"Africans against Algerians . . . the exploited against the exploited": Media Representations of the 1963 Saint Denis Riot[*]
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Around one-thirty in the afternoon on 23 July 1963, Algerian hotel owner Habil Saïd threatened to evict group of Mauritanian residents living in his hotel at 14 rue du Landy in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis. Eventually, Saïd initiated the expulsion. What followed, however, was no ordinary eviction effort. This tenant-landlord dispute on a hot July afternoon precipitated one of the most violent inter-ethnic conflicts of the early post-colonial era. Later that evening, a riot broke out on the same street, just three years after the independence of thirteen former African colonies during the "Year of Africa" and one year after the end of the Algerian war. Temperatures soared while tensions escalated between the Algerians in Saint Denis—an already-established immigrant group in the community—and their Mauritanian counterparts, whose numbers together with that of Senegalese and Malian immigrants were growing by the month in the Paris region. By dusk, these two groups squared off in a bloody street battle. As the conflict intensified, some neighbors and passersby joined in, enlarging the conflict's scope and turning several blocks of the neighborhood into a riot zone. Others fled the scene. Witnesses estimated that thirty Mauritanians and between seventy and one hundred Algerians participated in the fracas. One observer described it as a "riot like you'd see in the movies."
That brawl on a hot July evening generated media coverage throughout France and around the world, from Germany to the United States. Publications from the New York Herald Tribune to Le Monde covered the riot while exploring the implications of labor-related migration to France from several different perspectives. This intriguing event and its representation in the media provide an opportunity to consider the reception and perception of African immigrants in metropolitan France during the early years of the post-colonial period. Press coverage in the riot's aftermath presented "the facts" as they were understood in the hours and days after the riot, while demonstrating the fear, anxiety, and concern surrounding the influx of former colonial residents, and African immigrants in particular, to France. Although interpreted in some articles as a threat to the republican order of the Paris urban realm, this riot also signified the important demographic changes that were underway in suburban communities such as Saint Denis. The conflict and the media's response highlighted increasing tensions between two immigrant communities—one of which was already labeled dangerous as a result of the Algerian war—while publicizing the challenges faced by immigrants residing in the Paris region.
Rarely, however, do scholars consider the connections between colonial mentalities and views of former colonial residents in the metropolitan context after decolonization. An analysis the media's coverage of the Saint Denis events offers the chance to consider how French views of race and ethnicity even in the late colonial era shaped reactions to African immigration in the early post-colonial period. Examining the media's response also affords an opportunity to investigate the extent to which the dynamics of decolonization affected or changed these attitudes. Two important questions remain central to this discussion. First, to what extent can scholars consider the journalistic response to this kind of event as representational of the post-imperial, post-colonial incarnation of the republican order chronicled by scholars dating back to the nineteenth century? Second, what are the connections between the "republican order" of the "imperial nation-state" as discussed by Gary Wilder and that of its post-colonial successor?
The early 1960s signified a pivotal moment for African workers. After countries such as Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania gained their independence during the Algerian conflict in 1960, the number of African men seeking employment in cities, such as Paris and its suburbs, Le Havre, Rouen, and Marseille, increased steadily. The 1963 riot in Saint Denis occurred three years into this post-colonial immigration of African workers to France, which continued an important migratory pattern between West Africa and France dating back to the early twentieth century.
Yet this brawl marked one of the first instances in which substantial media coverage focused on the plight of these immigrants and the challenges they faced upon arrival in France in the early 1960s. While journalists chronicled the lives and activities of Algerians in France during the 1950s, little was written about the small population of Sub-Saharan Africans who also resided there. The media coverage sparked by the 1963 riot highlighted the plight of this growing group of immigrant workers from West Africa. Overall, the riot constituted an important moment in the transition from the "colonial" to the "post-colonial" period in France. This event demonstrates the ways in which decolonization was an uneven and unpredictable process rather than a seamless transition, as Anne McClintock and other scholars have pointed out.
Many scholars who deal with race, ethnicity, and migration in the French context, however, shy away from exploring issues related to Sub-Saharan African migration to France during the first few years after the empire's demise. They gravitate instead to the interwar period, the immediate post-war years, or the post-1974 era and the end of labor migration. Few scholarly discussions consider the impact of the transition from the colonial to the post-colonial period on immigrant communities in France, especially those who hailed from former colonies turned independent nation-states. For example, Tyler Stovall argues that, "France has gone from possessing a great colonial empire to undergoing decolonization and the immigration of a large nonwhite population from its former dependencies." Yet Stovall spends little time examining the experiences of immigrant groups in the Paris suburbs during the early 1960s, just after decolonization and independence in Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF), Afrique Équitoriale Française (AEF), and in Algeria. Todd Shepard looks at the dynamics of Algeria's decolonization in the metropolitan context. This is an important study, but it only indirectly informs our understanding of the dynamics of decolonization for immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and the former colonies of the AOF and the AEF. Other important assessments of African migration to France, including those of François Manchuelle, Jacques Barou, Mahemet Timera, and Catherine Quiminal, rarely consider the connections between the colonial and post-colonial eras in assessing the situation of African immigrants in the metropolitan context after 1960.
Yet a growing body of literature since the 1990s has reevaluated, for example, "the civilizing mission," "the French imperial nation-state," republicanism as it played out in the colonial context, and imperial and "bourgeois" culture in the French colonies. But once France lost its empire in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, where did these attitudes, mentalities, and perspectives go? To what extent did they reverberate back to France? What was their impact in the metropolitan context given that there was an ever-increasing number of African immigrants residing there after 1960? One of the major unanswered questions in the era of decolonization, therefore, is how this process as it occurred in the Sub-Saharan African context affected the experiences of African immigrants and their reception by different sectors of French society as they sought work in France during the early 1960s.
Press coverage of the 1963 Saint Denis riot can assist in answering these questions. Newspapers from all sides of the political spectrum covered the brawl. The severity of the event, its shocking storyline, and its power to sell newspapers was not lost on members of the French media. L'Écho, for example, explained dramatically that the melee took on an air of "epic proportion." The media's reporting of the riot serves as an intriguing way to understand how the West and North African immigrant communities were perceived by the host society. Because press coverage also influenced broader French perceptions and understandings of immigrant groups, it provides a critical lens through which to assess the reaction to North African and West African immigrants in France. The words and phrases used to describe the disturbance reveal important insights not only concerning the reaction to the event itself, but also to the reception of West African immigration in France.
In the days after the riot, some media reports posited racial overtones while portraying the event in a militaristic tone. Writing for L'Aurore, Guy Teisseire labeled the riot "a race war," and his headline referred to it as a battle. His phrasing, moreover, could have influenced how the French public regarded immigrant communities, especially these two groups. Readers could see them as militant, violent, and threatening to the community because of their race and this riot. The terminology also reflected the ways in which French society was constructing emerging immigrant communities by 1963, particularly workers from Sub-Saharan Africa. L'Oise Matin contributed to this racially based, belligerent interpretation by explaining that the rue du Landy had been quickly transformed into a battlefield over the course of the insurgence. Two ethnic groups battling it out on the street led one journalist to personify the brawl as a living, breathing, menacing creature—a "monster." Such language was heavily laden with racial connotations and overtones. The racial stereotypes projected in the media in the weeks after the riot reinforced notions that North and West Africans were inherently violent and conjured up threatening images of war and mayhem.
A year after the conclusion of the Algerian war, media coverage of the riot reinforced French fears of non-western immigrants throughout the Paris region at the very outset of the post-colonial period. Violence to some extent was "expected" from Algerians by this point because of the way that the Algerian conflict had played out on French soil and in Algeria. But this level of violence was not part of the popular conceptualization of Sub-Saharan Africans. The inter-ethnic nature of this riot gravely concerned authorities and these anxieties were reflected in the media's coverage of the event. That Algerian and Mauritanian immigrants were capable of taking on one another in such a violent conflict meant that they could also threaten the stability of the surrounding community. A frightening episode such as this only reinforced authorities' worst fears—and those of French onlookers—concerning the growing population of non-European immigrants in the post-colonial era. While these concerns certainly applied to different immigrant groups during the colonial period, they continued into the post-colonial era, in some ways aggravated by the sometimes violent nature of decolonization itself, especially in the Algerian context.
The imagery and language used to discuss the Saint Denis riot and its aftermath, however, also underscored many of the dominant negative ethnic and racial stereotypes concerning West Africans in France. These constructions constituted a holdover from the colonial era when linguistic and visual imagery of West Africans constructed them as "wild" or "savage" and in need of "civilizing." Such stereotypes reverberated back to France from the earliest phases of formal colonialism and continued into the interwar era, when they mingled with images of the "exotic" African such as those reinforced at the Colonial Exhibition of 1931. This phenomenon continued into the post-World War II era even as France reoriented its relationship with its African colonies through the French Union. On 30 January 1944, Charles de Gaulle proclaimed at the opening of the Brazzaville Conference: ". . . The populations of all her overseas territories in all parts of the world remained faithful and enabled her to find bases from which to plan the liberation. This is an unbreakable tie between France and her Empire." Yet this rhetorical emphasis on solidarity did not erase racialized views of Africans, which continued to circulate in colonial and metropolitan culture. Even after the French empire dissolved, these conceptualizations were still projected onto the West Africans who arrived in France in the early 1960s.
At the same time, however, newspapers throughout France vividly described the shocking plight of Africans and other immigrants living in Paris and the suburbs. For example, one article described these workers as, "exploited by their landlords [and] threatened by eviction." It seems contradictory that reports reinforcing colonial stereotypes in the post-colonial era would also draw attention to the plight of these workers in the metropolitan France. In reality, however, the duality of this response to West African immigration was common, not only in reaction to this riot, but also in reference to incidents involving African immigrants throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Organizations that emerged in the early 1960s to assist African workers—such as the Association Pour l'Aide Sociale aux Travailleurs Africains (ASSOTRAF), Soutien Union Dignité dans l'Accueil des Travailleurs Africains (SOUNDIATA), and the Association Française des Travailleurs Africains et Malgaches (AFTAM)—as well as state agencies, such as the Fonds d'Action Sociale (FAS), examined how social welfare programs could be applied to African immigrants. The first years of that decade witnessed the development of programs to increase literacy, improve housing conditions, and offer medical care. The media's focus on the problems faced by immigrant communities reflected a burgeoning emphasis on providing services tailored specifically to their needs. While organizations such as Société Nationale de Construction de Logements pour les Travailleurs (SONACOTRA) and the FAS worked with Algerian workers in the 1950s, the concept of providing social welfare services to Africans was inspired in part by programs that assisted Soninké immigrants, which had appeared during the interwar period in Marseille and continued into the post-war era.
In his article published in L'Aurore, Teisseire not only invoked the phrase "race war" but also characterized the riot as a situation in which the poorly housed (mal logés) revolted against their landlords and their overall situation. In this instance, Teisseire placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Algerian landlords who had "colonized" certain neighborhoods throughout Saint Denis and Paris, renting hotel rooms to West African tenants and charging them dearly for the privilege. He concluded that the Mauritanian participants in this instance had no choice but to revolt in the manner that they did. Teisseire's response proved interesting because, despite his use of racially tinged language, he sided with the Mauritanians and supported their position rather than condemning the riot as threatening to urban and suburban republican order. An article in Le Populaire du Centre took a similar position, explaining that the riot was a "tragedy of misery perpetrated by the uprooted." This account also illustrated the ways in which regional and local newspapers throughout France picked up the story of the Saint Denis brawl.
Other journalists, however, stayed away from racial and ethnic connotations altogether, emphasizing the poverty that the rioters endured. Such media coverage points to the dichotomy of attitudes regarding West African and North African immigrants in the early post-colonial era. While some journalists saw the brawl as the manifestation of dangerous behavior connected to racial stereotypes, others used the event to cast a spotlight on the plight of West Africans and other immigrants in France. In these articles, reporters described in detail the conditions they suffered, especially in suburbs such as Saint Denis. An article running in the newspaper La Libération, for example, explained that the riot illuminated the inhumane conditions endured by immigrant workers, arguing that the rue du Landy was a microcosm of all of the issues and challenges facing West Africans in France. In France Soir, Gérard Bordeaux took the opportunity to paint a larger picture of life in the Parisian suburbs for these two communities. He explained that for many of the participants in the riot, migrating to France was the fulfillment of a "magnificent dream," full of possibility and opportunity. This idealized vision of their lives in France quickly slammed into the harsh reality of the suburbs, Bordeaux argued. Bordeaux's contribution pointed to the reasons why many African immigrants arrived in the Paris region. They sought an improved economic position and increased status while continuing a migratory trajectory that spanned generations of West African workers. What they found and endured was something entirely different—difficulty bordering on destitution with little hope for economic gain. That situation, Bordeaux explained, provoked the Saint Denis riot, and not a predisposition toward violence.
Roger Maria, writing for Droit et Liberté, took a different approach. He used the incident to compare immigrant communities and those who took advantage of them to the workers under Napoleon III, who had also experienced exploitation at the hands of their bourgeois landlords. By incorporating this analogy, Maria argued that the riot presented an opportunity for public reflection on the problems faced by West African workers and immigrants throughout the Paris region. He implored other journalists to use their position to portray the situation in a realistic and compelling light in order to spark public action. From his standpoint, the riot was a platform from which to launch a renewed effort to assist immigrant workers struggling to find adequate shelter and well-paying jobs in France. Each of these accounts demonstrates the ways in which the post-war French welfare state and the "social welfare" approach to solving the problems of housing, health care, education, and employment wove its way into media portrayals of the West African and North African rioters. Implicit in each of these articles was the idea that French society and the state institutions of the Fifth Republic had a moral responsibility to care and provide for those who arrived to work in the expanding French economy. This riot and the problems that it revealed contributed in part to the increasing availability of social services for African workers and other immigrant groups. It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Centre médico-social Bossuet opened its doors in the tenth district of Paris as a medical clinic for African workers in 1963—the same year as the Saint Denis riot.
Media coverage of an event not only provides an "instant narrative" of that moment, regardless of its accuracy, but it also offers a lens into the mentalities, perspectives, tensions, and anxieties of any given moment. This is certainly the case with the Saint Denis riot of 1963. While some scholars argue that African workers and other immigrant groups remained "invisible" to the host society throughout the 1960s, this riot and the media's response suggest otherwise. Mauritanian and Algerian immigrants were visible to French society and their stories as told in this riot were splashed across the pages of newspapers of every political and social persuasion on both sides of the Atlantic. The stories that appeared in newspapers such as Le Monde and L'Aurore revealed a metropolitan society engaged in a difficult transition from the colonial to the post-colonial eras. While journalists invoked racially and colonially tainted terminology to discuss two nonwestern immigrant groups, they also highlighted the challenges that immigrant workers confronted in suburban communities like Saint Denis. That split demonstrates the ways in which colonial perspectives survived into the post-colonial era and intermingled with a concern over the social welfare of immigrants living in France.
I wish to thank the other participants in the panel "Decolonization and the Challenge to the Republican Order: Ethnic Violence in the Paris Region in the 1960s"—my fellow panelists Melissa K. Byrnes and Ethan Katz, who also organized the panel with me, our commentator Jim Miller, and our chair Paul Silverstein—as well as the Carroll College’s Faculty Development Committee, which provided the funds that made my attendance possible, and the editors of the Proceedings, Donna Ryan and April Shelford.
Archives municipales de Saint Denis (hereafter AMSD), 18 ACW 22/23: "Les habitants de tout un quartier de Saint Denis . . . ," Paris Presse Intransigeant, 24 July 1963; Jean Dannemuller, "1.000 Algériens par jour 1.000 Sénégalais par mois," Carrefore, 31 July 1963.
François Manchuelle, Willing Migrants: Soninké Labor Diasporas, 1848–1960 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997); Mary Dewhurst Lewis, The Boundaries of the Republic: Migrant Rights and the Limits of Universalism in France, 1918–1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007); Clifford Rosenberg, Policing Paris: The Origins of Modern Immigration Control between the Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
Tilly outlines various forms of collective violence, which directly informed this analysis of an immigrant-led riot. See Charles Tilly, The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Tyler Stovall, "From the Red Belt to the Black Belt: Race, Class, and Urban Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris," in Tyler Stovall and Sue Peabody, eds., The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 352; Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat, eds., Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
For example, see Lewis, The Boundaries of the Republic; Rosenberg, Policing Paris; Vicki Caron, Uneasy Asylum: France and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Fabienne Guimont, Les étudiants africains en France (1950–1965) (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997); Mahamet Timera, Les Soninké en France: D'une histoire à l'autre (Paris: Editions Karthala, 1996).
François Manchuelle, Willing Migrants; Jacques Barou, Travailleurs africains en France (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1978); Mahamet Timera, Les Soninké en France; and Catherine Quiminal, Gens d'ici, gens d'ailleurs: Migrations soninké et transformations villageoises (Paris: Christian Bourgois Éditeur, 1991).
Alice Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State; Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and. J. P. Daughton, An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Patricia A. Morton, Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000); Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996).
Charles de Gaulle, "Speech made by General de Gaulle at the opening of the Brazzaville Conference on January 30th 1944," http://www.charles-de-gaulle.org/article.php3?id_article=512.
The colonial expositions held in and around Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constitute an important example of the ways in which the colonies were represented in metropolitan France. For more on this see Lynn E. Palermo, "Identity under Construction: Representing the Colonies at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889," in Stovall and Peabody, eds., The Color of Liberty.
Part of the reason why Africans were perceived as problematic as workers within the French economy was that colonial officials had, as François Manchuelle argues, "believed that African economies and societies had to be coerced in order for the continent to progress economically." These perceptions were transferred to African immigrants in France. François Manchuelle, Background to Black African Emigration to France: The Labor Migration of the Soninké, 1848-1987 (Ph.D. Diss., University of California-Santa Barbara, 1987), 20.
AMSD, 18 ACW 22/23: "Bataille rangée à Saint Denis: 100 Algériens et 30 Africains s'affrontent sauvagement pendant trois quarts d'heure 24 blessés, 78 arrestations," Le Populaire du Centre (Limoges), 24 July 1963.
Gillian Glaes, "The Mirage of Fortune: West African Immigration to Paris and the Development of an Immigrant Community, 1960–1981" (Ph.D. Diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007); and Jennifer Jenkins, "West Africans in Paris: An Assessment of French Immigration Policies in the 1960s and 1970s" (Ph.D. Diss., Brandeis University, 2007).