Abdellali Hajjat, The Wretched of France: The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Abdellali Hajjat (AH): While the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism is a central event in the history of immigration and anti-racism in France, I only became aware of it when I was a student in the early 2000s. This knowledge was not acquired in university lecture halls, but during a public conference organized by activists in Lyon on the history of immigrants’ struggles. The discrepancy between the historical importance of the event and the ignorance of its existence, even among postcolonial immigration families, shocked me and led me to conduct research on the march. In my earlier book, Immigration postcoloniale et mémoire (L'Harmattan, 2005), I first tried to understand why the transmission of the memory of the march had not worked. I did this by shedding light on the symbolic violence of the majority/minority relationship in contemporary France and by forging the concept of injunction to assimilate—a moral and symbolic obligation to conform to the French cultural order, which involves forgetting history. Then I realized that the historical facts of this mobilization were not well known and that a book was needed to go into the details of its history. The march had been the subject of analyses and testimonies of militant and political actors, but not of empirically based scientific research. The Wretched of France is therefore the first socio-historical research on the event, based on original archives and interviews. My aim was to write the history of the defeated, the wretched, the invisible—those who are often denied the ability to act and to make history.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AH: As a contribution to the socio-history of postcolonial France, the book addresses many topics: urban rebellions, working classes, racism, anti-racist mobilizations, racist counter-mobilizations, and national memory. It raises and addresses important sociological and historical questions, such as: why and how do people rebel against police brutality? Is rioting not political and is it so different from demonstrating? How do stigmatized groups face stigmatization through anti-racist mobilization? How can anti-racist mobilization be successful despite that stigmatization? What kind of alliance is needed to gather thousands of people across the color line in an anti-racist demonstration? How do local and national authorities react to the demands of racial justice? And many more.
The book seeks to understand the conditions of possibility for the March for Equality and Against Racism, led by a small group of young North African immigrants and their French supporters, from Marseille to Paris, between 15 October and 3 December 1983. It analyzes its genesis (in the urban riots of the 1970s), its course, its social and political impact, and its place in collective memory. It seeks not only to understand how young men of North African origin from Les Minguettes neighborhood in Vénissieux (Rhône department, suburb of Lyon), one of the most stigmatized groups in France, were able to mobilize more than one hundred thousand people in Paris to denounce police violence and everyday racism, but also to study the reasons why the specific demands of the marchers, which are still relevant today, were not met by the French political authorities.
This required returning to the origins of the social tensions that preceded the march by analyzing the “internal class struggle” within the working class of Les Minguettes. This neighborhood was a veritable laboratory where the relations between the stabilized working class (professional workers and employees) and the precarious working class (unskilled workers and unemployed young people) gradually deteriorated in the 1970s. In a context of economic crisis and rising youth unemployment, the exacerbation of social tensions was the result of a complex social process linked to the ways the apartment blocks were filled with tenants, the phenomenon of residential mobility, the discriminatory policy behind the allocation of social housing, the logic of social and ethnic segregation, and the crisis in the way working-class youth were monitored.
These transformations in the social space of Les Minguettes favored conflicts between the wealthiest sections of the working classes and the gangs of young children of skilled workers who constituted the pool of rebels in 1981 and 1983. In the summer of 1981, hundreds of young people defied the police and took part in an urban rebellion, which became a symbol of the “suburban crisis.” On 21 March 1983, a second rebellion took place in Les Minguettes, ending with a demonstration, a hunger strike among young people, and the creation of the association “SOS Avenir Minguettes.”
Through a detailed analysis of the local configuration, my book seeks to explain the conditions of possibility for the two rebellions and the transition from a mode of action dominated by rioting to a nonviolent mode of action, challenging the classic opposition between “political” and “proto-political” repertoires of action. The organization of the Monmousseau residents was part of an unequal balance of power between them on the one hand and the police forces and the Communist municipality of Vénissieux led by Marcel Houël on the other. The great difficulty the police had in acknowledging police brutality, and the political stakes of the ongoing dispute between young people in the lower-income neighborhoods and the state authorities (municipality, police, and judiciary), needed to be explained by analyzing the ideological underpinnings of the “fear of rebellion.”
The study of the very local situation in Les Minguettes thus gives readers a better grasp of the appeal launched by SOS Avenir Minguettes and the Christian organization La Cimade to organize a “March for Equality.” After being shot and wounded by a policeman, Toumi Djaïdja, president of SOS Avenir Minguettes, suggested from his hospital bed that one way out of the local deadlock would be to copy the marches undertaken by Indians demanding their independence and African Americans demanding their civil rights. As they set off from Marseille, the marchers were far from imagining the final success of their collective action. So, the book explains the reasons for the success of the anti-racist movement, highlighting the unlikely alliance between young people from SOS Avenir Minguettes, La Cimade in Lyon, support associations, youth immigrants, certain members of the Socialist government, and certain journalists. If the anti-racist unanimity forged by the march should not obscure certain ambiguities, it is undeniable that it favored a sort of “May 1968” for the children of postcolonial immigrants by means of a generalized prise de parole.
Finally, the book studies the march as an object of memory, since the commemorations of the event are highly revealing of the social and racial tensions in contemporary France.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AH: After Immigration postcoloniale et mémoire, published in 2005, I continued my academic studies by focusing on another part of the history of postcolonial mobilizations, the Arab Workers' Movement (1972-1976), which played a central role in the emergence of the immigrant and anti-racist cause in France. Then, with Ahmed Boubeker, I co-edited Histoire politique des immigrations (post)coloniale, France 1920-2005 (Editions Amsterdam, 2008), which offers for the first time a general overview of postcolonial mobilizations. I returned to the March for Equality and Against Racism in 2008, as part of the French National Research Agency “Genrebellion” project directed by the historian Michelle Zancarini-Fournel at the Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon. The book is therefore a continuation of my previous work on writing the history of the defeated, but it differs in terms of the scale of analysis (from the very local to the national) and historical depth (transformation of the working classes, multiplicity of social and political actors, and so on).
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AH: I hope the book will be of interest to academics, students, activists, and any English-speaking person who wants to learn more about French history in general, and the history of racism and anti-racism in particular.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AH: I am the editor-in-chief of Marronnages: Race & Social Sciences, which is the only French-language academic journal on critical race studies, and co-director, with historian Jocelyne Dakhlia, of the collection “Contrepartie” published by Éditions Amsterdam. I am also involved in several research projects—“ACADISCRI” (on inequalities in the academic world), “HERICOL” (on colonial legacies in Belgium), and “Deradicalizing The City” (on local policies against radicalization)—and I am currently working on a book project entitled Les musulmans ne savent pas aimer: économie morale de l'islamophobie contemporaine.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 2-5)
The March was (…) an important moment in the history of immigration in France. It symbolized both the immense thirst for equality and the appearance of the children of Maghrebi immigrants in the French public space. For the first time in the history of France, this category of the population was the subject of a positive media and political discourse. Before the March, the figure that most typically represented immigration was an unmarried immigrant worker, without a female partner or any children, exploited at will, barely politicized, and likely to lower the wages of French workers. This image, furthermore, obscured the presence of female immigrants. Also predominant was the image of “North African delinquency,” whether it was located in the working-class districts of Paris, Marseille, or Lyon or in the new suburban social housing districts. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the local and national press had helped racialize the urban rebellions in the Greater Lyon area by creating a reductive image of the racial composition of the White, Black, and Maghrebi rioters, presenting the unrest simplistically as the “race riots” of Arabs and Blacks. The figure of the “city youths” (jeunes de cité) or of “young immigrants” was thus marked by a stigma that was at once racial, class-based, and territorial and was so difficult to escape that many of them went to far as to make their names French or pretended to be Italians so as to have any chance of integrating into social life. The March thus constituted an event in the sense of a “breakdown of intelligibility”: the new immigrant generation was no longer perceived solely from the point of view of a social stigma but valued for what it aspired to—the application of the principles of freedom and equality.
This reversal from a negative to a positive image may have proved ephemeral and ambiguous, but it owed a great deal to the mode of action used. How were people meant to react when “violent young offenders” stopped throwing street cobbles, as in Paris in 1968, and resorted instead to the hunger strike and the peaceful march? Although going on a march was not a new mode of action, it marked a break in the history of social movements in France because of the nature of its actors (children of immigrants) and its social and political stakes (conditions in the suburbs, and racism). Until then, immigrant and anti-racist movements had favored other modes of action such as strikes, demonstrations, rallies, hunger strikes, concerts, and cultural festivals. Organizing a march through France was objectively dangerous for the physical integrity of marchers of Maghrebi origin, who had to show courage in the face of the unknown—a racist unknown. This fear was not unjustified: several incidents occurred on the 1983 march that could have involved bloodshed. But this is the very meaning of nonviolent action. A hunger strike is a violent action against oneself; and the same applies, to a lesser extent, to a march. In both cases, the lives of militants are put at risk, placed in the hands of the political actors to whom their demands are addressed; and these actors thus become responsible for any eventual physical hurt. Individual oppressed bodies, having been the objects of racist violence, now become political subjects—nonviolent human weapons against the dehumanization of young Maghrebi immigrants.
If this march into the unknown was an important event, the reason also lay in the highly unlikely alliance forged between “city youths” (a particularly harshly stigmatized group), anti-racist Christian activists, and several government officials who were in favor of the demands for equality. This was all the more unlikely because it was a one-off in the history of France. In this sense, the March was a resurgence, perhaps one of the last resurgences, of the wind of change of May–June 1968. Indeed, the “crisis of consent” of the 1968 unrest had radically altered the space of mobilization, blurring the boundaries between social groups and destabilizing the multiple forms of domination incarnated by the institutions of social control (businesses, schools, universities, police, prisons, hospitals, etc.). May–June 1968 marked a “de-sectorization” of French society that allowed unlikely alliances to be created between social groups that had previously been unaware of one another; the political effects of these groupings persisted for several years. In the 1970s, immigrant movements such as the MTA allied themselves with renowned intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, French trade unionists, and worker priests promoting a theology of social justice. Today, what professor at the Collège de France would distribute leaflets on behalf of illegal immigrants? The unlikely alliance that made the March possible was the continuation of a long tradition of support for the struggles of immigrant workers, embodied by the increasing number of “reception committees” that greeted the March throughout France and without which the marchers simply would not have managed to keep going for a single day. The unlikely alliance demonstrated the existence and mobilization of an “anti-racist France” ready to confront a “racist France” manifested by the first electoral successes of the far-right party, the National Front, in the local elections of 1983.
Thus, the conditions favorable to the existence of the March enabled a large-scale national mobilization. It is therefore not surprising that the March was a veritable turning point for a new generation of immigrant activists. The heyday of the first-generation militants who arrived in the 1960s or 1970s came when they organized the “strikes against racism” of 1973 and the hunger strikes of the illegal immigrants of the 1970s. Some of them continued to be active in such Maghrebi workers’ bodies as the Association des travailleurs maghrébins de France, the Union des travailleurs immigrés tunisiens, and the Maison des travailleurs immigrés, while others embarked on the task of promoting immigrants’ memories (Génériques) or worked for the press, both general (Libération) and specialized (Sans frontière). They opened spaces in which the children of immi- grants born in the early 1960s were able to form political groups and build their own movements long before the March of 1983; these included Zaama d’Banlieue and Rock against Police. But these movements of young immigrants remained scattered and unaware of one another’s existence until the March brought them together. It thus in a way became the moment of crystallization of a whole new generation of militants of immigrant origin, marking the birth of the so-called Beur movement. These militants, with their different trajectories, included both men and women (women were actually predominant in the leadership); they met in the committees set up to welcome the March, and these committees became open forums for discussing racism. Another connection with May–June 1968—a period marked, according to Michel de Certeau, by the capture of speech (“prise de parole”) of the dominated—lay in the way the March represented a real liberation for the speech of the children of immigrants, now able for the first time to express their experiences of racism to attentive listeners in public without fear of a racist backlash.
However, the March also turned out to be a paradoxical moment in which the anti-racist movement became both united and divided. The thirty militants who left Marseille on October 15, 1983, could not have imagined that the final demonstration on December 3 in Paris would bring together more than one hundred thousand people, both French and immigrants, of all ages, all social classes, and all faiths, from the left but also from the “social right.” The images of the demonstration broadcast on television gave a real thrill to anyone with an anti-racist turn of mind—the jovial atmosphere of the colorful processions, the political determination of the demonstrators, the highly inventive slogans, the powerful presence of victims’ families, and above all the mass of those physical bodies all crammed together between the beginning and the end of the procession created the impression of a real anti-racist upsurge and the feeling that “things have changed for good,” suggesting that this was an event capable of tilting the political balance in favor of anti-racist public action. Hadn’t the Washington March contributed to the passing of the 1964 and 1965 acts abolishing legal segregation against African Americans and guaranteeing their right to vote? In the France of the 2010s, how likely is it that “city youths” will be invited to meet the president at the Palais de l’Élysée after a demonstration? Not very likely at all. Hence the incredible sense of hope aroused in the marchers when they were welcomed by the French president François Mitterrand in person.
But once the March was over, certain still-unanswered questions resurfaced, revealing the profound divisions of French society in general and of the anti-racist movement in particular; these divisions did not miraculously disappear after the final demonstration, however triumphant a conclusion it may have been.