By Antonia Wimbush
The ongoing “Windrush” scandal continues to dominate the news in the UK. We have been scandalised by the appalling treatment of people from the Commonwealth Caribbean who were encouraged to come to Britain to help reduce labour shortages after World War II. They made Britain their home, but in recent years have faced deportation if they could not prove when they arrived.
Yet it is little known that France also experienced similar waves of post-war migration.
Between 1963 and 1982, 160,000 men and women from the French Caribbean islands, Guiana, and Réunion were recruited, trained, and brought to mainland France to work in the construction industry, the health service, and local administration. They were treated as second-class citizens because of their racial difference, even though, legally, they were French.
An unnoticed report about overseas French
On April 10, 2018, a report was published by sociologist Philippe Vitale, under the auspices of the Ministère des Outre-mer, looking at French history and the treatment of young children who were sent from Réunion to mainland France between 1963 and 1982.
While the report does not exonerate the French government for its part in actively removing young children from their families and sending them overseas, it does downplay state involvement and depicts Réunion as a bleak, economically deprived region.
Remarkably, this report has gone virtually unnoticed in French media, both mainland and overseas. Why? And, as the Windrush scandal unfolded in the UK, what is at stake in France? To understand what the report means for the 2,015 French citizens and their families who were affected by this particular scandal, we need to go back to French turbulent colonial policies.
Former French colonies in turmoil
The post-war period was a turbulent time for France’s former colonies. Coupled with a rising birth rate, unemployment rates were steadily increasing, leaving more and more young people out of work.
As unemployment rose, so did people’s disenchantment with the political system. Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, and Guiana had been converted from French colonies to overseas departments by the Loi de la départementalisation, passed on March 19, 1946. This law 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 in the midst of an economic boom that later came to be known as the “Trente Glorieuses” (“the 30 glorious years”) and in desperate need of a stable workforce.
An office for aspiring French overseas migrants
In response to this situation, Michel Debré prime minister of France at the time, created the Bureau pour le développement des migrations dans les départements d’outre-mer (BUMIDOM) (Office for development of migrations within overseas departments), in April 1963.
The program encouraged young men and women to come to France to find work. For just under 20 years, 160,000 workers migrated to the metropole. 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.
Men were construction workers, women were nurses
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 (Rhône) 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” in writer and politician Aimé Césaire’s terms.
The most extreme case of deportation occurred in Réunion with the “enfants de la Creuse”(children of the Creuse region). Between 1962 and 1984, more than 2,000 children – some were orphans, others not – were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to mainland France to repopulate declining rural areas. The region of La Creuse received the majority of the children because each year, approximately 3,000 young people headed toward larger cities to find work, and its population was aging.
A tragedy that went unnoticed
The tragedy of the Creuse children, who were frequently 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 French government of the trauma they faced.
One of the recommendations of the Vitale report was the creation of museums, memorials and a national day of commemoration, but according to Michel Calteau, a representative of the support association Collectif Enfants 3D, this is not enough.
The French government has announced some financial assistance to victims in the form of paid plane tickets to Réunion but it is unlikely that such measures will be sufficient to satisfy those personally affected by the scandal.
The office of migration in question
At the heart of the debate is the role played by the BUMIDOM, the office that was 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 major French television channel France 2 in March 2018. The film 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 in 2017, it tells the story of Oublié’s family history.
In April 2018, 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 sombre role of the BUMIDOM, the French government has yet to catch up, and it is urgent that it acknowledge the extent of state involvement – particularly in the case of Réunion – so as to avoid a scandal like the UK’s 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, Early-career researcher (Francophone studies) & English tutor, Université de Montpellier