizenship). And last of all, it was due to the fact that decolonisation was a very slow process which got under way in the midsts of an economic boom. In the end, the cultural preference won out over the colonial duty of assistance, and the Pasqua laws (named after the Minister of the Interior who implemented them in 1993) might be said to coincide with the end of decolonisation (cf. the very different case of Germany, which has long been a country of immigration and emigration but lost its colonies in 1918).

The 1966 appearance of a Department of Population and Migrations within a vast Ministry of Social Affairs was the fruit of an alluvial process bearing the traces of the social transformations, demographic changes (the baby boom) and political events that France has undergone since 1945. The preoccupation with increasing the birth rate came to an end (the State was no longer concerned with population problems, even if the Department of Population and Migrations still included the term in its name), and the MSPP disappeared. It was also the end of the Algerian War, and the desire to eliminate special systems, even if the Algerian exception was maintained. It was the time for permanent application of a specific social action to all foreigners recently arriving on the territory (the social treatment of immigration based on specific tools). It was the implosion of the system of the order of 2 November 1945, which got underway in 1957 with the opening of the borders and the elimination of the prior visa for stays of less than three months (massive regularizations), but also the desire to return to the orthodoxy of 1945, and last of all, the emergence of a consumer society less and less inclined to tolerate social contrasts.

The DPM grew out of the concern for having a permanent overview of the different components of the French population and the interdependencies between nationals and foreigners, but also between the different foreign communities. It was heir to the responsibilities of certain MSPP departments (naturalisations and demographic studies, under the authority of the National Institute for Demographic Studies) and the Social Action Department (Massenet was to be its first director) under the authority of the FAS. It was a structure without any real outside units of its own (it relied on the departmental health and employment services) because social action was conceived like an airlock with a valve, where the valve was to shut once the foreigners were cared for by the common-law structures. It is impossible to have a social policy aimed solely at foreigners because the legal criterion of nationality does not define a field of social intervention; reciprocally, it is impossible to have a social policy excluding immigrants from its field of action without creating social inequalities which would wind up invalidating the function.

If we exclude the exceptional periods represented by the two world wars, and if we reason over the long term, the ambivalence of the structures is evident—they clearly administered a national preference, notably in the areas of employment and housing, but they also attempted, with the same concern for public order or social harmony, to integrate foreigners into French society. This ambivalence is not longer the case today, because the split now occurs (as it has since the mid 1980s) between foreigners with and without the proper papers. If such a split permits envisioning the social treatment of (legal) immigration without distinctions (rather than on the basis of them), it pays no attention at all to the social or kinship relations which may exist between these two categories of foreigners, or even between nationals and foreigners. It thus prevents social policies from fully functioning according to the principles of social solidarity (cf. the third section of the book).

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