France’s “Day Without Immigrants” (March 1, 2010): Not Quite as Advertised

Word made it out of France late last year that a “day without immigrants” journée sans immigrés was being planned for March 1, 2010. As a resident of France since 1977 and as a supporter of social movements involving immigrants and/or workers wherever they may occur, I have felt nothing but sympathy with this initiative, also known as “24 hours without us” 24 heures sans nous.

From the start, however, I was skeptical about its potential impact, given that there was no major immigrant movement behind the action, as was the case in the United States in 2006 – only the efforts of a small core of activists of good will. Their main problem seems to have been that they tried to “jump-start” a movement by using publicity and networking techniques rather than associating in any “organic” way with actually existing movements of immigrants.

Although the organizers of the initiative often invoked the US immigrants’ movement of 2006 as a source of inspiration, or even as a “model,” it was easy to predict, weeks in advance, that their initiative would not have even a tiny fraction of the impact of the original “Day without an immigrant,” because it lacked the mass and popular character of the 2006 events.

France, in fact, does have a very active movement of undocumented workers struggling for social rights with the aid of unions and local and national support organizations. In the past two years, in a context of government deportation quotas (about 28,000 per year) brandished as a constant threat, several thousand undocumented workers – many of them from the west African country of Mali – have gone on extended strikes against their employers in order to pressure them to petition the government for legalization. Thanks to remarkable courage and determination, victories have been won in a few hundred cases. However, the organizers of the “Day without immigrants” have had little connection with these struggles and, in fact, chose not to associate too closely with them.

An (Overly) Broad Appeal?

The “Day without immigrants” initiative did, it is true, gather some momentum and receive the public support of dozens of groups and associations, including immigrants’ rights and civil liberties groups, a couple of large trade union confederations, at least one legislator in the National Assembly, a handful of intellectuals who work on issues of immigration and racism, and over 2,500 people on a Facebook page. They even had the support of a well-known network of support to school-age youths whose families are threatened with deportation, the (“Réseau éducation sans frontières, RESF, or “Education without borders network.”)

The organizers sought to compensate for the lack of actual immigrants and workers by appealing to – well, everyone. Their founding manifesto, published in October 2009, spoke in the name of a very broad “we,” calling for the participation of “immigrants, descendants of immigrants and citizens conscious of the contributions of immigration, of all beliefs, all political horizons and all colors of skin.”

In political terms, the core of organizers is unaffiliated with any of the major party on the left, although they did conduct one early press conference at the National Assembly alongside a deputy of the Socialist Party. Their distance from existing parties was no doubt a wise choice, in order to avoid being too closely associated with any one organization, in a context of great division within the left. As suggested above, however, this “ecumenical” stance was not enough to broaden their base beyond a small core of people.

It was no doubt misleading to call the event a “Day without immigrants” in the first place, not only because there were no serious efforts to promote absence from work, but because very few of the organizers were immigrants themselves. The core of organizers is made up of educated sons and daughters of immigrants, mostly from Algeria and Morocco, and some left-leaning sympathizers (of all origins). They called on supporters of the initiative – immigrants or not (mostly not) – to show moral support by skipping work if they could, but if they could not, then simply to “withdraw from economic activity” for a day by “not consuming,” that is, putting off any purchases to the following day, avoiding restaurants and the like. Such voluntaristic and individualized actions were clearly not destined to have any measurable effect on the economy, and so the overall impact was purely symbolic. Outside of small gatherings in front of city halls in a few cities in France, some concerts and press conferences, and some modest media coverage, not much really happened on March 1.

A Day Without Stigmatization?

At bottom, the initiative had less to do with protesting the condition of immigrants themselves than with denouncing a particular form of racism in France, born of anti-immigrant sentiment but spilling over into stigmatization and discrimination against the so-called “second generation,” that is, French citizens. The three main initiators of the event, Peggy Derder, a high school teacher, and Nadir Dendoune and Nadia Lamarkbi, both journalists, are themselves children of North African immigrants. The condition of immigrant workers was clearly of less direct concern to them than the tone of official language in recent months. Not just immigrants, but their offspring who are citizens of France, have been increasingly stigmatized as “foreign” or “unassimilable.” The so-called “Day without immigrants” indeed tapped into a great store of discontent among the more educated sectors of French society regarding this insidious form of racism, the evident and cynical purpose of which is to woo voters away from the hard-right, anti-immigrant National Front by demonstrating that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government are “just as tough” on immigrants (and those mistaken for immigrants).

The first and most serious of the governmental actions targeted by the “Day without immigrants” was the creation in 2007, by newly-elected President Sarkozy, in fulfilment of a campaign promise (or threat), of a new government ministry combining immigration and something known as the “national identity,” in the singular (its full title is the “Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment”!) The creation of such a ministry has been openly rejected by immigrants’ rights groups, antiracist groups, civil liberties groups, parties of the left and followers of the left more broadly. The main objection is, of course, that the ministry’s very name suggests that there is something suspect about immigrants’ “identities”, and that they need to espouse the French “national identity” – in the singular of course – before they can claim to belong to French society.

The second major incident denounced was a racist remark by Brice Hortefeux, who just happens to have been the first “minister of national identity” (2007-2009) and is currently minister of the interior (in charge of the police and security). In the summer of 2009, during a gathering of activists of the ruling conservative party UMP (Union pour un mouvement populaire,) and in the presence of TV cameras, Hortefeux began joking about a young man of Arab, North African origin who was a recent recruit to the party. He said words to the effect that “this one [the young man] is OK” because he “drinks liquor and eats pork.” “If there’s one of them it’s OK,” he continued with a laugh, “but when there are a lot of them, that’s when the trouble begins.” In other countries, such overtly racist remarks might have forced the minister to resign, but Hortefeux, a long-time personal friend of President Sarkozy, has not even been asked to make apologies.

Other similarly shocking incidents have occurred involving politicians of the right and a few as well on the left. A national electoral campaign for regional councils has only heightened the intensity of this sort of rhetoric. With great media hype, officials of the ruling party have promoted a highly politicized debate on “national identity,” the very terms of which could only be divisive. There is also a campaign afoot in the National Assembly and in government circles to outlaw the “full” Islamic veil or niqab – an obvious tactic to play on symbols associated with Islam in a stigmatizing way, since this type of garment is practically non-existent in France. (In government discourse and in the media, the niqab is nearly always mistakenly referred to, in stigmatizing fashion, as the burka – an Afghan term designating an even fuller veil covering all but a small slit in front of the eyes.)

In short, the organizers sought to call attention not so much to the condition of immigrants today as to their own condition as descendants of recent immigrants, potential victims of hiring discrimination and cultural or religious stigmatization. However, as some of their sympathizers have not failed to point out, they have unconsciously contributed, to some extent at least, to the very stigmatization they claimed to be combating, by identifying themselves as “immigrants,” that is as “foreigners,” whereas in fact they are French citizens and have a much larger store of rights to invoke than actual non-citizens.

In the aim of organizing similar events, the French organizers made contacts in Italy, Greece and Spain. Only in Italy, it seems, did the March 1 event have any visible impact, thanks to the participation of many immigrants in the flesh. In Naples, a demonstration attracted 20,000 people – many from countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Morocco, Bangladesh and Senegal. In Bologna, another 10,000 marched, while in Trieste teams formed to erase racist graffiti and in Rome a thousand people carried banners with slogans such as “No to intolerance” and “We are all black.”