Calais, Climate Change, and Policing Blackness in France

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy Photo credit: Moritz Hager
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy Photo credit: Moritz Hager

The recent dismantling of the migrant camp known as the “Jungle” in Calais in the North of France is the latest issue to bring France’s on-going debates on security and national identity to international attention.1 Several commentators have described Calais as a symbol of the French government’s powerlessness in the face of a humanitarian crisis.2 Former French president and current presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has entered the conversation by combining a troubling discourse on climate change and the state’s seeming inability to control the populations that are the Other in the French national imaginary. Sarkozy’s stance, read in the context of the wave of nationalist movements sweeping through Europe and resonating with segments of the United States population during its own hotly contested presidential election, raises important questions about race, mobility, and the policing of blackness.

A handwritten sign in the former migrant camp of Calais. Photo credit: Malachybrowne courtesy of Flickr.
A handwritten sign in the former migrant camp of Calais.
Photo credit: Malachybrowne courtesy of Flickr.

Two of Sarkozy’s statements in particular bring these issues to the fore. The first instance occurred during a two-hour television appearance in September. The presidential candidate was asked to comment on Calais and France’s reception of migrants. He responded:

We have a specific problem. The destinies of Africa and Europe are connected. There is a distance of fourteen kilometers between Africa and Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar. Africa is undergoing an unprecedented demographic shock. Africa in thirty years will double its population and the reality of the geographic proximity of migration is Europe. Can we accept all those who want to come? My answer is no.

Asked later to take an unequivocal position on climate change, Sarkozy stated that the impending population explosion in Africa was the cause of climate change: “The primary cause of the climate change problem is the number of inhabitants on the planet. […] Nigeria will have four hundred million inhabitants. […] If we do not raise the issue of the birth rate on the African continent or the birthrate in Asia or the birthrate in a certain number of countries, we will not be able to protect the ecological balance of the planet.” Sarkozy would go on to repeat this assertion in another interview in October. During a rally in Belfort on Friday, Sarkozy drew laughter from his supporters when he stated, “climate change has had its consequences: we now have a jungle in Calais.”

Sarkozy’s positions on Calais and climate change are not in themselves surprising because they are each in line with the right-wing politics on which he based his presidential campaign in 2007. His emphasis on the proximity of Africa to Europe, for example, relies on the familiar stereotypes of large numbers of African migrants surging across a porous border to irrevocably alter the demographics, economy, and national identity of a beleaguered France. However, his recent move to combine both issues, distorting the facts of each in the process, points to a disturbing new discourse.

Tents in the former migrant camp of Calais. Photo credit: Malachybrowne courtesy of Flickr.
Tents in the former migrant camp of Calais.
Photo credit: Malachybrowne courtesy of Flickr.

Sarkozy crafts a narrative in which population growth outside of Europe is used as a political tool to restrict movement and close borders in the name of protecting scarce natural resources in Europe, that were supposedly made scarce by the very population growth that is yet to occur. If this discourse appears cyclical, it is because it purposefully obfuscates the factors that are actually responsible for climate change and for the presence of asylum seekers in France respectively. Sarkozy’s questionable rhetorical move in emphasizing birth rate as the cause of both phenomena is potentially effective in addressing his base of supporters. It allows him to shift the focus from the actions and choices of industrialized countries. It also allows him to privilege numbers (hence the citation of Nigeria’s estimated population) rather than the lived experiences of migrants in Calais. Ultimately, Sarkozy’s fusion of the discourse on migration and climate change emphasizes black bodies over black lives. It raises the specter of Africans as an unwanted Other. It evokes unruly black bodies undermining France’s sovereignty through unregulated movement, and endangering the very future of the planet through uncontrollable rates of reproduction.

The colonial roots of this narrative run deep, resurfacing at various moments in the fraught historical relations between France and its former empire. For example, the Guadeloupean lawyer and politician Gerty Archimède described the uphill battle that French Antillean political representatives faced when demanding equal access to social security benefits as French citizens in the 1940s and 1950s. As Archimède states, “we were opposed with all sorts of arguments and insulting allegations levelled at Guadeloupean mothers, claiming that here there was rampant overbreeding, hence the systematic refusal to extend to Antillean mothers benefits for prenatal care, childbirth, first births etc.”3 Archimède’s testimony highlights the dehumanizing nature of this rhetoric, captured in the specific language of “overbreeding,” or in the French original, lapinisme, derived from lapin, the word for rabbit. Here too, French officials represent people of African descent as bodies that defy state control and are therefore undeserving of the protections and benefits that would apply to them were their very humanity not in question.

Indeed, if Sarkozy’s statements give no indication that a significant number of the asylum seekers who have since been relocated from Calais are in fact fleeing conflict in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, it is because he is drawing on a long history of people of African descent as one of France’s most recognizable Others. The rhetoric of uncontrollable movement and unbridled sexual activity of Africans and people of African descent is not new. It plays into French colonial anxieties of a perceived inability on the part of the state, to police blackness and its presence in the hexagon. As France gears up for what will likely be its own hotly contested presidential race, what is new is the leveraging of climate change as a political tool to reinforce this old colonial narrative.

  1. Prior to this, the burkini bans enforced on beaches in the south of France sparked another international conversation on race, religion, and French national identity.
  2.  See for example French news outlets such as BFMTV and Le Monde.
  3. Laurent Farrugia, Gerty Archimède: Interview (Basse-Terre: Jeunes Antilles, 1976), 31.
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Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a scholar of contemporary Francophone Caribbean and African literature with interdisciplinary specializations in Black transnational feminisms and slavery in the Atlantic world. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, (University of Illinois Press, 2020) mines published writings and untapped archives to reveal the anticolonial activism of Black women in the French empire. Her articles have appeared in Small Axe, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Slavery & Abolition, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and The French Review. She is managing editor of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.

Comments on “Calais, Climate Change, and Policing Blackness in France

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    I don’t get it. Why is it ok for a country like Japan to control their immigration and identity but not France?

    • Avatar

      Thanks for reading. That is an interesting question. Since this article doesn’t mention Japan I would like to hear more about the comparison you see between the two countries.

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