In the latest in our series of Hors d’Oeuvres, we talked with Daniel A. Gordon about his new article about the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism and the subsequent introduction of the Ten-year Residency Permit in 1984.
Daniel A. Gordon is Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University, a member of the organising collective of the Acteurs et mouvements sociaux seminar at Sciences Po Paris, and a former member of the Editorial Board of Modern and Contemporary France. He has recently recorded his first ever podcast, and you can listen here.
Hi Daniel, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article ‘A Victory for the March for Equality? Immigration, Policy, Protest and the Ten Year Residency Permit of 1984’. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?
Thanks for inviting me!
I think they will be most surprised to hear of a positive change in immigration policy emerging in France in 1983-1984. This is usually seen as a moment of doom, when the Front National and the politics of scapegoating immigrants first became entrenched. Yet in July 1984 a combined ten year residency and work permit was passed, which actually gave most foreign residents a much more stable situation than they previously had. Moreover, the intersections between this reform and social movements provide a positive example of how government policy can be influenced in a favourable direction. The carte de 10 ans fulfilled a key demand of immigrant workers’ movements for a whole decade prior to this. Yet paradoxically it was precipitated by the March for Equality and Against Racism of autumn 1983, a mobilisation by mainly young French citizens against racist violence that appeared to have very little to do with residency permits, and was passed at an otherwise apparently unfavourable time. Hence the relationship between the March and the law is much disputed. Forty years on, my article seeks to disentangle cause and effect in the origins of the carte de 10 ans – between protest, policy and power, in a complex and multidirectional set of mutually entangled and ambivalent relationships. Progress can be a fabulously messy thing.
Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work?
My favourite anecdote is that on 3 December 1983, after meeting the Marchers at the Elysée Palace, François Mitterrand agreed to the carte unique – a combined residency and work permit – and then afterwards asked at the same meeting, ‘What is the carte unique?’.
One should not underestimate the extent to which powerful people pretend to know more than they actually do. Luckily, it is sometimes possible for those lacking in power to take advantage of this.
What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?
Unlike in some other recent writings, I didn’t leave a lot out, because one of the things that attracted me to submitting this to French History was its generous word limit compared to some journals. Plus feeling guilty that I’d been a regular at Society for the Study of French History conferences for a couple of decades before heeding the traditional plea to ‘Do consider submitting your paper to French History’, even though ironically this is one of the few research papers I’ve written that hasn’t been presented at an SSFH conference!
Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?
Partly because I spent too much of my youth in the 1990s and early 2000s protesting against things that went ahead despite lots of people protesting against them, I became intrigued as whether, and under what circumstances, it is possible for protest to actually succeed in changing government policy.
And partly because as a result of my first book Immigrants and Intellectuals: May ’68 and the Rise of Anti-Racism in France, in the 2010s I did a lot of work for a wonderful (but now sadly defunct) Paris-based NGO called Génériques – particularly on an oral history project on anti-racist activism, whose coverage started in 1968 but continued until 1988.
That persuaded me that there might be something new to say about protest in the Eighties, a period of which I had previously tended to be rather dismissive. So when in 2015 I was asked to speak at a conference at the law department of the University of Nanterre on 70 years of the 1945 statut des étrangers, it made a lot of sense to investigate the 1984 law – whose relationship with the March for Equality fascinated me because different activists seemed to have strongly opposed views about whether or not the March had anything to do with the law.
Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?
Start writing and see where it goes. The nearest I get to planning is to jot down what used to be called a spider diagram with the main subthemes I want to cover – what is apparently now known as a mind map.
Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.
I too live in hope! Writer’s block is something I suffer from a lot, but it helps to put it in perspective by reframing the question. Accept that you are a human being first, a teacher second and a writer, at best, third (or fourth – my cat would say that my primary role in the universe is ‘chief food-giver’ / ‘magic rain-stopper’.)
The further you get into middle age and the ‘sandwich generation’, the more personal and professional responsibilities you tend to acquire, so the classic advice to write something every day seems less and less relevant: on most days setting aside time for your own writing, as opposed to something more urgent, seems either impossible or selfish. So, I don’t have a magic cure.
But I find that a walk in the fresh air helps, as does writing somewhere different from your usual place of work, especially in libraries (even more of a treat if they are in a place which you are writing about!). And don’t judge yourself too harshly for the slowness with which you produce your work – it’s the quality of your scholarship, not the quantity, that’s really important.
Whose writing do you most admire and why?
It’s very hard to single out one example, but I’m going to pick Ralph Schor, with whom I had the pleasure of working in the same research centre in Nice when I was a young
warthog post-doc over 20 years ago. Firstly, because Schor is not as widely credited as he should be for having pioneered the study of the history of immigration in France long before it was fashionable. His 1985 book L’Opinion française et les étrangers 1919-1939 is a real classic and it is a shame it has never been translated into English. And secondly, because his work is not only extremely thorough, but also written in the most beautifully classic and accessible French, where every sentence seems finely crafted.
Who did you get feedback from on the article? Did you give talks on this topic or share drafts with colleagues or non-specialists?
Oh yes – I don’t normally submit anything for publication until I’ve allowed it to gradually mature for a few years as a conference paper.
After its first outing in 2015, the following year I organised a panel at the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France Conference at Aston University with two great French colleagues, Ludivine Bantigny and Rachida Brahim, about the extent to which 1983-1984 was or wasn’t a turning point in the politics of immigration. This was very useful in framing the debates explored in the article, as was talking to some of the activists involved in campaigning for the carte de 10 ans. I recall for example a lively discussion about it at which I was privileged to be present at Paris’ Institut Tribune Socialiste in 2016 between three ex-Parti Socialiste Unifié activists – all the more poignant because two of them, Gérard Desbois and Bernard Ravenel, have since died. Then in 2018 I was invited to give this paper at a workshop at Bangor University and a seminar at Edge Hill University, and more recently in 2022 at the Institute of Historical Research’s Modern French History seminar (and that’s recorded here).
While preparing the final article for publication, I shared a complete draft with (apart from French History’s editors and anonymous referees) two people, both of whom are PhDs happily working outside the academy. Louisa Zanoun, whose valuable insights came both from having worked in a senior role at Génériques, and from growing up in the 1980s as the daughter of North African immigrants, so had a useful suggestion about how the Marchers may have considered the carte de 10 ans a way of honouring their parents’ generation despite it not affecting them personally. And my wife Mary Horbury: when Mary worked in the refugee sector in Blair’s Britain, it was known that a government minister had surreptitiously encouraged campaigning against the government’s own anti-refugee policies. So, when I spotted evidence of something analogous to this in the French archives, Mary’s practical experiences made it seem less weird. She also has a knack for seeing the wood from the trees in my writing, and sawing off its excess branches.
What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?
Well, I do quite a lot of refereeing of journal articles, and even more feedback on student work, and I think helpful feedback starts with asking: what good things has this managed to achieve? I try to empathise with the recipient of the feedback: it’s a very nerve-wracking thing to put your work out for judgement, so they deserve some positive reinforcement. Then comes the time for critique – you go through with a fine toothcomb, identifying the points where meaning is unclear or ambiguous, or internal tensions arise in the argument, or just places where your knowledge of something feels like it could be useful to the author. If you can give possible solutions, then so much the better. Finally, now that you’ve done the necessary critique, end with a brief note of encouragement. What you should never do in feedback is say ‘This is about X, but it should really instead be about Y, because that is closer to my own hobbyhorse’.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of this process? How did your ideas change? Was there an epiphany?
It took me some time after the first, rather sketchy, version of the paper to really get to the bottom of the relationship between the March and the change in the law. Afterwards I made some very useful archival findings in 2017, not only on my first visit to the then new Archives nationales building in Pierrefitte, but also in the archives of the Association des Marocains en France in St Denis and of the Campagne Carte de 10 ans held at La Contemporaine in Nanterre.
Together with a later visit to Sciences Po to use the papers of Patrick Weil, the Socialist Party’s go-to expert on immigration, this deepened and enriched my understanding of what was going on in 1983-1984, both from the social movement side and from the government side.
I’m probably more in my comfort zone as a historian of protest, so it was hard, but very stimulating, to try to integrate a social history from below approach with a high politics from above approach. But 2018 to 2020 were pretty much a write-off for my research due to an unfortunate succession of family illness and then being very ill myself with Covid and pericarditis. This article was the first substantive piece of writing I came back to after a long convalescence – it was great to feel the words really flowing for the first time in ages.
One detail I wish I’d known at the start of this research is that Georgina Dufoix, the minister responsible for passing the law, is an evangelical Protestant – which could explain something about the contradictions in her policy approach, and the absence of a heroic memory of this moment on the Left.
What’s the word you can never type right?
I have immense difficulty in spelling Gaston Defferre’s surname. I can never quite bring myself to believe that Mitterrand’s first Interior Minister, just like the President, had that many repeated letters in his name.
What are you working on next?
Ooh, a couple of things. One, a microhistory of the events of 21 June 1973, which saw a very violent riot between anti-fascists and police on the Left Bank of Paris, leading to the banning of both the Ligue communiste on the extreme left and Ordre nouveau on the extreme right. Two, a transnational history of the origins in early 1970s Europe of the idea and practice of free public transport.
If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?
I think it’s pretty clear that UK higher education is in deep crisis. The most urgent remedy is the reinstatement of student number controls on all courses. The removal of these unleashed an irresponsible overexpansion by the most allegedly prestigious universities, which is right now threatening the jobs at more student-friendly institutions of many brilliant teachers and researchers, to whom I would like to take this opportunity to send much solidarity.
Next, I would abolish all ‘excellence’ (which I should explain to international readers is British management-speak for ‘mediocrity’) frameworks, league tables and funding competitions – and instead divide the total amount of research time and funding available for any given discipline exactly equally between all scholars in it. That would be much fairer; might help end the pernicious star system in academia; and would save a lot of time and resources wasted on unnecessary and toxic competition. By that point it should hopefully become obvious that there is no longer anything to manage, therefore no need for any managerial hierarchies, so universities can be transformed into cooperatives, where we can rekindle in our hearts a love of learning for its own sake.
Éclair or saucisson?
I first answered this burning question for the French History Network back in 2016, and am pleased to announce that the answer remains Éclair.