Antonia Wimbush on the controversy being generated by a little-known chapter in the country’s post-colonial history.
While the Windrush scandal has given Britain cause to look back at its treatment of post-Second World War migrants who were bought to Europe to help address labour shortages, France has had an opportunity to do something similar – although not all in the country seem to be grasping it.
Between 1963 and 1982, 160,000 men, women and children from the French Caribbean islands, Guiana and Réunion were recruited, trained, and brought to mainland France to work in construction, the health service and local administration. Yet when they arrived, they were treated as second-class citizens because of their racial difference, even though, legally, they were French.
Earlier this year, a report was published by sociologist Philippe Vitale, under the auspices of the Ministère des Outre-mer – the French government department responsible for the country’s overseas territories – looking at the treatment of a group of young children who were sent from Réunion to mainland France between 1963 and 1982. While the report does not exonerate the government for its part in actively removing young children from their families and sending them overseas, it does downplay state involvement and depicts Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, as a bleak, economically deprived region.
Remarkably, this report has gone largely unnoticed in French media, both on the mainland and in the overseas departments. Why is this, and why has the reaction been different to the official introspection prompted by the UK’s Windrush scandal?
To understand, and to gauge what the report means for the 2,015 French citizens and their families who were affected by this particular scandal, we need to look back to the post-war period, and what was a turbulent time for France’s former colonies.
Coupled with a rising birth rate, unemployment rates were steadily increasing and growing numbers of young people were being left out of work. As unemployment rose, so did disenchantment with the political system.
Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana (all in the Caribbean, or South America) and Réunion had been converted from French colonies to overseas departments by the Loi de la départementalisation, passed in March 1946. The legislation meant that people from these four locations were French citizens and so had equal rights as those living in mainland France. Yet many saw little real difference in this change of status. There was a growing threat of rebellion from within these regions and the French government feared that the overseas departments would demand complete independence from France.
Mainland France, meanwhile, was embarking on an economic boom that later came to be known as the Trente Glorieuses (‘the 30 glorious years’) and was in desperate need of a stable workforce. In response, Michel Debré former French prime minister turned Réunion député, or MP, created, in 1963, the Bureau pour le développement des migrations dans les départements (BUMIDOM; or Office for development of migrations within overseas departments).
The program encouraged young men and women to come to France to find work. In just under 20 years, 160,000 workers migrated to the mainland. Women were particularly encouraged, in order to learn more ‘modern’ family values from white French citizens and disseminate them upon their return.
Each aspiring migrant had to undergo a physical examination and personality tests to check that they would easily integrate into French life. Even though legally French citizens, they were not treated as such because they were not white. They were questioned about their French language skills, their family background, and their previous employment. They were then given a one-way ticket paid for by the French state.
Upon their arrival, some received a job straight away in construction or administration; others were sent to training centres. The women were sent to Crouy-sur-Ourcq in Île-de-France, where they learnt to cook French food and run a household before being employed in health care and domestic service sectors.
The men were sent to Simandres (in the Rhône region) and Marseille. By 1982, however, the French economy was beginning to stall. The BUMIDOM program was halted and family reunification was favoured over the recruitment of new workers. While for some, the BUMIDOM was an opportunity for social promotion and economic independence, others experienced this migration as a ‘deportation’, as the Martinique-born writer and politician Aimé Césaire termed it.
The most extreme case involved the so-called enfants de la Creuse, the more than 2,000 children – some orphans, others not – who were forcibly removed from their homes on Réunion between 1962 and 1984 and taken to mainland France to repopulate declining rural areas. The region of La Creuse, in the centre of France, received the majority because each year around 3,000 of its young people headed toward larger cities to find work, and its population was aging.
The case of the Creuse children, many of whom were ill -treated and subjected to abuse and violence, was largely unreported until the early 2000s when some of them sued the French state. They asked for financial compensation and an acknowledgement from the government of the trauma they faced. One of the recommendations of this year’s Vitale report was the creation of museums, memorials and a national day of commemoration, but Michel Calteau, a representative of the support association Collectif Enfants 3D, has argued this is not enough.
The French government has announced some financial assistance to victims, in the form of paid airline tickets to Réunion, but it is unlikely that such measures will be sufficient to satisfy those personally affected by the scandal. At the heart of the debate is the role played by the BUMIDOM, the organisation in charge of the children and adults moved to mainland France.
This year has seen a surge in cultural production across the French-speaking world about the long-lasting impacts of the BUMIDOM. The television film Le rêve français (‘The French Dream’), directed by Christian Faure, was shown on the French television channel France 2 in March and it was even reviewed by Maryse Condé, one of the most prolific writers from the French Caribbean.
A graphic novel has also been created about the BUMIDOM, Péyi an nou (‘Our Country’, in Creole). Written by Jessica Oublié and illustrated by Marie-Ange Rousseau, it tells the story of Oublié’s family history. In April, Péyi an nou won the Prix du livre politique award given by radio station France Culture for the best political graphic novel.
While popular culture and literature are exposing the role of the BUMIDOM, the French government has yet to catch up in acknowledging the extent of state involvement – particularly in the case of Réunion – thus risking a scandal like that which overtook the UK government over the Windrush affair.
Indeed, beyond the French-speaking world, little is known about this government-organised migration. Like the Windrush generation, people migrating through the BUMIDOM helped to rebuild France in the wake of the war and have subsequently been shunned because of their racial and cultural origins. It is time we repaid them with the gratitude and dignity that they deserve.
Antonia Wimbush is a researcher in Francophone studies and an English tutor at the Université de Montpellier; this article also appears at www.theconversation.com