Review: Daniel A. Gordon. Immigrants & Intellectuals. May ’68 & the Rise of Anti-Racism in France. Pontypool, UK: Merlin Press, 2012. Available from Powell's, a unionized bookstore.

How pleasant to be Tony Judt. It’s May, ’68. You head for the Sorbonne, hang with your privileged friends, and then build an academic career on the verified fact (by you) that May ’68 was a handful of privileged friends hanging at the Sorbonne. Those middle-class kids and intellectuals who went out and stood up for the workers, year after year, often at the risk of losing their lives, their careers and their country? They’re the ones who “didn’t speak out” against Godless Communism. Those workers, especially those immigrant workers who long before May, ’68 and long afterwards, fought for dignity, and wages? “Lalalalala, I don’t hear you….”

Daniel A. Gordon has heard them. He’s a good listener. This I know because I’m one of the middle-class immigrant-intellectual workers he interviewed for Immigrants & Intellectuals. And he’s done a pretty good job considering that in 1968 he wasn’t even a gleam in his father’s eye (unless his da’ was particularly far-sighted).

Gordon argues that the Trots and the Maos and the others didn’t simply agitate themselves into oblivion in the years after ’68, they laid the foundations for a new generation of activism among the exploited immigrants and exploited sons of immigrants in France: he traces an uninterrupted flow from the Marxist theorizing of the ‘60s to the present day’s agitatin' in France. His sweetest anecdote concerns a minor group of activists operating early in 1970 at the University campus at Nanterre, the site from which much of May originated. Against proper Trot theorizing that organizing could only take place in the workplace, at the base-structure, the group decided to organize the mothers amongst the immigrants living in hideous conditions in the shantytowns nearby. To do so the group set up a day-care center at the University which, unlike the day-care provided by the Government, did not require a five-days-a-week commitment—did not, that is, require parents to be full time workers with a work permit and a residency permit, which the Government could revoke at any time. Then the activists decided to take the kiddies to the beach; they brought along leaflets to distribute to the bourgeois beach-combers. Afterwards someone wrote up a self-critique, pointing out the failure to “educate politically” the children. The group’s logo was the baby-bottle-and-sickle with the slogan, Français, étrangers : Même biberon!  Aaw. Over the following decades middle-class activists and intellectuals were able to offer enough protection and support to immigrants, until the immigrants themselves (immigrant workers and intellectuals) developed autonomy from the French organizers, and a measure of legal protection. Gordon tells another story, of a few French organizers distributing leaflets in front of a factory, calling for a strike, when one of the immigrant workers came out to tell them they were wasting their time, the strike had already been decided. By story’s end there’s no real question about who’s “French” and who’s not: the original generation of disposable immigrants has given way to a new generation of French people who happen to be black, or brown, or blond, and who aren’t going away because this is where they live.

Gordon has a good eye for the telling detail; and, as a detail in his story myself, I’m satisfied with what he’s picked out from our conversations. However, as in all historical narratives there are details of my story that might have shaded his story in a different direction, not toward different conclusions, but additional conclusions. My testimony was published earlier in an article by Gordon, and I discussed some of these points with him after the article appeared, and before this book. As I said, he’s a good listener:

From early on during the student unrest [of May, 1968] this [xenophobia] was encouraged by political pressure on the police to portray a leading role as being played by ‘elements foreign to France and outside the university’ [Le Figaro, 9 May 1968]. As one deportee, the American Paul Werner, recalls, being selected for arrest or deportation was likeliest for those who fitted ‘a certain visual profile’ of what a ‘foreigner’ looked like. Werner suggests that this unwritten rule made Jews, North Africans and South Americans especially vulnerable. (This makes sense in the light of recent history, given that some of the policemen involved could have been veterans of the round-ups of the Algerian War, or even of Vichy). He recalls a policeman reading out his decision: ‘Hooked nose, frizzy hair, sinister-looking expression. Immediate expulsion.’

The words mine patibulaire really should translate as “shifty look,” not “sinister-looking expression.” It’s an obvious dog-whistle for Jew. Surely, with students in the streets chanting "Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands" you’d expect a “policeman” (actually it was a commissaire) to figure out the ethnicity of a kid named Werner with frizzy hair and beard.  The point here is not simply that I was arrested for what I looked like, or even deported for what I looked like. It’s that I was judged and assigned for immediate deportation for looking like a Jew. As it so happened I was not deported immediately, unlike other foreigners who were arrested in the vicinity of the suburban factory at Flins: unlike many others I had a long term permis de séjour and a good job, my French was fluent and who knows what else, they kept close tabs on you in those days; they must have decided I was a “good” foreigner after all, because once I was transferred from Beaujon, where the initial determination had been made, I was given a date to leave the country and set free. As I was being led out of the Préfecture one of the policemen accompanying me quietly said: “Vous êtes juif, n’est-ce-pas? – Oui – Eh bien! Ça ne vous a pas porté bonheur…”  Over the next few days I heard that the police were searching for me at my workplace and home. It took them a couple of days to catch up with me. I was then told that Marcellin, the new Minister of the Interior, had ordered, “Expulsez-moi toute cette racaille.” My friend Diop, who was arrested with me and released without charges, was told that as a Senegalese and a member of the Communauté Française he was not considered a foreigner, but according to Gordon, other Africans at other times were not so lucky. All of which suggests that there were divided opinions and loyalties within the Government itself and the Police as to where the pressure should be put, and on whom. Si licet in parva, some cops were perfectly happy with rounding up Jews, others not so much: so much for Robert Paxton's claim that this kind of thing couldn't happen again. Gordon claims that “Werner suggests” that there was an “unwritten rule.” Did I say that? It was a policy, not a rule; "unwritten" has nothing to do with it. And the fact that it was applied with a fateful inconsistency says more about the Government's inability to control its own forces, than it does about the legitimacy of the rules.

Gordon has written a diffident article about the riots that broke out in the working-class area of Belleville on June 2-4, 1968 between North African Muslims and Sephardic Jews, also from North Africa, without quite stating who provoked whom, or what the interests at work were; but the interests of the Government were not on one side or another, it was enough that Arab immigrants be persuaded that the Jews were their enemies, and vice-versa: in other terms, the old colonial policies of fostering antagonisms continued in the Métropole, from Algeria to Belleville, and eventually back to Ruanda. I have two other strong memories of 1968: one was a group of comfortably dressed French Jews in a car decked with French and Israeli flags, off to the big pro-Government rally on the Champs-Elysées, honking their horns to the rhythm of “Algérie Fran-çaise.” The other, a few weeks after I arrived in New York, was an article in the New York Times about the antisemitism of the French Left. The French Government (more accurately, certain segments of the French ruling class and its police) has been perfectly open to using antisemitism and philosemitism – even to using them simultaneously. Communitarianism is always the problem for which Universalism is always the solution. I have some sympathy for Tony Judt: If properly pronounced ("Youdt"), his name is a near-exact homonym of youtre, an old French slur for "Jew." It must be tough for your average Jewish intellectual, your typical New York Review of Books progressive with a panicked commitment to liberal universalism, to be reminded on a daily basis of who you really are.

In 1972 I made a quick trip to Paris to see if it was a good idea to return. It was suggested I visit a “friend,” a gallery owner who might intervene for me, who was a friend of Malraux’s or something. As we talked I noticed that his gallery happened to be set across the street from a well-known radical bookstore. It would be easy, my new friend told me, to get an amnesty. After all, I’d only been led on by certain leaders, had I not? Leaders…. Who were named..? This is the part that’s at the margins of Gordon’s narrative, the part about Government manipulation and coercion down to the present: dirty tricks, appalling police brutality, antisémitisme d’état, philosémitisme d’état, state-directed racial and ethnic discrimination. It’s the hidden continuity in Gordon’s story, from manif to manip.

In the last months of the Occupation Léon Blum wrote:

There are two kinds of emigrants, those who remain unchanged in their relationship to a changing homeland, and those who, by their own activity, return their homeland to the place of parting. The immigrants of 1815 were ridiculous… Those of 1870 were not.

The ridiculous ones are those, like Judt, still fighting some obscure battle over something called "Communism." The others have moved on into that ever-present future when sans barbe et sans agents on s’en retourne en France.

[7-8-2012; last revised 2-2-2013]


- PW.