Policing Paris: The origins of modern immigration… – Reaction Essay

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In Policing Paris: The origins of modern immigration control between the wars, Clifford Rosenberg looks at the creation of a complex policing apparatus in Paris and how this institution helped to define the roles of citizenship and nationality in the French public’s mind. He does this by analyzing the context in which the institution was created and how social controls were adapted to changing ideas of who belonged and who was a foreigner.

Rosenberg’s book opens up questions about the nature of belonging to a state. There is an assumption that there is something intrinsic to belonging to a state. France was historically defined as being a nation state constituted by and from the French nation, but Rosenberg’s work calls into question the very Frenchness of the state. He lists the numbers of immigrants that arrived in France from various countries, mostly European but also some Asians and North Africans. If all of these people became French, then what is “French”? Why were certain groups, like the Russians, assumed to be capable of assimilating into the society while others were not? One politician quoted by Rosenberg says that being French is not a matter of blood, but rather one of education, so why were North Africans considered unable to be educated? It seems that targeted surveillance of North Africans had more to do with the need to keep them subjugated to the French state than it had to do with security.

An idea that features prominently in Rosenberg’s work is Foucault’s theory of “governmentality” as a form of violence by the state against a population. Rosenberg spends much of the first half of the book praising the card catalogues and indexing systems created by the French to monitor population subsets and showing that they were models that were emulated by the rest of the world. It is unclear whether or not Rosenberg subscribes to Foucault’s theory. He both criticizes the use of surveillance against specific groups (the North Africans) and also praises the ability of these identification systems to allow for the creation of welfare systems. Rosenberg probably has socialist leanings, which influenced his analysis. However, his work does raise the question of whether or not identification systems are useful, or even good. Should the state know everything about everyone? Are the benefits of social welfare programs worth the cost of giving up one’s identity to the state?

Rosenberg shows that prior to modern immigration control, borders were much more fluid. Attaining what we think of as citizenship today was much easier and the flow of people around the world followed a much more natural process of migrating to areas where labor was needed, contrary to the assumption that rural residents were tied to the land. The changing nature of the labor market seems to have had the biggest impact on how and why states control the flow of people. Rosenberg emphasizes this by showing that immigration control was initially meant to protect the domestic French labor market from foreign competition that entered French territory. With the state of the world today, including outsourcing and a global economy, it calls into question the necessity or relevance of borders, which greatly illuminates modern debate surrounding illegal immigration into the United States from South America.

While not conclusively taking a stance on the rightness or morality of modern identification systems, Rosenberg opens up many question about citizenship, nationality and what it means to belong to a sovereign political body. He uses the Paris specifically and France generally to illustrate how the idea of borders and belonging have changed over time, making it easier to understand the nature of labor migration and the process of naturalization, as well as shedding light on why current debates call into question the very nature of political borders.

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