Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century

Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century

by Elisa Camiscioli

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ISBN-13: 9780822345657
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/18/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Elisa Camiscioli is Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Binghamton University.

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Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4548-0

Chapter One


In December 1915 the deputy, demographer, and future minister Adolphe Landry (Gauche Radical, Corsica) submitted a bill to the Chamber of Deputies that encapsulated what he believed to be the most significant dilemma posed by mass immigration to France:

Every nation has the very legitimate concern of protecting itself as much as possible from foreign infiltrations that may alter its composition. Such a desire is especially understandable for those nations that rightly consider themselves to hold an elevated place in the order of civilization. For these nations (and we are proud to count the French nation among them), certain mixings can only lead to its degradation ... If foreign workers must mix with the French population, if their arrival in France is to introduce new elements into our race, it is necessary that these elements not be of the kind that will profoundly alter or debase the race. Thus we must endeavor to only introduce into France workers from countries whose civilization is related to ours, or those whose origin can elevate our civilization.

Landry's bill is representative of the dominant discourse on immigration in early-twentieth-century France. In the context of what contemporaries described as a "demographic crisis," Landry held that citizens as well as workers were desperately needed by the underpopulated French nation. He therefore formulated the immigrant question with reference to both the labor power and the reproductive value of potential foreigners. Along with a wide array of politicians, industrialists, social scientists, jurists, and racial theorists whom we will examine in the course of this book, Landry agreed that because of demographic decline, immigrants who came to work in France must be assimilable and able to produce French offspring. However, as Landry warned in his proposal, foreigners could contribute either positively or negatively to the "French race," depending upon their origin. If the cultural patrimony and ontological quality of some immigrants were akin to those of the French, he cautioned that the profound difference of other foreigners rendered them inassimilable.

The growing importance of assimilability in this discourse reflected the widespread panic created by depopulation, as social critics with pronatalist convictions lamented the steady drop in French births and the "individualistic" nature of French men and women, which in their view had encouraged the trend toward smaller families. They argued that depopulation had social as well as economic consequences, such as shortages of husbands for French women, young men for the army, and children for the future labor force. Despite the deeply nationalistic character of the pronatalist movement, its leaders conceded that to mitigate the effects of the demographic crisis on the labor market and the French family, the importation of foreign workers was a necessary, though temporary, solution.

This chapter will show how the immigrant question of the early twentieth century intersected with the overtly populationist agenda of Republican France. The modern state's obsession with a "political knowledge" centered on population and its regulation is a primary thesis of the social theorist Michel Foucault. His definition of "biopolitics" explicitly referred to the state's efforts to monitor the birthrate of its citizens,5 while in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, the less than fecund "Malthusian couple" is an integral category of analysis. This calls our attention to the biopolitical state's newfound investment in the various "checks" on population outlined by the political economist Thomas Malthus in the late eighteenth century, and especially to the "neo-Malthusian" practice of birth control as a means to limit population growth. Throughout this chapter I draw upon Foucault's description of the state's populationist imperative to show how the immigrant question was consistently framed with reference to neo-Malthusianism and fecundity, birthrate and potential human capital, and corporeal and national vigor.

By the late nineteenth century the state's power and international influence were no longer measured with reference to its productivity alone. In Europe populationist discourse equating demographic strength with international prominence had become increasingly common, and as a consequence the female sphere of reproduction and the intimate life of domestic space assumed a more conspicuous role in national and imperial politics. An expanding corps of social hygiene reformers turned its attention to the health and well-being of the general population, and specifically to the nation's children and mothers. In accordance with the populationist imperative described by Foucault, these "experts" evaluated the reproductive capital of the citizenry with an eye to ameliorating the quality and quantity of the population. This biopolitical climate was intensified by the prevalence of degeneration theory in several European nations, which pathologized depopulation, high infant mortality rates, venereal disease, and alcoholism. We will see that in France, where the rhetoric of demographic decline was particularly strident, a wide range of social commentators contributed to an explicitly racialized discussion of how to rebuild the citizen body.

No European nation experienced demographic decline more acutely than France, and the casualties of the First World War, added to an already low birthrate, exacerbated French anxieties. By the end of the nineteenth century the French population was reproducing itself at the lowest rate in the world. From 1911 to 1938 it had increased by only two million inhabitants, despite the addition of 1.7 million people through the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. On the eve of the Great War the average French family was composed of two children, and in 1926, only three families out of ten could claim three or more offspring. French demographic growth in this period was largely due to immigration. The census of 1931 counted 808,000 Italians, 508,000 Poles, and 352,000 Spaniards, to name the most numerous groups. In the interwar period nearly three million foreigners resided in France, and three-fourths of all demographic growth could be attributed to immigration.

Specifically, this chapter explores how pronatalist critics, in their attempt to combat depopulation, debated the possible consequences of foreign immigration to France. Because the "demographic crisis" provided a unique opportunity to remake the citizen body, pronatalist discourse implicated French citizens, European immigrants, and colonial subjects in a biopolitical logic which glorified fecundity, racial hygiene, and a traditional vision of the family. The movement's belief that reproduction was an obligation of citizenship determined its support for immigration from "demographically prolific" nations such as Italy, Spain, and Poland. Its members claimed that in less modernized states "preindustrial" values promoted high birthrates among selfless parents who, unlike their French counterparts, honored their national obligation to procreate. Thus the culturally conservative rhetoric of pronatalism, which heralded patriarchal authority, maternal virtue, fecundity, and traditionalism, was employed to assess the assimilability of potential foreigners. That is, the very values that pronatalists wished to revive among the French were projected onto foreign populations as well.

The debate on fecundity and assimilability focused on reproductive practices within the institution of marriage, and subject to the hierarchies of a historically contingent racial order. Although family migration also occurred in this period, foreigners who came to France in the early twentieth century were overwhelmingly young, unmarried men. Of course male foreigners were especially welcome, particularly in the interwar years: the catastrophic loss of French men in the Great War had created a shortage of husbands for French women while exacerbating the effects of depopulation, a theme we will explore in detail in chapter 5. The demographic crisis had therefore forced hybridity upon the nation. For the various social critics we will examine throughout this book-whether pronatalists, work scientists, social hygienic reformers, racial theorists, politicians, or feminists-the key was to identify when hybridity would benefit the "French race," rather than facilitating further degeneration. In chapter 3 I will discuss how hybridity was conceived in both mainstream racial theory and medico-hygienic discourse on immigration. For now, I will introduce the question of how the French state sought to reconcile production with reproduction, national-imperial borders with international migration, and human difference with universalist social theory by examining pronatalist arguments in favor of white European migration to an underpopulated France.

But first, the surplus population of Africa and Asia, and specifically, the potential labor source of the French colonies, had to be dismissed as a possible remedy for depopulation in the metropole. Although Africans and Asians had immigrated to France before, during, and after the First World War, the pressing need to reconstitute French families in the interwar years reframed the immigrant question. As assimilability and the ability to reproduce French offspring became the most salient criteria by which foreigners were to be judged, the evaluation of simple labor power no longer sufficed. Pronatalists therefore cautioned against importing nonwhite workers, arguing instead that the Italians, Poles, and Spaniards were the most viable candidates for naturalization. Having equated the French race with whiteness, pronatalist critics reaffirmed a primary tenet of Republican imperialism: while colonial subjects were included in the nation in accordance with the doctrine of "Greater France," a nation affiliated with its empire, they were excluded from the polity and denied citizenship rights.

Finally, by examining the relationship between fecundity and civilization in demographic discourse, we see how the perceived consequences of modernity, expressed most starkly by the decline in fertility rates, were conceived in racialized and gendered terms. In their discussion of foreign immigration, various members of the pronatalist movement invoked race, gender, and reproduction in their effort to imagine the ideal citizen body. I focus in particular on three significant contributors to the debate on immigration and repopulation in order to explore the various manifestations of these categories: the Alliance Nationale pour l'Accroissement de la Population Française, France's largest and most influential pronatalist movement, which by 1939 could claim 25,335 members; the journalist Ludovic Naudeau's popular account of French depopulation, which first appeared in the newspaper L'Illustration; and the Conseil Supérieurde la Natalité (CSN), an official ministerial commission created in 1920 by the Bloc National government from within the Ministry of Hygiene, Social Assistance, and Prevention to research measures and recommend legislation to fight depopulation and raise the birthrate.

Fecundity and Civilization: The Search for Compromise

In several important demographic studies of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, depopulation was theorized in terms of the relationship between civilization and birthrate. For example, the liberal economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu of the Collège de France juxtaposed the depopulation of Northern Europe and North America with escalating birthrates in the African and Asian world, and argued that as a nation modernized, achieving a higher standard of living and increased industrial production, its birthrate necessarily fell. This was of course a dramatic refutation of Malthusian doctrine, which prophesied an exponential increase in human populations and thus a depletion of global resources. After approximately 1860 Malthusianism fell out of favor, and demographers focused instead on the trend toward fertility decline, which Leroy-Beaulieu described as the "true law of population among civilized people." Hoping to attain a greater level of material comfort, even the "humblest of citizens" began to postpone marriage, limit births, and opt for an "individualistic" existence which, according to the pronatalist position, flagrantly ignored the collective concerns of the nation.

According to this formula, a society's birthrate could be expressed as inversely proportional to its level of "civilization." In Leroy-Beaulieu's view, civilization was an urbanized society with a democratic government and a developed middle class, in which education, affluence, and leisure had been extended to the majority of the population. Despite the virtues of the civilized state, depopulation was the necessary outcome: "In recent and present times, the diminution of fecundity among the civilized nations ... can be considered a general, if not universal fact." Demographers explained that while the state of civilization facilitated global predominance and justified European expansion overseas, it was a double-edged sword, bringing with it degeneration and depopulation. Ironically, the march of progress ultimately compromised the power of "civilized" nations, now confronted with the demographic superiority of less developed societies.

In Africa and Asia, where the colonial project was to transport civilization to "savage" and "barbarous" lands, birthrates remained high despite substantial mortality rates. As the demographer and physician Jacques Bertillon succinctly explained, "the most ignorant countries are also the most fecund ones." The anticlerical and socialist-leaning demographer Arsène Dumont echoed the conservative Bertillon's position: "Those who absorb no part of civilization, like the poor in France and barbarians worldwide, conserve their high birthrates, while those who absorb much of civilization ultimately die as a result." Philippa Levine has noted that "sex was one of the most widely remarked upon mechanisms for measuring distance from civilization." In accordance with this logic, Europeans attributed an unbridled sexuality to colonized people, evidenced by robust population growth in Africa and Asia, as well as polygamy, sexual violence, and an unquenchable need for access to prostitution. Colonial fecundity thereby confirmed the backwardness of Africans and Asians, and justified the European impulse to civilize and contain them.

Demographers hypothesized that as African and Asian societies modernized, embracing industrialization, hygienic practices, and democratic values, they too would begin to limit their births. But in the meantime, with African and Asian populations growing unchecked while birthrates in most European nations dwindled, the fertility of nonwhite people was perceived as a threat to white hegemony worldwide. Opponents of nonwhite immigration therefore insisted that it was the duty of the entire Occidental world to form a united front against immigrants of color. According to this view, Malthusianism among Europeans was nothing short of race suicide, a myopic practice that amounted to abdicating the white mission to civilize the globe. If strength was in numbers, as pronatalists argued, Europeans and North Americans must not remain passive while nonwhites propagated at their expense. In the words of Auguste Isaac, the Catholic deputy named minister of commerce in 1919, father of eleven children and founder in 1915 of an offshoot of the Alliance, the pro-family lobbying group La Plus Grande Famille: "If the white race restrains [its births], who will guarantee us that the yellow race will follow its example? Who will assure us that the black race will sacrifice the fecundity which, to cite but one example, is a cause of anxiety for whites in the United States?"


Excerpted from REPRODUCING the FRENCH RACE by ELISA CAMISCIOLI Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Embodiment and the Nation 1

1. Immigration, Demography, and Pronatalism 21

2. Labor Power and the Racial Economy 51

3. Hybridity and Its Discontents 75

4. Black Migrants, White Slavery: Metissage in the Metropole and Abroad 99

5. Intermarriage, Independent Nationality, and Individual Rights 129

Conclusion. Gender, Race, and Republican Embodiment 155

Notes 161

Bibliography 197

Index 223

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