In a world where national identity is disappearing and where more complex identities are emerging, such a question can sound outdated. Here, however, this is not the case.
Over the past few years, immigration has become one of the most important issues in Europe. France, considered as a host country for decades, is nowadays one of the countries with the most repressive immigration policy in the EU. In the last seven years, five immigration laws have been passed in its parliament.
The new French political rhetoric regarding the Roma is not a new phenomenon either. After the Second World War, French immigration was characterized by an open door policy, but during the inter-war years, France, a European power in decline, was very suspicious regarding its immigrants.
In the 1920s and the 30s, the immigration issue wasn’t the Roma or the North African but the Polish. It wasn’t the figure of the Polish plumber yet, which embodied popular fears about Eastern European workers during the EU referendum constitution in 2005, but the figure of the Polish miner.
France always had very ambivalent feelings towards immigrants, simultaneously realising their necessity while often blaming them for social problems such as unemployment, suburban violence, and so on.
After the Great War, France gladly welcomed all those young under-qualified and cheap workers coming from the Polish countryside, but did not accept that they would stay. At mines in the centre and north of France and sometimes on farms, they replaced all the Frenchmen who had died in the trenches, following the Franco-Polish Convention of September 1919.
The only problem is that they stayed. The post-war economic crisis, Nazism, and then communism destroyed the dream of a free Poland. The Polish immigrants had little choice but to stay in their host country. France ended up with a Polish community which represents between 500,000 and one million people today.
The tragic death of President Lech Kaczyński last spring was the perfect opportunity for French media and politicians to glorify the so-called successful integration of the Franco-Polish community, contrasted against the huge failure of Northern African integration. However, has a Franco-Polish community ever really existed since 1919?
For sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, a community is characterized by mutual confidence, an emotional link and social homogeneity. Does this definition apply to France’s Polish community? Yes and no. The Franco-Polish community is socially and geographically homogeneous and linked by a mutual solidarity which constitutes an ethnic community. For the first and second immigrant generation, the link with Poland and Polish culture was still very strong. Immigrants were speaking Polish amongst themselves, but the social pressure of the state was so overwhelming that in less than two generations, Polish culture and heritage disappeared.
The French republican and anticlerical educational system, considered by philosopher Émile Durkheim as the room of cultural transmission, was the main driver of the assimilation process promoted by the state. The prohibition of Polish in the playgrounds, even in cities where Poles were the dominant ethnic group, was the rule. To avoid discrimination, many even Frenchified their family name.
Integration, respect of different faiths, languages and cultures, or “melting pot” were not the key words of French immigration policy at that time.
Discounting the mid-19th century, when Paris was the centre of Poland’s political emigration, France’s Polish community has never succeeded in becoming a political force in the way that Franco-Jewish or Franco-Algerian communities did so, due to the lack of a sense of mutual interest. Over the last hundred years, France’s Polish community has seemingly not felt the need to promote its social, economic and cultural interests at the institutional level. The only political mobilisation amongst this community came from the high profile intellectuals that escaped from the communist regime, such as the founder of the Kultura literary review, Jerzy Giedroyc. However, they were never involved in improving their compatriots’ living conditions in France.
Today, the Franco-Polish community is still geographically concentrated but disunited. The social solidarity within the community is more diffuse. However, in the past 10 years, a new sense of belonging has emerged. Possessing French, Polish and European identities, the last immigrant generation has a less troubled relationship with its origins than its elders, considering its Polish past as an asset rather than a burden. Moreover, this relationship is more opportunistic. After the fall of the USSR and a quick integration into the European Union, many have discovered Poland and the richness of Polish culture again. In the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis, Poland appeared as a safe economic haven, whereas every other EU country experienced recession. Around 80 years after a massive wave of labour immigration from Poland to France, many have decided to come back to their great-grandparents’ or grandparents’ country to work.