‘We’re here because you were there’


THREE WEEKS of urban rioting by thousands of children and grandchildren of post-colonial migrants have finally forced France to grapple with the bitter fruits of its fallen empire. The lesson should not be lost on any Western nation. It is encapsulated in the slogan that activists have been employing throughout Western Europe for the past few decades: “We are here because you were there.”

All too often, Europeans, like Americans, speak of immigrants as if they simply showed up at their nation’s gates from out of nowhere. But global migration is rarely such a random process. Migrants generally follow established routes to foreign lands. They pick destinations they are familiar with, where they can connect to social networks. For many African-origin families in Western Europe, particularly in France and Britain, those initial connections were forged by colonialism.

Starting in the 16th century, several European nations pursued expansionist foreign policies and subjected large overseas territories and their populations to intense exploitation. They declared “spheres of influence” and expected colonials to respect them. By the late 19th century, the scramble for Africa was on. The French, Spanish, Dutch, Germans, Belgians, Italians and even the Danes claimed land in Africa at one time or another. By 1914, nearly the entire continent was under European control, and the French had holdings three times the size of the British.


Europeans often liked to justify imperialism on the grounds that they were civilizing the colonials, but the truth, of course, was that the colonies added to the wealth and prestige of their overlords. The French were particularly pompous about colonial benevolence. In 1923, the French minister of colonies, Albert Sarraut, wrote: “The France that colonizes does not do so for itself: Its advantage is joined with that of the world.”

To the extent that the French worried about the integration of their colonials, they adhered to the idea of Franco-conformity. Their far-flung African, Asian and Caribbean wards were supposedly bound to them by a common culture and language that, in theory, made both groups equally French. But before World War II, few imagined that millions of colonials would one day descend on French soil. The occasional colonial uprising sometimes gave imperialists pause -- even Sarraut feared that “the agitation of the colored races” could endanger European civilization. But for most people back home, imperialism was a one-way street. As a French senator once said: “The colonies, well, they are something far away, out there, in broad sunlight.”

World War II spelled the demise of the old colonial era. The rise of American and Soviet influence rendered European nations secondary powers, and their empires began to implode. Yet before they pulled out, some nations turned to their colonies to satisfy the labor demands of postwar economic expansion. France called on workers from northwest Africa, and, from the 1950s onward, colonials made up a significant share of the nation’s immigrants.

Despite the pretense of a shared, imperial Frenchness, French politicians initially had hoped to meet their nation’s labor needs with more culturally compatible -- i.e. white Christian -- immigrants. But the rise in prosperity in Portugal, Italy and Spain had dried up these former sources of European labor.

By the time the economic boom ended in the 1970s and France cracked down on immigration, it was too late. The paths northward had become highways, and the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who had been invited to labor in the seat of the former empire were being raised in neglected, jobless suburbs. Europeans, like Americans, tend to think that migration can be started and stopped according to their needs. They naively believe that they can benefit from foreign labor without having to properly integrate the foreigners themselves.

By all indications, France has not yet come to terms with its colonial past. Last February, the French parliament passed a law requiring schools to stress the “positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa.” Two weeks ago, the government activated a controversial state-of-emergency law that was first promulgated in 1955, during the nation’s brutal eight-year independence war with Algeria, its most-prized former possession. And despite the centuries of “benevolent” colonialism, as recently as 1998 a survey found that four out of 10 French respondents candidly described themselves as “racist” or “fairly racist,” almost twice as many as in Britain, Italy or Germany.

And yet France’s problems are not unique. In an era of rapid globalization, Western nations that maintain spheres of influence far from home cannot pretend that they can benefit from the labor, raw materials or consumer markets of distant lands without encouraging reverse migration. The troubles in France suggest that the central problem of the 21st century will not be how best to wage a war of civilizations but rather how best to negotiate the melding between them.