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Elisa Camiscioli, Reproducing the French Race: Immigrants, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century.

Elisa Camiscioli, Reproducing the French Race: Immigrants, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2009)

WHEN HISTORIANS of France probe the intersection of race and immigration, they tend to do so with reference to the period after 1945. In the three postwar decades, the percentage of immigrants who came from countries outside Europe increased dramatically as a proportion of the total immigrant population, while the number of foreigners in France doubled. The experiences of the first postwar generation of immigrants, who were often North African male workers relegated to low-skilled jobs and segregated, low-quality housing, and of their French-born offspring, called into question the universal applicability of the French Republican values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The issue of immigration gradually bled into one of race, and this has had profound consequences for French political, cultural, and social life in the last 35 years.

In her Reproducing the French Race, Elisa Camiscioli challenges this periodization by arguing that race was crucial to understandings of and debates about immigration in the four decades preceding the Second World War. During this period of mass migrations, France became (in the mid-1920s) the leading destination of immigrants in the industrialized world, the majority of whom were white Europeans. Drawing on recent scholarship on race, Camiscioli argues that foreigners, including white Europeans, were evaluated in racialized ways during the early 20th century and "assigned race" in a manner pointing to the Vichy regime, which emerged out of defeat in 1940 and persecuted Jews. Employing the latest scholarship on gender, sexuality, the body, biopolitics, and national identity, she further urges historians to recognize that immigrant workers were evaluated not simply for their productive value to the French economy but also for their reproductive value to a nation consumed with the spectre of demographic decline. In Reproducing the French Race, bodies and bodily practices and the intimate acts of the private realm, including childbearing and childrearing, become central to racemaking, nation-building, and the construction of national identity.

The book situates the discussion within the interdisciplinary literatures mentioned above, dispatching historical discussions of immigration in France in two sentences. Five intricate, linked chapters analyze discourses reflecting anxieties about immigration and the presence of foreigners in France during the early decades of the 20th century. The first chapter focuses on pronatalist debates over the consequences of immigration. Camiscioli illustrates how fears over demographic decline, which began to haunt French life in the last third of the 19th century, prompted a diverse group of pronatalists to look to foreigners to replenish the French population and regenerate the "French race," a term she traces to the late 19th century. In this effort, only white Europeans were suitable for immigration and assimilation, and they were positioned in an elaborate racial hierarchy which rewarded the top spots to Italians and Spaniards, who were viewed as Latin, white, and highly fertile.

The second chapter, which maps the shifting ways foreign workers and their labour were evaluated and categorized, will be of particular interest to labour historians. In contrast to earlier periods, when European immigrant workers were commonly associated with certain skills or trades depending on their nation of origin, Camiscioli illustrates how early 20th-century work scientists, industrialists, and investigators from the Ministry of Labour produced studies establishing clear, racialized hierarchies of workers that always drew clear distinctions between workers who were deemed white and those who were not. These studies, which began in the decade before the First World War and expanded after the wartime arrival of 660,000 foreign (male) workers from across the globe, ranked these workers according to place of origin and, especially, race. This pseudoscientific research was saturated with bias. Thus Indochinese workers were portrayed as docile, submissive, and feminine; workers "of the Arab race" were seen as suitable for agricultural labour; and Africans and Asians were deemed unfit for factory labour. Camiscioli uses this material to argue that the labouring body was not a neutral, unmarked subject, as some historians have argued, but a "racially embodied entity endowed with a variable capacity for work." (60) Chapter 3 examines how physicians, scientists, and racial anthropologists evaluated race mixing, arguing that Republican France was home to essentialist notions of community that complicate distinctions between German and French conceptions of citizenship often drawn by French scholars.

Reproducing the French Race skillfully incorporates gender analysis throughout (the pronatalists featured in chapter 1 looked to foreigners partly because they believed that overly independent and individualistic French women were not doing enough to repopulate France), but the attention to gender (and women) is at its most sustained and interesting in the book's last two chapters. Building on the analysis in Chapter 3, Chapter 4 illustrates how anxieties about race and race-mixing were especially acute when sex was involved. This is not necessarily a fresh insight, but Camiscioli comes at the issue from a new angle. Unusually, the women who feature most prominently in the debates analyzed here are French prostitutes who had commercial sex with colonial men in both the colonial setting and in metropolitan France. The inconceivability of French women doing this of their own volition helped fuel elaborate narratives of "white slavery," whose characters were helpless French women believed to be desired the world over and traffickers depicted in racialized ways not borne out by police statistics. These narratives, as well as the accompanying campaigns to abolish "white slavery," are analyzed for what they reveal about anxieties over national health, racial hygiene, and gendered notions of respectability. The chapter also tracks the effort to bring France's particular version of regulated prostitution to its empire and to provide race-specific prostitutes for colonial men serving in the French military. The final chapter provides a nuanced analysis of debates involved in the successful post-World War I campaign to revoke the article in the Napoleonic Code that stripped French women of their citizenship when they married foreigners. What is most interesting here is how little impact feminist concerns or arguments had in the granting of independent nationality to women in 1927. In the years following the slaughter of 1914-1918, the issue became implicated in the fight against population decline, and this brought unlikely allies to the cause.

By bringing together anxieties about race, gender, and immigration into one analytic field and analyzing their sometimes surprising interplay, Camiscioli makes an important contribution to the history of 20th-century France. Readers who come to the book with an awareness of recent scholarly discussions on French citizenship and the limits of French universalism and a firm command of French Republican history will be most rewarded, but it is not clear whether these specialists will be convinced by Camiscioli's implicit challenge to rethink the way that they periodize the years 1900-1939. Although studying these decades as one period offers fresh perspectives on continuities in Republican approaches to population, immigration, race, and gender, the use of "early twentieth century" to refer to 19007 the war years, and the 1920s and 1930s can be jarring since French historians have long, and with reason, regarded the pre-war years, the First World War, and the interwar years as related but discrete periods, especially where the history of labour and immigration are concerned. I wonder, moreover, whether Camiscioli sometimes overstates her case in the effort to establish continuities between her period and the Vichy regime. To say, for example, that both the Vichy state and the Third Republic were "racial regimes based on gender complementarity" may be technically true, but it masks serious differences of intention and outcome. That said, future participants in the ongoing discussions of the relationship between the Republican 1930s and the Vichy regime and of the tensions between universalism and particularism in Republican France will need to take account of Camiscioli's contribution.


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Author:Whitney, Susan B.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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