The guest-worker crisis

Marci McDonald April 11 1983

The guest-worker crisis

Marci McDonald April 11 1983

The guest-worker crisis


Marci McDonald

As thousands of striking autoworkers milled outside the Renault plant in the Paris suburb of Flins, a French TV camera swept the sea of protest to reveal a seething mass of North African anger. Then, panning over placards, the lens zoomed in on an unlikely prop—a copy of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, waved aloft by a Moroccan welder. That image promptly became a visual bombshell that has unleashed a new wave of racial controversy in France.

Journalists suddenly reported sighting tracts circulating among other striking immigrant autoworkers at the Citroën plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois signed by the “Free Moslem Brothers.” Wire services hummed with news that laborers occupying the struck Chausson auto parts plant in nearby Gennevilliers had chanted, “Allah supports the workers.” The normally discreet prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, added kindling by letting slip that the auto strikers were agitated by foreign “political and religious forces.” Even the proSocialist paper Le Matin panicked in two-inch headlines: THE GOVERNMENT DISCOVERS THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION AT RENAULT. But, in fact, the two months of on-again, off-again strikes in the be-

leaguered French auto industry had revealed a malaise that ran far deeper than the question of religious provocation in a labor dispute. What had been laid bare were the explosive tensions festering around the presence of France’s 4.2-million-strong immigrant population, 7.8 per cent of the nation’s 53.8 million people, which had just given the country a first glimpse of its force.

As right-wing candidates capitalized on those tensions in last month’s municipal elections, ugly campaign slogans fanned the flames of local xenophobia. In the Normandy town of Dreux, where 24 per cent of the 35,000 inhabitants are foreign workers, the neo-Gaullists combined with the extreme right-wing National Front under a banner reading: TWO MILLION UNEMPLOYED EQUALS TWO MILLION IMMIGRANTS. FRANCE FOR THE FRENCH. In Toulon former centrist mayor Maurice Arreckx plastered posters on his city’s walls claiming TOULON FOR THE TOULONNAIS and he pledged not to let the Mediterranean port become the “dustbin of Europe.” Those sentiments are not new in France—or indeed in the rest of Western Europe, which now harbors 14.6 million immigrants (7.6 per cent of the Continent’s total population). But the auto strikes pushed them to a point that then Immigration

Minister François Autain called “dangerous.”

After two decades of playing passive scapegoats for the country’s social and economic ills, France’s foreign workers flexed their unionized muscle for the first time to bring an entire industry to its knees. In the month of January alone the strikes cost the auto industry 50,000 cars in lost production—half of the total lost in the whole of 1982. With last year’s deficit at a record four billion francs ($690 million), the automakers could not have been hit at a worse time. But unlike French workers, the immigrant laborers have been impervious to government slogans warning that the work stoppages are damaging the competitiveness of the French car industry, which in January saw an unprecedented 36-per-cent bite of the domestic market go to Japanese and U.S. imports. The foreign workers, already stuck in the most menial, monotonous and lowestpaid jobs and shunted to the fringes of French society in bleak ghettos ringing Paris and other industrial centres, feel no stake in the national welfare. After years of being considered the most docile group within the country’s manpower, they have suddenly become the most militant. As one of their banners at Citroën acknowledged, BEFORE WE WERE THE SHEEP, NOW WE ARE THE SHEPHERDS.

Troubled union representatives point out that French workers would have given in after undercutting production by as many as 30,000 cars. But the immigrants, who make up 7,000 of Flins’s 18,000-man work force, dug in with their demands for hardship bonuses and retraining in the face of their gradual replacement by robots (which Renault estimates will eliminate 12,000 of their unskilled painting and welding jobs by the end of the decade).

The militancy of the foreign workers has provoked ruptures not only in French society but in the labor movement as well. When Citroën’s French workers protested last January that the strikers were interfering with their “right to work,” violence erupted, putting 25 in hospital. Critics are blaming President François Mitterrand’s government, which came to power in 1981 promising the immigrants a better deal, for their newfound militancy. Laws encouraging union representation propelled the foreigners out of the impotent house unions over the past 21 months in favor of a massive enlistment in the Communist-led Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the country’s largest and most obstreperous syndicat. For its part, the government has tried to turn the tables, attributing the workers’ fomentation to pro-Iranian or Libyan agents trying to destabilize France through inflammatory

Islamic propaganda.

While some observers have seen the immigrant workers’ militancy as a product of the French unions’ recruiting wars, one worried labor leader voiced a fear that others would not admit even under the veil of anonymity. “These strikes are strictly an immigrant problem,” he said. “And that population is no longer controllable—even by the left wing.” In fact, that trepidation has officials worried, not only in France but in other European capitals such as Bonn and Bern, which lured huge foreign worker populations in the industrial boom of the early 1960s to take on the manual labor and streetsweeping tasks that Europeans could no longer be recruited to do.

According to U.S. economist Charles Kindleberger, the availability of the imported cheap manpower supplies was the main ingredient in the Continent’s

postwar growth. Not only did the underpayment of foreign laborers keep wage levels from rising too rapidly, but their presence allowed European workers to move into more skilled jobs. However, with the economic crunch of the first energy crisis in 1974, the welcome mat was pre-emptorily pulled in. Switzerland, for instance, proved most successful in reducing its population of guest workers by abruptly refusing to renew 11-month work visas. A referendum last June indicated how Swiss citizens felt about the 917,000 who remain: it soundly rejected a proposal for new proportional immigration quotas as being too liberal. West German and

French efforts to offer incentives for foreigners to go back home met with little success. Only 100,000 accepted former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s 1977 offer of a return ticket and 10,000 francs ($1,700).

But West Germany’s 4.7 million guest workers—at 7.6 per cent of the country’s population, the largest immigrant concentration on the Continent—face increasingly frightening humiliation from a segment of the local population. In Berlin’s Kreutzberg, better known as “Little Ankara,” graffiti scrawled on the walls and benches reads: FOREIGNERS, OUT and MOHAMMED, THE CREMATORIUMS AWAIT YOU. As a government labor official said, “the frictions are already reaching explosive proportions for us.” Bonn’s answer has been to try to launch a massive public information campaign to point out what many Europeans have not wished to acknowl-

edge: economic chaos. Without the guest workers, rail traffic would be paralysed, the electricity would be cut off, and industry would grind to a halt.

With the realization that 70 per cent of its immigrant work force has been in France for more than 10 years, breeding a new generation of children caught between cultures, the French government gradually launched a campaign aimed at dispelling the most popular xenophobic myths, including the accusation that the immigrants are responsible for unemployment. But, although the Socialists have made funds available to improve immigrant worker housing, they have not been able to persuade mu-

nicipalities to take advantage of it to clean up their slums. Since the auto strikes, however, even the government has backed off the question. In fact, when Interior Minister Gaston Defferre was threatened with losing his mayoralty of Marseilles to a right-wing ticket that played on racist fears, even he resorted to declaring that he would be more effective as mayor because, as the minister responsible, he could further reduce immigration.

As the debate continues, however, it has seldom been pointed out that, as the immigrants begin to test their collective muscle, the results are not always disruptive. Last October, when a French sniper opened fire on children in the squalid immigrant transit community of Nanterre, outside Paris, killing a 19-year-old Algerian student as he walked out of the mosque, police braced for a race riot in the style of Britain’s

bloody clashes in Brixton in 1981. Instead, they arrived on the scene to find that a local youth militia of the victims’ friends had already organized to circle the sniper’s house and prevent a frenzy of reprisals. Weeks later that group organized an “open door” day, inviting both officials and tense French neighbors to take a closer look at their living conditions, as well as taste their communal culture. But, as some analysts point out, unless the lot of immigrant workers begins to improve, such affable demonstrations of their strength may soon give way to social upheavals that would make the recent wave of French auto strikes seem like mere ripples.