Immigrant Struggles, Anti-Racism, and May 1968: An Interview with Daniel A. Gordon

Today, with Donald Trump repealing DACA, the far right mobilizing against immigrants, and Europe closing its borders to refugees, it’s obvious that immigration has become one of the most important points of struggle. It would be no exaggeration to say that the success of the left today will in large part be determined by its ability to organize robust movements in defense of immigrant struggles.

But we should keep in mind that we are not the first generation to think seriously about immigration. In fact, questions about migration have been a fundamental aspect of socialist thinking, and organizing, for well over a century. Socialist history is rife with vivid examples of immigrant struggles, which may still hold important lessons for us today.

Historian Daniel Gordon has taken a detailed look at one particularly important moment: the role of immigrants in the tumultuous struggles of 1960s and 1970s France. In his book, Immigrants & Intellectuals, he explores the role that immigration played in postwar French politics, how French radicals tried to build alliances with immigrant workers, and most importantly, how different immigrant communities organized themselves in the 1970s. Here, Selim Nadi interviews Gordon about the radical left, May 68, and immigrant politics.

Selim Nadi: In your book, Immigrants & Intellectuals: May ’68 & the Rise of Anti-Racism in France (Merlin Press, 2012), you explore how May ’68 was experienced from the perspective of immigration in France. How did you become interested in this subject?

Daniel Gordon: The idea first came to me back in 1998 while reading David Caute’s book Sixty-Eight: The Year Of the Barricades. Caute mentioned in passing that Nanterre University, where the events of May began, was built next to an Algerian shantytown, but left it at that. What, I wondered, did the Algerians think about the campus revolt that became a general strike? As they had little to lose, did they join in with enthusiasm, or did they wonder with incomprehension what middle-class students had to revolt about? How did 1968 look from the shantytown? For that matter how did the shantytown look to the ‘68ers? So Immigrants & Intellectuals was the product of my search to uncover this meeting of two different worlds.

SN: How do you define third-worldism? How do you explain the fact that before 1968, the French left was so captivated by the “Third World,” but, paradoxically, this attitude led the same left to underestimate the question of immigration in France? In your book, you explain that this was particularly due to structural reasons – can you explain further?

DG: Third-worldism was a very influential idea on the extreme left in many countries, but especially in France, that crystallized during the period of achievement of independence by formerly colonized countries around 1960-1962. It held that the working class in Europe was no longer revolutionary, whereas the masses of the newly independent countries were the new revolutionary force in the world. Between 1962 and 1968 therefore, a period of apparent political stability in France, there was a tendency to see the main task for French radicals as being to the south of the Mediterranean, to go and help build Third World socialism. So it was not immediately noticed that the “Third World”’ could be said to begin at the gates of Paris, for migrant workers were moving in the opposite direction from the third-worldist radicals, northwards to find work in France’s economic boom, settling in sprawling shantytowns of poverty, mud and lethal fire hazards. To understand underdevelopment, it was not actually necessary to go all the way to Algeria or Bolivia: you could just go to Aubervilliers or Bobigny. But Latin Quarter radicals did not immediately see this, because those were not places they generally went to. So the structural reason for this absence of an encounter before 1968 was an unspoken class segregation between an intellectual extreme Left in central Paris, who were pretty cosmopolitan and radically internationalist, but often ignorant of the realities of working class life, and a working class Communist-dominated Left in the banlieues, which was where the bulk of immigrant workers actually lived. So for the emergent student Left in the years immediately before 1968, the immigrant worker question was not uppermost in their political priorities because it was not yet a concrete reality for them. Meanwhile in the banlieues, most migrant workers had more immediate practical concerns like saving up cash to take home to their families. Political action in France was a risky business for foreign nationals, and even the minority of immigrants who were political activists were at this time primarily interested in effecting change in their home countries.

SN: Did the workers’ strikes of May 1968 in France have an impact on the political organization and “class consciousness” of immigrant workers?

DG: Absolutely. This was the key moment when a kind of class consciousness emerged among many migrant workers as having a common interest with their French colleagues. From the big car factories like Renault and Citroën to building sites across France, many immigrants participated in the general strike, whether as passive strikers or as active ones, some of them taking an active role as pickets. The CGT and the CFDT had sub-organizations specifically for immigrant workers and their publications highlighted the role of immigrants in the strike. If you pour over inquiries from the time conducted by organizations like the JOC into the participation of their immigrant members in the strike, what you find is evidence that cuts against the dominant idea from before 68 that immigrants were strikebreakers. Moreover like among many French workers, we  see among many immigrant workers a developing sense that the strike was about something more than just money – it was about human dignity. We find, albeit for a short intense period, a sense of friendship and unity between immigrant and French workers, breaking the social isolation in which immigrants had lived before 1968.

SN: As you write in your book, May ’68 has often been characterized as a “revolution of words” in order to highlight the interminable debates that shook the strike and occupation movements in the factories or universities of the period. To what extent did immigrant workers, who were actors in these mobilizations, play a role in these discussions?

DG: Many immigrants did go along to debates in occupied buildings. In many cases this was passive participation: like with French audience members, people went along out of curiosity and were either fascinated or turned off by what they heard depending on their point of view. In some cases it was more active: foreigners could participate on similar terms to everyone else in debates, finding agreement or disagreement depending on their arguments, rather than on who they were. There seems to have been a taboo against open racism within the occupations: on the rare occasions when immigrant participants were criticized along the lines of “you are a foreigner, you have no right to make a revolution in France,” the audience booed those kind of comments. By contrast, immigrants were more reluctant to participate in riskier activity outside such liberated spaces. Some immigrant workers participated in the more orderly sort of demonstration from A to B organized by the CGT, but they generally avoided street confrontations and riots, because they knew how brutal the French police can be, especially with non-white people – and hundreds of foreign nationals were deported in June ’68.  

SN: Did the mobilization of immigrants living in France in 1968 (and in the following years) unfold in organizational structures specific to immigrants or did their politicization take place within the new groups of the French radical left?

DG: Both. Even before ‘68, there had been a few radical self-organized groups like the Union générale des travailleurs sénégalais en France, and a whole galaxy of organizations by nationality, opposed to their home country’s government, flourished in the years after ‘68. At the same time in the immediate aftermath of May, there was a definite tendency across the various groups of the French radical left to each try to recruit immigrant workers, and to define immigrants as emblematic victims of capitalist oppression. But by about 1972 some immigrants who had lived through this experience were expressing demands for greater autonomy, as they questioned whether they were being used in a paternalistic way by the French extreme left, in ways that could be dangerous for foreigners. However, numerically probably the largest avenue of participation of immigrant workers in political organization in the post-68 period was not on the new extreme left but in more traditional workers’ organizations such as those linked to the Communist Party.’

SN: Did the relationship between intellectuals of the French left and immigrants result in a theorization of the “immigrant question” in France?

DG: Yes, there were many theoretical debates about the situation of immigrants in France. Some New Left theorists like André Gorz were pessimistic about the possibility of politicizing immigrants: from this point of view, the whole aim of capitalism in employing non-citizen migrant labor was to divide the working class and reduce its political strength. But the events of ‘68 challenged this analysis. So by contrast, some groups like the Maoists became wildly over-optimistic, rather fetishing immigrant workers as an exoticized revolutionary vanguard. But there were other points of view on the Left as well, so it is hard to generalize, other than to say that between about 1971 and 1975 the question of immigration was quite high on the agenda of the leftwing intelligentsia in France, because immigrants were themselves becoming politically active.

SN: Could you say a bit about the “Comités Palestine”? In what way did the Palestinian cause represent the possibility of a link-up between Arab immigrants and the non-immigrant French working class?

DG: The Comités Palestine owed their origins to a double radicalization of North African left activists in France, influenced on the one hand by May ’68 and on the other by the Arab defeat in the Six Day War in 1967. To begin with pro-Palestinian activism in France was fairly marginal, predominantly comprising North African students and also some French activists. However after the bloody events of Black September in 1970 when Palestinian guerillas were massacred by the Jordanian army, the Comités Palestine started to involve a larger mass of North African immigrant workers: this would play a significant element in the origins of a mass immigrant workers’ movement in France. But it would be an exaggeration to see the the Comités Palestine themselves as a coming together of Arab immigrants with the French workers’ movement. The French people involved were generally intellectuals on the extreme left. In the 1970s there was less awareness of the Palestinian question among a broader public then there is now, and it was filtered through the question of terrorism.

SN: Retrospectively, how would you evaluate the experience of the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (MTA)? Did this experience make possible a struggle against the racism of some French workers? How did the MTA relate to organizations of the left?

DG: The MTA was certainly the most important and influential of the immigrant-Left organizations of this period. It was founded by mainly Moroccan and Tunisian activists with previous experience in the French movement of May 1968, the comités Palestine, and movements of solidarity with opposition to repression in their home countries. But their experience of encountering immigrant workers in places like La Goutte d’Or convinced them that, for a North African worker who was afraid of getting killed just coming home from work in the evening, they had much more immediately pressing concerns than distant ones like Palestine. The formation of the MTA was a turning point in terms of immigrants starting to see their long-term future as being in France, questioning the “myth of return” and making demands to affirm their place in French society. The MTA mobilized heavily around issues of racist violence and government attempts to curtail the rights of immigrant workers. They were instrumental in starting the first ever sans-papiers hunger strikes in 1972-1973, which successfully achieved the regularization of 35,000 people. Given the recurrence of sans-papiers movements in more recent times, that’s an example of where the MTA started something which lasted, even though it only existed as an organization from 1972 to 1976. The MTA was roundly denounced by the PCF and CGT for what they saw as “dividing the working class,” but it enjoyed reasonably good relations with the CFDT, with other left groups like the PSU, and with Christians. Over the long term, you can also see the MTA’s cultural influence: from the magazine Sans Frontière in the late 70s and early 80s, to the NGO Génériques that since 1987 has promoted public understanding of the history of immigration in France, through to the Musée nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, ex-MTA activists have played a crucial role in their origins. One of them, Saïd Bouziri, who I interviewed for my book, now has a square named after him in the 18th arrondissement of Paris.

SN: One of the interesting points in your book is that you are interested not only in immigration from former French colonies, but just as much in immigration from other European countries. What can you say about the politicization of Portuguese, Spanish, or Greek immigrants in the 1970s? Did the fall of dictatorships in these countries have an effect on the political activism of immigrants from Southern Europe?  

DG: Yes, for me it was very important to understand the history of immigration in its totality during that period, against the reductive tendency in France today to see “immigrant” as simply synonymous with “Arab” or “Muslim.” In the 1970s most people still understood “immigrants” as essentially “immigrant workers” in an economic sense rather than as as a supposedly separate cultural category from the rest of the French population, which meant that Portuguese workers – often living in shantytowns – were as much “immigrant workers” as Algerians were. I also wanted to question the stereotype that French trade unions had at the time of Spanish and Portuguese workers as docile and lacking in class consciousness (a perception reinforced by the high levels of Catholic religious practice among these groups, which cut against the secularist assumptions of the French Left). Contrary to that stereotype, I found plenty of examples where Southern European workers did participate in the events of 1968. However, it was also true that they had good reasons to be discreet about it, because the Portuguese secret police in particular were keeping a close eye on subversion among their compatriots abroad – there were a lot of deserters from conscription into the Portuguese army living in France. So the downfall of the dictators in 1974-1975 was an important moment of liberation for Southern  European migrants in France, leading to a flourishing of activity among immigrant associations, but also a reaction against some of the perceived excesses of the revolutionary period: both the revolution and the counterrevolution in Portugal had echoes in France.

SN: You end your book with the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism. In fact, you consider the year 1983 as the “death of the sixties.” Could you explain this expression, especially in regards to the politicization of immigrants?

DG: There’s a lot of debate among historians as to when exactly the ’68 years’ ended, with previous estimates ranging from 1972 to 1981. In the final chapter of my book, I made a case for 1983 as the turning point. It was the year when many of the parameters of contemporary French political life came into being, most obviously an electorally successful extreme right, something very notable by its absence during the period covered by the book when the FN could not even get 1% of the vote. Not coincidentally, this was the moment of the ‘austerity turn’, accompanied by a partial reversal of the Mitterrand government’s initially pro-immigrant policies. So immigrant workers found themselves engaged in difficult defensive struggles to protect their hard-earned place in French society, just at the moment when they had gone out of fashion – both because the whole idea of workers was now perceived as archaic, and because they were getting older, whereas 80s youth trends made the so-called Beurs the new object of fascination. Actually though, even the politicization of “second generation” youth did not begin with the Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme in 1983: it too had roots in the tail-end of post-68 extreme left culture during the second half of the Seventies. But all this became subject to a certain amnesia: the idea became widespread that the “first generation” of immigrant workers had simply suffered in silence. So if a new era in the history of French anti-racism was opening on 3 December 1983 when Mitterrand welcomed the Marchers to the Elysée, a previous one was being forgotten. That’s why I see 1983 as the “Death of the Sixties.”

SN: Did the immigrant struggles of the years surrounding 1968 leave a mark on the French political landscape or do they belong instead to “mere” historical scholarship?

Yes they have left a trace, partly because some of the key participants have – contrary to certain received ideas about the 68ers all “selling out” – carried on being politically active ever since, notably on the question of the right to vote. On May 1, 2017, I went with two of the people I had interviewed in my book to the annual commemorations on the Pont du Carousel of the murder of Brahim Bouarram in 1995, and it was striking how many of the people I spoke to were grassroots militants whose engagement dates from the years of first generation immigrant activism, and who are still busy campaigning for the right to vote. Such issues are relevant across space and time, and even when there’s no direct causal link, comparable issues and forms of action tend to reappear with each wave of migration and each anti-migrant backlash. For example in September 1973, following a series of racist murders in the Marseilles region, the MTA carried out a one-day “general strike” of immigrants against racism, that was especially well followed in the Midi.  So it’s interesting that on 20 February 2017, migrants in the UK carried out a day of action under the banner “One Day Without Us” to protest against a growth in anti-migrant racism since the vote for Brexit, and highlight the invisible contribution that their labor makes to keeping the country running every day – which to me sounds rather like what the MTA were trying to do in 1973.

A problem is that if younger activists either don’t study history, or study it in an uncritical way just looking for heroes and villains, then they risk ending up by repeating the same errors. For example, I think that participants on all sides of current polemics about anti-racist organization in France could profit from understanding the history of the “68 years,” as there are echoes of some of the debates about autonomy from the time of the MTA. Today there is a danger of a polarization between on the one hand a very rigid neo-republicanism that sees any minority self-organization as somehow illegitimate, and on the other hand an equally dogmatic importation of some of the more questionable features of American identity politics, where the presence of white people in anti-racist activism is seen as somehow illegitimate. Whereas if you go back to France in the 1970s, you can find more fluid and creative ways of dealing with these issues. The MTA, despite what might be thought from its name, was actually very open to working with members of other immigrant communities, European and non-European alike, as well as with French people – autonomy was in practice only really a relative concept. Nevertheless, the French allies they made tended to be more from a certain layer of middle-class intellectuals: unity between immigrants and French workers was harder to achieve outside certain exceptional moments like May 68. The “68 years” show us that there are always relations of power within political movements, and these relations of power aren’t just about “French” versus “immigrants,” but also about gender, class and cultural capital.

This interview was originally published in Contretemps.

Authors of the article

is a PhD candidate at the Paris-based Center for History at Sciences Po and a member of the editorial committees at Periode and Contretemps

is the chair of the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France’s North West regional group at Edge Hill University. He is also a former Alistair Horne Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College of the University of Oxford and a former temporary lecturer in history at the University's Jesus College.