Interview with Swanie Potot

Interview with Swanie Potot

Swanie Potot discusses her research and contemporary immigration in France.

"It's become a national issue with so few people. It's not important in terms of numbers, it's important in terms of politics."

By Molly Fee, Graduate Assistant, Center for the Study of International Migration

Swanie Potot, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) – URMIS and Visiting Research Scholar, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, UC San Diego, joined the November 3 Workshop on New Trends in Migration: European and North American Perspectives with her presentation on “Transnationalism and the pitfall of empowerment: a French critique.” During her visit at UCLA, we sat down with Dr. Potot to learn more about her research and contemporary migration issues in France.

While pursuing her PhD in France in the late 1990s, Potot grew interested in the new migration of Eastern Europeans to Western Europe, which was “quite a political issue at this time.” With a focus on Romanian temporary labor migrants, her early research examined how in the wake of political change, “middle class young people were discovering Europe” and seeking employment opportunities abroad.

This initial work on Romanian immigration brought Potot’s attention to a new dynamic that was developing among migrant populations in France. With a long history of labor migration to France, North African migrants now found themselves in competition with migrants from Eastern Europe in industries such as agriculture. Potot examined how these different migrant populations converged in France and how hierarchies developed among workers, altering the status quo between employers and employees.

With a particular interest in Tunisian migrants, Potot was drawn to learn more about their background and “the impact of their migration in the homeland.” She spent two years in Tunisia, which coincided with the Tunisian Revolution. During this time, Potot explains, “Tunisia was very shaken.” In addition to studying emigration to France, Potot’s research in Tunisia also included the arrival of migrants from Libya, as “Tunisia became a territory of migration” as well.

Refugees wait outside the police station which serves as their registration center, 2015. Photo courtesy of Freedom House via FlickrCC0 1.0.

The Struggles of the Roma

Following her return to France, Potot says, “the matter of the Roma people coming from Eastern Europe to France had become a real issue. There was a very strong xenophobia,” which even pervaded at the state level from government officials. The Roma were seen as too different and therefore incapable of integration in France. With little to no support from the French government, the Roma were without shelter and relegated to living on the streets or in camps. Because of the Romanian language skills that she developed during her PhD studies, Potot began visiting Roma camps as an interpreter with a human rights organization. This volunteer work subsequently sparked her sociological interest in the Roma.

Potot finds that the Roma are being blamed for their social isolation, which is really a product of the policies that exclude them from meaningful participation in society and shape their limited opportunities for integration. Potot explains, “it’s the principle of xenophobia, saying these people are responsible for their social conditions when they are not.” Considering their unfavorable social position in Romania and Bulgaria, the Roma came to France with aspirations that were no different from the migrants who came before them. Potot says, “they intended to go and seek a better life in Western Europe, just as other Eastern Europeans did.”

Despite a general rebuke of public racism in France, the Roma seemed to be the exception and were subject to pervasive discrimination from a range of actors. Potot remembers the racist discourse used for the Roma, “I was really astonished.” Potot explains how the absence of support for the Roma was unprecedented, “if we do a parallel with what happened in the 1970s, there used to be migrant workers in shantytowns. What the state did was construct what we call the grands ensembles to eradicate the shantytowns and put these people in the buildings. But nowadays, we eradicate the shantytowns with no solution. We leave the people in the street.”

Government efforts to facilitate the reception of the Roma have been minimal, especially when compared to the migrants before them. “If you look at what happened in the 1970s and the 1980s with people from the Maghreb, the state put in place policies to integrate them and to help them learn the language. It’s not done for the Roma nowadays, or it’s done very little.” The main obstacles faced by the Roma include access to housing, employment, and education, all of which further contribute to their isolation. Additionally, the xenophobia directed towards the Roma includes the prevailing sentiment that “they’re not like us and we cannot accept them among us.”

While prior migrant groups were subject to discrimination in France, they were at least incorporated into the formal labor market. Potot notes how the trajectory of the Roma does mirror the early experiences of other migrants, “there is much parallel with their lives in shantytowns, with xenophobia, and things like that. But there is a big difference because the Roma are kept away from the dominant economy, while former migrants were workers in construction” and other industries.

These parallels have created an interesting link between former migrant populations and the Roma today. Potot has found that people of North African descent in France are “much more empathetic with the Roma because they used to live in the same conditions. It’s not a matter of solidarity. It’s more a matter of understanding. They can understand what happened to them” because of this shared historical background.

However, the public focus on the Roma is disproportionate to the actual size of the migrant population. Over the past ten years, the Roma population has consisted of about 20,000 to 25,000 migrants distributed throughout most major French cities. Potot points out this contradiction, “it’s nothing for a country if they want to eradicate the problem and find them housing. It’s become a national issue with so few people. It’s not important in terms of numbers, it’s important in terms of politics.” The Roma issue has come to represent many other political questions, such as freedom of movement within the EU, wealth disparities among EU member states, and a fear of increased immigration from Eastern to Western Europe.

Contemporary Challenges in France

Moving forward, Potot’s new area of interest addresses contemporary immigration in France in light of the Syrian war and la crise des migrants that took place in 2015. The migration challenges faced by France are twofold. Potot explains that while there is forced migration coming from the Syrian war, there has also been an opening of borders in the Southern Mediterranean following the Arab Spring. However this increased migration has unfortunate consequences. As Potot notes, “because the people leaving from the southern coast of the Mediterranean were more numerous, the people dying in the Mediterranean has become more numerous.”


Migrants and refugees arrive by dinghy behind a huge pile of life vests after crossing from Turkey, 2015. Photo courtesy of Freedom House via FlickrCC0 1.0.

Potot is particularly interested in how France has begun to control its borders through a military and police presence for the first time in two decades. The focus of Potot’s new project is on the French-Italian border where the French are trying to keep migrants, mostly from Africa, from crossing over. As migrant camps have developed on the Italian side of the border, Potot is interested in the contentious role of NGOs that have come to the aid of these migrants in the absence of government support. During her stay as a visiting researcher at UC San Diego, Potot hopes to examine how dynamics at the U.S.-Mexico border can inform her work in France. “I came to San Diego to make a comparison of the activities of these NGOs who help migrants regardless of what the law says. Because in Nice it’s a new situation.” In the French context, these NGOs are up against significant resistance from the government and local politicians. Potot’s research will examine this ongoing issue, which remains very polemical in contemporary French public opinion.

Published: Monday, November 27, 2017

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