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Politics of Invisibility: The Political Underrepresentation of Chinese Communities in France

During the March 2008 mayoral elections in the 13th arrondissement (district) of Paris, there was something new and different about the electoral ballot – a Chinese name leading one of the electoral lists. Felix Wu, a French-Asian restaurateur born to Chinese immigrants, was at the head of a multi-ethnic list called Vote Utile des Electeurs (The Practical Vote of the People), and although he received a negligible portion of the vote – 2.1% - his  attempt was a turning point in the history of political involvement in France by anyone of Chinese origin. However, this watershed highlighted a bigger, more salient point of interest: the absence of a Chinese presence in mainstream French politics.

The Franco-Chinese communities have had a long history in France – Chinese associations first appeared in 1916, when China contributed laborers to aid in the war effort for World War I. Throngs of migrants arrived during the 1970s, largely composed of Chinese refugees and asylum-seekers from French Indochina. Since the 1990s however, most have been coming from mainland China itself, due to economic and educational reasons. Their numbers in France are not certain largely due to the absence of racial statistics in France, but also the influx of illegal immigrants, or sans-papiers. Estimates place the Franco-Chinese community at between 300 000 and 800 000; approximately 40 000-60 000 Chinese sans-papiers attempt to enter France illegally annually.

As France struggles with issues of migration, diversity and minority rights, the political voice of this growing Chinese community has been silent amidst mainstream discourse over these important, pressing issues. Amongst all the visible minorities (non-Caucasian) present in France today, why do the Chinese appear to be almost invisible politically? Is this situation perpetuated by the community itself, or by external pressures from the French society? Our project attempts to seek an answer to this question, by investigating two possible hypotheses. Firstly, perhaps cultural and sociological barriers hinder the Chinese from engaging in outspoken political activity and lead then to instead seek a non-conspicuous presence in French society as a “model minority.” Secondly, perhaps the uniqueness of the French colonial and post-colonial experiences with Asia compared to that with other parts of the world has led to a particular sort of perception and treatment of the Chinese by mainstream French society, affecting their incentives and opportunities for political involvement. By understanding the issue better from these two perspectives, we also observe some possible tensions that might arise in the near future, highlighting the need for more political awareness and representation of the Chinese in France as a minority.

What is a Model Minority?

The stereotype of Chinese being a “model minority” is by no means merely a French concept. The term first originated in the United States, in reference to racial minorities (usually Asian and South Asian) that are perceived as doing well educationally and economically, and as generally staying out of trouble. This leads to fundamentally altered perceptions and treatments of these minorities compared to other groups, usually influenced by the above mentioned positive stereotypes. 

Do these stereotypes apply to the Chinese in France? Yes, according to Madam Tao, an elderly Chinese immigrant who has been living in France for 30 years who has held French citizenship for 20 of them. Having experienced life in France first as a Chinese immigrant, then as a French citizen of Chinese origin, she does not recall any official or social instances of negative discrimination or prejudice against her due to her ethnic origin. She describes the mainstream French perception of Chinese migrants as “diligent, entrepreneurial and quiet,” emphasizing that this is a positive sign, in contrast with the perceptions that are held about other ethnic migrants, most notably those of African and North African origin. This view is shared by Simon Ngo, a young executive who was born and grew up in France. “If there is any racism towards the Chinese, it is different from the view held towards the Africans and Arabs. We are nice, shy, hardworking, and don't mess around.”

This persistent contrast between Chinese immigrants and those of African and North African origin elucidates the degree of acceptance the Chinese community has gained within France in contrast to the intricate difficulties and obstacles faced by the other groups. Paris Chinatown, a dense concentration of Chinese residences and businesses located in the 13th arrondissement, does not seem to rankle a universalist Parisian society that has been ingrained to shun “communitarianism,” the balancing of individual rights against the corporate rights of a community. Some elderly members of the Chinese community rarely stray away from the confines of the 13th, and speak little or no French, hardly what one would classify as integration into French society. At the same time however, many of them have children who have been born and bred as French; as Ngo puts it, “In my head, I am white. I can see my Chinese roots, but in reality my skin lies, because inside I am all French.” They do not face the same sorts of obstacles that young French of African and North-African descent do, in terms of social stigma and disparate impact discrimination. In fact, they share some of the same fears and other emotions towards Africans and North-Africans that French majority society expresses. “It is not that all the Arabs and Africans…cause problems. But it seems that the people who cause the problems are usually Arabs and Africans,” states Mdm Tao, in reference to the 2005 riots in the Parisian suburbs.

Blending into the Background

However, even as they have gained acceptance and achieved a degree of assimilation, one notable difference separates the Chinese in France from their “Model Minority” counterparts in the United States. Asian-Americans have been able to occupy positions of political power and/or prestige, with 300 represented in elected posts within the Federal Government in the year 2000, including 7 members of Congress, 2 state governors and 26 mayors. For the Franco-Chinese, they have not been able to achieve anything near this level of political representation. The city of Lognes, a little more than 10 miles of east of Paris, provides a clear representation of the situation. Despite 40% of it's 15 000 inhabitants being of East Asian origin (especially Chinese from French Indochina), out of its 40 elected city officials, only one is of Asian origin. While the Chinese seem to be socially and economically on equal terms within the French Republic, in the political realm they seem to fade away into the background. And some of them seem to be content with that.

Seeking a Better Life

The various generations of Chinese migrants to France are mainly either economic or political migrants, and this has seemed to influence their ambitions and values upon arriving in France. Those who arrived in the 1970s were largely escaping the turmoil and chaos in French Indochina, and seeking to rebuild their lives in another country. Recent immigrants from mainland China are mostly escaping poverty and unemployment at home. Pierre Picquart, a researcher and specialist on Asiatic immigration into Europe, describes that their “primary objective is to ensure their survival. They have no claims against their host country and concentrate on employment, even if they disagree with policy.” Chenva Tieu, a businessman and entrepreneur who left Cambodia with his parents in 1975, explains that the memory of the migrants “still remember the wars in Indochina. First and foremost, we want to improve our lives before wanting to be heard.”

For the recent waves of sans-papiers, their ambitions are even more limited. Nicknamed Dongbeis after the northeastern area of China where they originated from, they are victims of the massive structural unemployment that followed the end of the Maoist area. The privatization and liberalization of China's economy led to the closure of massive collectivized industries in the northeast, which led to a swell of immigrants from there. Those who arrive in Paris are often burdened with debts to organized criminal groups for their illegal passage into France, while simultaneously living in fear of getting caught and repatriated. French President Nicholas Sarkozy's toughening of immigration laws and implementation of repatriation quotas in 2007 affected them tremendously, with a 20% increase in expulsions of Chinese sans-papiers since then. Regularization and obtaining papers is done simply for the purpose of preventing repatriation, not for political enfranchisement or to advocate for representation. Unfortunately, while they are the least likely group to attain a political voice, their vulnerable legal position also means that they may be the ones most in need of it in the face of exploitation and discrimination.  

“We don't share the same values” 

Besides generational gaps, there are other important divisions within the Chinese community that have prevented the Chinese from mobilizing into a significant, influential group within French politics. There are distinct delineations between the Chinese who originate from French Indochina compared to those from the mainland, not to mention the numerous clan-related, tribal and familial cleavages which complicate matters further. “The newer immigrants from mainland China tend to be more communitarist in their behavior, while those who are from Indochina prefer to mix into French society. Being originally from the diaspora, we don't share the same values with them anymore,” states Tieu. He speculates that one reason for Wu's poor showing in the election was because a significant proportion of the Chinese in the 13th had roots in Indochina, while Wu himself came from the mainland.

These differences are more pronounced when it comes to the recent waves of Chinese sans-papiers, and the responses of more established, settled Chinese in Paris to their plight. While there is generally some level of compassion, there is not much agreement on how to respond to the situation. Mdm Tao is sympathetic, but feels that nothing much can be done because many of the new migrants do not have the family links in France that helped earlier migrants such as herself establish themselves. Tieu believes that the attitudes of some of these illegal migrants work against them. “They are not here to stay. They lack the socialization 'software'. They just want to make money to send back to China, and refuse to integrate, and it is hard to help them then.” Other Chinese are involved in exploiting them, from the “Snake-heads” who smuggle them in and impose heavy debts on them, to those who force them into prostitution or work in textile workshops with below minimum wage and deplorable working conditions. There seems to be a culture of opacity and secrecy prevalent, which prevents these migrants from seeking help or recourse for their situation, no matter how bad it gets.

Reserve and Universalism

This culture of opacity and secrecy stems from traditional values derived from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, three of the pillars of Chinese tradition, according to Picquart. The tendency to be more reserved and less outspoken is further motivated by the recent political histories of China and Indochina in the 20th century. Despite China's economic liberalization in the last 30 years, Chinese seem “unaccustomed to participating actively in the political life of their nation.” Older migrants are still haunted by memories of political repression and totalitarianism that they escaped from, and are wary of being too vocal and outspoken. Yet, they did not let their children inherit this same wariness and fear.

Younger Chinese who grew up and were educated in France instead subscribe strongly to the universalistic, colorblind ideals espoused by what is often referred to as the French Republican model, and the according unwillingness to politicize ethnicity, instead preferring to attain prominence through integration. Picquart describes how “it takes time for migrants to settle and participate in political life. It takes time to be co-opted.” Tieu, who spearheads le Club XXIe Siècle, an organization dedicated to promoting and supporting diversity within the young elite, agrees with this view. “Chinese immigration is very recent, and it takes time to feed the elites. I am very confident that we will eventually get the representation in politics, because our structure and foundations are better than the other ethnic communities in France. It is coming.” He predicts it will happen within 5-10 years, because at present there are not enough competent and strong candidates who are interested in politics. These views seem to be shared across the community. Madam Tao is hopeful for representation, but does not expect it to happen for another 10 years. When asked about Wu's candidacy, Ngo described it as a “pure fiasco,” as it was just “too soon.” He hopes for a Chinese presence in politics, but purely to reflect the diversity of France as a nation, and not as the result of any particular Chinese-oriented campaign. He put it succinctly: “I'm not going to just vote for the first yellow guy who runs for office. He has to be able.”   

Forgotten Colonial Discourse

Although China was never a French colony, Chinese immigration is linked to the French colonial past. In fact, the first Chinese people who came to France were often Chinese minorities living in French Indochina. As described earlier, they rarely associated with Chinese migrants from the mainland. Ngo explained to us how his parents came to France. “They were originally from Hong-Kong but lived at the time in Saigon. In order to be let into France, they pretended to be Vietnamese refugees.” It was the same thing for Tieu. “My family lived in Cambodia but they were born in China.” The older generation of Chinese immigration represents the Chinese Diaspora and not mainland China.

It is astonishing to see that even today, the French are not aware of this history. On the whole, France's colonial past remains extremely controversial and divides the political spectrum. On one side, right-wing politicians would like to rewrite the history of French colonialism. In 2005, a law recognizing “the positive aspect of colonisation” was passed by the parliament, but was removed the following year.  On the other side, intellectuals criticize the lack of national memory on the Algerian war and slavery. Absent from both sides, however, is any sort of rigorous treatment of or attention to the French experience in Indochina. As recent public debates rage on about France's African colonial history, the experience of French Indochina has lain forgotten on the side. Although this experience was the first step towards the Vietnam War, it already seems to be expelled from the French narrative. By 1953, a poll showed that only 30 percent of the French population was interested in the conflict in Indochina, a year before France's official withdrawal from Vietnam.

Welcome Refugees

While the French public remained distant from Indochina, it was still welcoming the boat-people. Generally, rhetoric about tolerant migration laws and providing havens for refugees is the political platform of left-wing parties.  The case of the boat-people in the 70's in France, however, appears to be unique. Under the rule of the right-wing government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France was undergoing economic difficulty and turmoil. The government tried to push an anti-immigration policy, expelling Algerian workers whom they felt were a burden they could not afford. But at the same time, France welcomed the Asian refugees. How do we understand this double-standard in policy? By hosting refugees from communist countries, the government was sending a signal to remind the people and the world that France belonged on the Western side of the Iron Curtain. It also enhanced the French image abroad, tarnished by the crimes of the Algerian War.

Tieu, however, believes this attitude towards the Boat People was due to the French tradition of welcoming political refugees. “We were political refugees, whom France always accepts.” Alas, it seems that not all the refugees are treated equally, depending on their place of origin. Algerian immigrants were especially jealous of this French goodwill towards the boat-people, for they had been fighting against discrimination and anti-immigration laws with limited success. The famous writer Tahar Ben Jelloun was surprised by what seemed to be State schizophrenia. Ben Jelloun wrote about this contradiction in 1979: “At a time when France decided with goodwill to welcome 50 000 Asian refugees, the riot and local police were expelling Algerian immigrant workers.” Similarly, today it is striking that the African boat-people are not as welcome as their Asian counterparts were 30 years ago.

Racial Theories still accepted

Simon Ngo, Chenva Tieu and Madam Tao were unanimously in agreement about one fact: they never faced discrimination based on their ethnic identity. This supports the “Model Minority” hypothesis described above. It may be that this double standard comes from the intellectual underpinnings that were prevalent during the height of French colonialism, which in the late 19th century was characterized by the development of the seemingly scientific “racial theories.” For the colonial master, each different race they encountered had specific, natural traits. Black Africans were supposedly lazy and intellectually underdeveloped, while Yellow Asian people were hard-workers, silent and able to work with precision. This comparison tended to alter French perception and treatment of people from the Asian and African colonies. Even today, such racist discourses are still present, although they are not always explicit, or even conscious. After a particularly controversial speech by Sarkozy in Dakar, where he described how “the African peasant only knows the eternal renewal of time, rhythmed by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words,” many intellectuals criticized the racial bias inherent in his analyses. However, when he was in Bombay earlier this year, and stereotyped all Indian people as good workers, there was no similar response. This echoes the perception of the Chinese communities in France. When there is negative, race-based discourse, political debate arises, but positive racial discourses are accepted, despite their propensity to encourage blanket stereotypes.

Ngo explained to us this double standards between the treatment of Chinese and other immigrants. Whereas some African immigrants are depicted as “savages,” this is never the case for the Asians. If the Chinese are perceived as a threat, which is extremely uncommon, it is only as an economical threat, while Africans are a violent physical threat, due to the vivid French memory of Africa still tainted with colonial images of violence and exploitation. As we mentioned earlier, any such similar memory with Indochina has long passed beyond the French consciousness. For Ngo and Tieu, they believe this affects the manner in which politicians treat issues related to migrants from Asia. 

Chosen Immigration

Racial discourses are still inherent, and the idea remains the same, though not explicitly elucidated: some people are considered not “assimilable.” As Patrick Weil, a historian on French immigration explains, the same debate already existed after the Second World War. Today however, the French government has developed the idea of “chosen immigration” as opposed to “unwanted immigration.” While the main state objective is avoiding illegal immigration, there is also the discretion involved in “choosing” migrants based on race. Right-wing rhetoric often declares indirectly that it was a mistake to have allowed African workers to stay in France. Some politicians push the idea further, stating that Asian immigration would have been better for France. This idea was especially salient during the riots of 2005, as no Asian immigrants were involved, leading many commentators to interpret the riots as a cultural problem, and assuming that the “integration” of Africans was just more difficult. 

The far-right, most notably the Front National, have attempted to tactically exploit such mixed racial sentiments to gain support nationally. Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen publicly lauded the role of certain minorities during the First and Second World Wars. In 2007, Le Pen went to the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles sur Mer to pay tribute to the Chinese coolies who died in France during World War I. However, the Chinese do not seem to accept his exhortations. Although Madam Tao explained that the rise of the Front National did not seem threatening to her as a minority, she expressed disapproval for them more so because she felt they would harm the entire nation if they came to power, and not just the Chinese. Furthermore, when quizzed about how she would respond if a Front National government were to push anti-migration legislature, she nonchalantly replied, “If they ask me to leave, I will leave.”

Problems ahead

While the Chinese continue to enjoy the good standing and respect as minorities within France, the situation is not as idyllic as it may seem. There is distinction between national xenophobia and local xenophobia. While national xenophobia or implicit racism may be the widespread problem faced by African immigrants, it is clearly not the case for the Chinese. However, recent trends indicate increasing localized resentment against Chinese communities, largely due to economic reasons. “They ruin our neighbourhood by buying out our roadside stores,” explain some residents in the 13th, describing the recent influx of French Chinese who have bought up fifty percent of the tobacco-store permits in their neighbourhood. The textile industry in France, largely dominated by the Chinese, is under increasing pressure from local authorities who are hoping to recover and renew their districts that have been “conquered by the Asian wave.” The economic rise of China as a global rival has also sparked suspicions and concerns about the continuous stream of migrants from there.

The French media have tried to play on these economic fears among conservative elements of the society, who are generally ignorant about issues of diversity and immigration. In the last few years, sensationalized reports have started to appear on TV, producing negative, sweeping perceptions of the diverse Chinese community. The first report targeted Chinese restaurants, claiming that they were using stale ingredients in the food they served. This food was allegedly also prepared by illegal immigrants in unsanitary kitchens, creating a stigma of appartement-raviolis (apartment-made dumplings). The report had a drastic impact on Chinese restaurants in Paris, with most of them losing nearly 50 percent of their customers in the following month. Tieu feels that “this situation was predictable. The Chinese minority has no means to develop their public image.” He points to discord and fragmentation within the community as a reason that they were unable to muster a unified response to the report. Another incident in November 2007 involved Mohammed Sifaoui, a journalist for TF1, the biggest French channel. He produced a report on the Chinese Mafia that was featured on the investigative television documentary le Droit de savoir, and he also published a book on the same topic. He explained on French radio that “the Chinese community is closed and would not integrate [in]to the Republic.” He even used the 'C'-word, accusing the Chinese community of “communautarisme,” or communitarianism. For Felix Wu, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, motivating him to run for public office and seek representation for the Chinese. “We are not organized against these prejudices,” he explained. “We have to react and stop being silent.” He has decided to pursue a lawsuit against Mohamed Sifaoui, a move with which Tieu agrees. “If the judicial system is not used, if we don’t sue people who use negative prejudices, it is as though we accept these prejudices.”

The issue of Chinese sans-papiers is also a crucial issue that does not seem to be approaching any sort of solution, and may complicate the relationship between the entire Chinese community and French society. During the 1996 mouvement des sans-papiers, a popular social protest for the rights of undocumented immigrants, Chinese illegal immigrants gathered and mobilized, and for the first time created an organization to defend their basic civil rights. The positive perception towards Chinese on the whole may explain why 80% of them were ultimately successful in getting official papers. However, the recent surge in illegal migration from China, coupled with the economic concerns expressed above, may lead to a change in mindset towards Chinese at a national level. Assane Fall, a member of SOS Racisme, remarks that “They do not suffer stereotypes of suburbs, but they are also victims of the classic problems of discrimination in employment and housing.” Sentiments towards sans-papiers could produce sweeping ethnic generalizations within popular sentiments, especially with the influence of corporate mass media and the politicization of race that is gradually occurring in France. Tieu is well aware of this, and understands the importance of achieving some level of Chinese political solidarity and influence within French society. “One day, if our presence does not seem to improve French society, we will face problems. If we are not prepared for that, we will face big problems.”



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