Mary Stevens – Migration rebound: State responses to the challenge of transnationalism
Focusing on the establishment of the French national musuem of immigration, Mary Stevens highlights the creative strategies developed by the state in order to curb the challenges that migration poses to national sovereignty.
The challenge posed to the nation state by contemporary patterns of migration has been widely discussed both in the theoretical literature and in political discourse. Border crossings, border thinking , hybrid identities: all have been seen as strategies for the gradual dissolution of national boundaries. However, every announcement of the nation state’s imminent demise has met with the counter-claim that such predictions are premature. And indeed, with the help of examples from France, I hope to show not only that the nation state is proving remarkably resilient but also to challenge the assumption that where migrants display creativity in building networks and establishing new forms of belonging the state lacks imagination and acts only to respond to overt threats to its sovereignty. For it is precisely the creative strategies developed by the state – and not merely its repressive equipment – that is enabling it to maintain its hegemony.
Creative strategies towards migration
Faced with the prospect of its hold over its members diminishing there are two forms of action open to the nation state, or, more precisely, to its ruling elite. On the one hand it can turn in on itself, bar the doors and restrict access to the benefits of citizenship. Alternatively it can adopt a more risky, but potentially more viable approach to self-preservation, expanding the boundaries of national identity with the hope of assimilating newcomers. The fear, in the latter instance, is that widening the net will ‘dilute’ national identity; its implementation is therefore dependent on a firm belief in the assimilationist power of the dominant culture. In France this confidence has reigned since the late nineteenth century; as Fanon and many others have observed, one of the ways in which the French Third Republic retained control over its empire was by co-opting a minority of ‘évolués’, opening the door to its colonial subjects just wide enough to prevent them forcing it.
In the postcolonial context memory has often been seen as a strategy to resist hegemonic power. Diasporic cultural memory has been perceived as particularly subversive since it preserves within the bounds of the country of residence the presence of an elsewhere, an outside. It is not necessary for the memory itself to be emancipatory (indeed it may be imbued with a repressive nostalgia that hinders the development of the subject); the very existence of a set of stories that can only with difficulty be incorporated into accounts of a shared national past constitutes a form of resistance. This duality, the continuing presence in the mind of the ‘there’ in the ‘here’, is reinforced by Abdelmalek Sayad’s insistence on the inseparability of the processes of immigration and emigration, that is, on constituting an object of study that also transgresses national boundaries.
Institutionalising the history of migration
In France since the early 1990 memories of immigration have emerged precisely to challenge reductive visions of national identity. All have been linked to a demand for recognition in the public sphere, sometimes of a particular event (the group Au nom de la mémoire – in the name of memory – has campaigned for the inscription of the massacre of Algerians in Paris of 17 October 1961 in the historical record), sometimes of a particular community (such as Yamina Benguigui’s 1997 film Mémoires d’immigrés, subtitled ‘the Maghrebi heritage’). In 2004 the government announced the creation of a national musuem of immigration, the Cité nationale de l’histoire l’immigration (CNHI), reputedly in response to this demand. However, this decision, which exceeded the demands of many activists, can also be interpreted as evidence of a creative strategy to occupy the terrain in order to neutralize it. The assmilationist power of the state applies not only to individuals, it is also a strategy to deal with potentially disruptive movements through a policy of absorption.
In the initial debates over the CNHI’s sphere of intervention two contrasting visions of the nature of its object competed for attention. Would the new centre focus on the migratory experience in France, in keeping with Sayad’s injunction to respect the whole experience, or would it restrict itself to immigration, that is, on the processes by which outsiders have taken up residence with a view to remain and become incorporated into the body politic? At stake was the definition of the national community and the nation-state’s control over its borders. For the first vision could potentially have included internal migration from the provinces as well as the experience of French citizens from its periphery – such as the islands of Martinique and Gaudeloupe – travelling to the centre. By privileging the experience of displacement over the legal status of the actors concerned, as well as acknowledging reverse cross-border flows, it would have contributed to the downgrading of the status of national frontiers. However, as is evident from the choice of name – Cité evokes the polis, nationale needs no elucidation and immigration excludes all outward or temporary movement of peoples – it is the second vision, with its emphasis on traditional nationality criteria that has held sway. This choice is further underscored by the Cité’s timeframe, restricted to the post-revolutionary period; immigration on this model becomes a phenomenon that can only pertain to the nation-state. Far from acknowledging diasporic memory’s challenge to sovereignty, the Cité is poised via its (limited) incorporation to extend the boundaries of national belonging in order better to secure them.
Defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigration
The annexation of what Foucault terms the ‘disqualified knowledges’ of migrants by the French nation-state should therefore be seen as part of a creative, largely pre-emptive strategy of self-preservation, in which the state apparatus occupies a terrain of struggle in order to divest it of its power; the growing willingness to talk publicly about aspects of colonial history is another example of this approach. The CNHI lists amongst its objectives a desire to promote a more positive view of immigration as a counterweight to the popular association of immigrants with violence and social unrest. However, in defining the ‘good’ immigrant – the individual who has chosen to settle definitively on the national territory and expressed this choice through the eventual acquisition of citizenship – the state automatically designates the ‘bad’ other. Some people have expressed surprise that a government investing so heavily in the positive re-evalution of immigration via the Cité should simultaneously be engaged in the demonization of other categories of migrants (particularly in the discourse surrounding the 2006 revision of the immigration laws). Yet a reading of Bourdieu and in particular Sayad offers an explanation; the work of the state is a work of categorization and we think demographic phenomena only by means of the structures it provides. Offering up a positive model enables a negative conceptualization to emerge. There is no contradiction between appeasing the memories of immigration and Interior Minister Sarkozy’s evocation of France under siege from illegal migrants. Securitization and desecuritization are two sides of the same coin.
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