Gilian Glaes, visiting professor of history at the University of Montana-Missoula, recently published her first monograph, in which she explores the political activism of francophone sub-Saharan African immigrants to France in the postcolonial and Cold War era and the role this struggle played in shaping French public welfare policies in Paris and the Ile-de-France region surrounding the city.
The political activism of sub-Saharan immigrants, to the surprise of the French state, took various shapes; from riots and rent strikes to political demonstrations denouncing the precarious living condition in which the Fifth French Republic was hosting its immigrant workers and particularly the ones coming from the African continent. The legacy of empire and colonialism greatly permeated postcolonial France as the racist treatment and poor consideration toward Africans perdured throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The overriding goal of the book is to understand how republicanism, colonial ideology, immigration policy, and immigrant political activism intersected in the postcolonial era in shaping the reception of African workers and affecting their lives and experiences in France. Through her use of diverse archival material, Glaes thematically organizes the chapters of her book in the form of short essays, in which she provides detailed accounts of greatly understudied events, organizations, and biographies that shaped sub-Saharan political activism and the social welfare sub-Saharan immigrants fought for in 1960s and 1970s postcolonial France.
The first part of the book draws the reader’s attention to the scope of sub-Saharan immigrant activism, ranging from the trajectory of the Union des travailleurs sénégalais en France (UGSTF) and the rent strike in Ivry to the demonstrations that erupted after the death of five sub-Saharan immigrants in the banlieu of Paris.
The first chapter investigates the trajectory of an African immigrant workers association, the UGTSF, from its founding by Senegalese political activist Sally N’Dongo in 1961 to its expansion and eventual collapse in 1978. Taking its inspiration from interwar and early post-war African workers unions, the UGTSF extended the political culture created in the colonial era between French West Africa (AOF) and the metropole. For two decades, the organization advocated for the social welfare of sub-Saharan African immigrant workers in France and particularly in the Paris region. Through a variety of political demonstrations, riots, and media appearences, the association was able to influence housing and educational policies directed at African immigrants in France. The organization eventually collapsed in the wake of the suspension of immigration to France in 1974 and the state’s increased fear towards political activism by African immigrants.
Chapter 2 explores the activism of sub-Saharan immigrant workers through the narrative of the unfolding of one of the largest rent strikes of the French postcolonial era. In spring of 1969, a rent strike erupted in Ivry, a commune in the southeastern banlieu of Paris, in response to the worsening of the living conditions in a dormitory for Malian workers. Led by the residents’ committee of the dormitory of the rue Gabriel Peri in Ivry, the strike lasted for over six months and received support from several organizations including the UGTSF and leftist political groups. The scope of the strike left the French authorities disconcerted as they had perceived sub-Saharan immigrant workers to be apolitical and incapable of unionizing. The Ivry rent strike gave visibility to the struggle lived by African immigrant workers in France and the incompetency of the French state to offer its immigrant population decent living conditions.
Chapter 3 looks at the death of five sub-Saharan immigrant workers in an insalubrious dormitory in the north-eastern suburb of Aubervilliers and how this tragedy, that occurred at the peak of the Ivry rent strike, galvanized diverse coalitions from various parts of French society; imminent intellectuals as well as leftist political organisations joined the fight against racism and for the humane treatment of African immigrant workers in postcolonial France. By shedding light on the deplorable living conditions of the African immigrant community in France, the tragedy in Aubervilliers also exposed cultural differences and highlighted the complexity to integrate Islamic traditions in secular France.
The second part of the book examines the French state’s response to sub-Saharan political activism. Through close monitoring of the sub-Saharan community in the Paris region, the state provided targeted welfare policies to improve the living conditions of its immigrant population, but it also served as a means to exert control over it.
Chapter 4 shows the history of France’s state surveillance apparatus and how it was used towards its sub-Saharan African immigrant community in an effort to control the politicization of that community. In fact, taking its origin from the colonial period in AOF, the monitoring arose in a context of international political turmoil particularly regarding the upholding of human rights towards black people throughout the world.
Chapter 5 presents the socio-medical Centre Bossuet (CMSB) and the role it played in improving the welfare of the sub-Saharan immigrant community in the Paris region. Although the opening of the CMSB marked a great step forward for the better integration of the sub-Saharan community in France, the French state used the CMSB as well as regulatory health policies to monitor and establish control over the community and thus reinforced the structural racism instilled towards immigrants since the 19th century.
Chapter 6 looks at the French anti-slum campaign of the 1970s in the Paris region and how the state’s surveillance campaign helped perpetuate racist and segregationist policies towards African immigrants in postcolonial France. In fact, the distribution of African immigrants across the Paris region was used by the French authorities as a means to break up the community’s social and political networks essential to organizing protests and political activism. By doing so, the French Ministry of the Interior aimed at preserving the safety of the French citizens against the perceived threat that immigrant workers, especially from Africa, represented for the public order. However, this understanding of African immigrant workers as threats, inferior, and ill-adapted to living in France stems from the colonial era and misrepresents the reasons for African presence in postcolonial France.
One of the strong points of this books is that it brings together a large amount of archival material particularly from police surveillance records. The clear writing style of the author helps grasp the complex relationship between the state’s authorities and immigrant population. The book will certainly appeal to scholars interested in subjects related to race and immigration in postcolonial France. Moreover, by convincingly demonstrating the understudied agency of sub-Saharan immigrants in shaping public policies, the book holds broader implications for how the history and power of marginalised populations was understood in this period. Yet, throughout the book, the author refers to sub-Saharan immigrants in terms of “African immigrants” and thereby conflates sub-Saharan Africa with the whole continent. This conflation is at times confusing to the reader as it is not always clear whether North Africans and particularly Algerians belong to the author’s understanding of “Africans”. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this well-written and well-researched book; not only has it made a significant contribution to historical research on the politization of sub-Saharan immigrants in postcolonial France, but it also helps us to think more critically about contemporary politics of immigration and the history of racism in France and beyond.