Whatever words may be used to describe the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, as far as France is concerned, ‘unprecedented’ shouldn’t be one of them. It only seems so from a British perspective, and it has to be said that the considerable headlines the Jungle has garnered in this country have been largely due to its uncomfortable proximity – the fact that only the Channel separates ‘us’ and ‘them’, thus bringing something close to Britannia’s borders that is largely alien to the British experience in terms of immigration. To the French, this is certainly not the case.
The messy (to put it mildly) partition of India that accompanied independence in 1947 didn’t really have an impact on the British people until the first substantial wave of Asian immigrants arrived on British soil twenty years later; the pattern established once they were here was to house many in declining industrial towns in the north or midlands as well as similarly rundown areas of London. Whilst this policy often gifted natives faced with diminishing employment opportunities the excuse that the immigrants were ‘takin’ our jobs’, the immigrants themselves knuckled down and worked extremely hard, forging new thriving communities in the process. Many were allocated admittedly poor housing, though these were still recognisable houses. The contrast with the ramifications that followed the end of France’s colonial adventure is stark.
The trauma the French went through over the loss of Algeria in the early 60s has no real parallels with the disintegration of the British Empire; none of Britain’s imperial possessions were near enough to the mainland to present Britain with the first-hand fallout of surrendering colonies to home-grown rulers who soon adopted a pseudo-Marxist approach to governance. As the distance between Paris and Algiers is just 837 miles, the four rebel French Generals who attempted to seize power in the face of imminent Algerian independence in 1961 were close enough to France for their threat to launch missiles at Paris from Algiers to be taken seriously. The belief that Algeria was an integral part of France bred such fanatical actions, though the Algerians that attempted to set up home in the Mother Country found that the French themselves didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms.
The appalling Paris Massacre of 1961 was spearheaded by Head of the Parisian Police Maurice Papon, a man whose later conviction for participation in the wartime Vichy regime seems highly in keeping with his behaviour on 17 October that year. He directed the police to respond to a demonstration by 30,000 Algerians on the streets of the capital with such callous brutality that even now nobody is entirely sure how many of the demonstrators were murdered. Only 40 deaths have been officially recognised, though some estimate as many as between 100 and 300 were killed that night; the Seine was said to be a genuine river of blood, with dozens of Algerian corpses floating in it.
Nobody was ever prosecuted for their role in the Paris Massacre, due to it being regarded as part of the Algerian War of Independence and therefore subject to the amnesty that was supposed to draw a line under the crimes committed during it. That the incident isn’t internationally recognised as belonging in the same unwanted pantheon as Bloody Sunday remains a mystery, though the way in which the guilty evaded justice was characteristic of the climate.
Most North Africans aiming to relocate to mainland France managed to avoid being massacred, but their eventual destination was usually the kind of residence Brits tend not to associate with the perceived sophistication of our Gallic cousins – shanty towns, or what the French called Bidonvilles. These proto-Jungle dwellings were largely invisible to overseas visitors and were understandably afforded little if any coverage abroad, though there were as many as 89 scattered around the outskirts of Paris in the late 60s. Although Portuguese immigrants constituted a large proportion of the population in such basic accommodation, many non-white arrivals to French shores could expect to end up there. No other Western European nation in the post-war era had such a severe segregation between natives and immigrants as France during this period.
There was a concerted effort to remove what were regarded as embarrassing eyesores from the mid-60s onwards, though as late as 1973 reports claimed as many as 8,600 people were still living in them. As the 70s progressed, the Bidonvilles were gradually cleared away from around Paris, but they still exist on the peripheries of several French cities and the Jungle is just the latest in a long line of them. The worldwide publicity the Jungle has received in comparison to all the Bidonvilles that preceded it is probably down to the excessive coverage of post-Iraq War events in the Middle East, and public interest in what becomes of those fleeing the region. Add the substantial number of migrants risking life and limb whilst escaping similarly dangerous environments in Africa and it’s a combustible mix guaranteed to generate tabloid scaremongering. But to react as though the Jungle was some new unpleasant innovation is to do a disservice to all those who inhabited the previous miserable Bidonvilles decades ago and were ignored by the wider world.
The closure of the Jungle that began on Monday has essentially been brought about by the media attention and clamour for ‘something to be done’, and I’ve no doubt Fleet Street will issue three cheers now that this particular problem has been pushed back from the coast of Northern France. There’s also the small matter of a Presidential Election in France next year and Monsieur Hollande is in sore need of a few popularity points.
The curious legacy of European colonialism is a reversal of the nineteenth century model, whereby Europeans feasted on foreign resources without first being invited to do so; ex-colonial subjects reciprocating the gesture 100 years later by turning up for dinner unannounced, however, is seen as something of a social faux pas – ditto those who were never colonial subjects, but whose presence on the doorstep is a direct consequence of more recent European gatecrashing. One could talk about reaping and sowing, but I won’t. The French have always had their own way of dealing with uninvited dinner guests, and while dumping successful asylum-seekers in Parisian suburbs that have already become ghettos left to their own devices may be merely a means of shifting the problem from one location to another, even those concrete jungles don’t conjure up quite the same visual misery as a Bidonville does. Get rid of them and the world can believe the dilemma has been solved. If only it were that simple.
© The Editor