Luskin Center for History and Policy Workshop

January 10, 2018

“The Barbarian at the Gate? Race and Immigration Policy in France”

Minayo Nasiali, Assistant Professor, UCLA Department of History

The third meeting of the monthly Luskin Center Workshop took up the question of race and the place of social science in twentieth- and twenty-first-century immigration policy in France. The session was led by Minayo Nasiali, assistant professor in the Department of History.

Professor Nasiali’s presentation began by asking the simple question: what is policy? How is it formed and by whom? Are there multiple levels at which to understand it? And what part can or should be played by social scientists?

She applied these introductory question to the subject of France’s 1974 Immigration Ban, aimed largely at black and North African immigrants. Professor Nasiali argued that this ban was supported by widely accepted social science theories that postulated that “French society” had a “threshold of tolerance” for immigrants beyond which the French nation would start to decline. According to researchers like sociologist Alain Girard, whose work had begun years before the ban was instituted, “French society” could tolerate a population in which no more than 30% of residents were immigrants. Professor Nasiali argued that such views—and in turn, the Immigration Ban itself—came to be seen as commonsensical by many French citizens, even though both were based on deeply ingrained prejudice and problematic research methods.

In the spirit of the Luskin Center’s mission, Professor Nasiali drew a link between past and present by suggesting that such social science concepts were and still are deemed commonsensical among many groups and politicians in France. She briefly discussed language used by National Front leaders Jean-Marie Le Pen in the early 1990s and Marie Le Pen in 2017, both of whom suggested that North African, black African, and Muslim “immigrant” populations weaken and deform “French” society.

A robust conversation among workshop participants followed the presentation. Participants called attention to racism built into rhetoric about non-white “immigrants” in France that has tended to include all black or brown populations living in France, even those that have been in the country for many generations.

Another set of comments considered the role and the conceptualization of the “nation-state,” as well as the history of national borders, passports, and immigration policy, in allowing for the emergence of racialized immigration policies.

Participants also raised the question of gender and religion in shaping ideas about immigration. Is it possible that in France the presence of Muslim women wearing headscarves spurred fears of “national decline”?

Finally, a recurrent question raised in the discussion returned to Professor Nasiali’s opening query: what role can and should history—and social science more generally—play in the formation of policy? Her research highlighted the potential of academic research to advance and naturalize racist, fear-mongering, and inaccurate ideas under the guise of “science.” Participants pondered the prospect that history might disrupt such tendencies by training attention on both long-term structures of inequality and instances of individuals that defy facile stereotyping.