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.