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West Africans in the Foyers

The modern history of black African immigration to France began after World War I, when former African soldiers (known as tirailleurs sénégalais, or Senegalese infantrymen) were allowed to work on merchant ships as kitchen hands, coal trimmers, and stokers. In 1945, West Africans were employed as seamen in the context of government concerns about shortages of labor. After World War II, however, French seamen urged that French be hired ahead of foreigners—notwithstanding that many West Africans were French citizens. Between 1954 and 1959, the immigration of seamen, along with many unskilled and low-skilled workers, continued.

After 1960, African immigration to France increased with colonial independence. A multilateral agreement between France and the African states allowed members of the Franco-African Commonwealth to move without restriction to France or to the other African states that had formerly been components of the French empire (namely, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal). African migration to France during the 1960s was usually temporary, lasting about four years. But after 1974—the official date suspending immigration into France—black Africans began to settle in for good.

There are officially 172,689 Africans in France from eighteen nations, making up 4.5 percent of the foreign population, according to the 1982 national census. The largest African group are from Senegal (33,242 people), followed by migrants from Mali (24,340), Cameroun (14,220), Ivory Coast (11,680), and Mauritania (5,060). West Africans work in industry (38 percent), in services (32 percent), in building and civil engineering (8 percent), in domestic services, and in the textile and confectionary industries.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, West Africans were housed in slums, including old factories adapted for housing, in cities such as Marseilles, Rouen, Le Havre, Paris, and Montreuil. In Paris, they were mainly concentrated in the eleventh, twelfth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth arrondissements. In 1962–64, under a 1901 law, associations were created for the purpose of lodging black Africans: Accueil et promotion (Welcome and Support); ASSOTRAF, the Association d’aide sociale aux travailleurs africains en France (Association for Social Aid to African Workers in France); and SOUNIATA, the Association pour le soutien, la dignité et l’unité dans l’accueil aux travailleurs africains (Association for Support, Dignity, and Unity in the Welcome of African Workers). These associations were directly or indirectly created by the government and were run by French political figures who claimed that they were “friends of Africa,” some of them with links to former French colonies. Thus, in the late 1960s and the 1970s, while SONACOTRA took care of the Maghrebis and European migrants such as Portuguese and Yugoslavs, these other associations looked after the West Africans. SONACOTRA began giving rooms to black Africans in the mid 1970s, when it was ordered to do so by the prefecture of Paris. In the Ile-de-France, a quarter of UNAFO’s 126 foyers serve mixed populations, while only 11 of SONACOTRA foyers do.

West African foyers usually house people either from the same region or of the same ethnic origin, or at most perhaps two or three different ethnic groups or nationalities. All or nearly all of the people in these foyers are Muslims. Two main groups are usually to be found in the foyers—the Soninke, or Sarakolle, and the Tukuleur (from the Senegal River Valley, shared by the three countries of Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal). In Paris, the foyers are mostly Malian, while in Les Mureaux and Mantes-La-Jolie (Yvelines), the Senegalese are the majority. There are other ethnic minorities in the foyers as well, such as the Bambara (Mali and Senegal), the Manding (Senegal and Mali), and the Manjak (who are Catholic and come from Senegal and Guinea-Bissau).

The social life of the residents replicates significant features of life in their homelands. All the ethnic groups—except for the Manjak—have strong hierarchical organizations, and despite the overcrowding, divisions between nobles and commoners are respected through invisible barriers. Every man has his place. The head of the community, or the village, is always a man of high birth. Among the Soninke, the head is helped in his task by a council of nobles, who see to the administration of the community or village. The council looks after the morality of the group, monthly dues for food, and the lodging of newcomers or people in need (because of illness or unemployment). It also provides help for the village of origin with mosques, schools, sanitary arrangements, and so on.

Just below, or sometimes at the same level as, the notables stands the marabout. He is very important in the group, serving simultaneously as secretary, confidant, teacher, leader, and talisman-maker, and is usually well trained in qur’anic and Islamic studies. The marabout is also expected to moderate the tendency of the griot—a kind of troubadour and historian—to rekindle ancient quarrels between noble families. The griot is Janus-faced. According to the circumstances, he can act on the “pagan” side of the nobles, rekindling memories of the glorious past of the Soninke people, or he can put on Islamic dress and go hand in hand with the marabout. At the bottom of the social pyramid are the lower categories of traditional craftsmen (cobblers, smiths) and the “slaves”—the descendants of former prisoners of war.

There is a complicity between the noble, the marabout, and the griot—a web of collusion so well spun that the lower-status groups assent to their conditions without making too much fuss, even when and if they are more educated and more knowledgeable about French society than their “masters.” In the Soninke communities, the cooking must always be done by the “slaves.” In return, the “masters” must be lavish toward them, especially during traditional feasts such as those at initiations. On these occasions, the dividing up of space in the meeting rooms reveals the underlying principles of exclusion and inclusion. Women sit apart from men, and Islamic rather than traditional practices are invoked. There is a subtle spatial segregation between nobles and commoners. As for the lower social categories, they are busy helping the nobles and their guests. The boundaries are subtle. Everyone knows where and next to whom to sit.

Residents of the foyers are outspoken and articulate in describing the negative aspects of their lodgings. They perceive their lodgings as “prisons” or “concentration camps,” and individual rooms as “tombs.” Still, despite these criticisms, most West African residents also acknowledge positive aspects of the foyer: “The foyer is my second village”; “It is a place where things go well”; “It is very secure, a welcoming place compared to the aggressiveness of the town”; “In the foyer, people come and go without problems.”

Were the foyers created in order to further the segregation of migrant workers? Whatever the answer, one must acknowledge that foreign residents have transformed the space of the foyers, using it to their liking. In place of the official rules of the foyer, they have substituted unofficial rules of their own.

In the 1970s, the foyers, whether Maghrebi or West African, were strictly supervised by directors who were, for the most part, French army veterans who had served in Indochina, Algeria, or West Africa. Administrative rules were drastic. Visits from people outside the foyer were severely controlled, largely limited to male relatives, at fixed hours and in the television room only. After 8:00 p.m., the director could enter and inspect any room. The director would play off one nationality against another, first of all by separating nationalities into specific floors, and secondly, by emphasizing the cultural or religious differences between nationalities or ethnic groups. This period of military-style rule came to an end after the widespread 1975 strike about living conditions in the foyers. From that time on, the African foyers were open to free visitations and susceptible to “stowaways”—illegal residents from outside.

Nowadays in an individual room there may be the “official” bed, plus two or three folding beds, like the rooms of Mourides or Turks (see Ebin, Mandel, this volume). During weekends, the rooms are filled with visitors in traditional dress, sitting wherever a place can be found, chanting in loud voices, and drinking tea—which is perceived as an Islamic beverage. Meals of meat, or fish, and rice are also served, whereas during the period of military directors, it was forbidden to eat in the rooms. In some rooms of Muslim residents, one can see, among other decorations, a Hegira calendar, pictures of Mecca, ornate qur’anic calligraphy, and perhaps photographs on a table of a spiritual leader or a new mosque in an African village of origin. In the rooms of marabouts or educated Muslims, there are Islamic and Arabic books and a prayer rug in a corner. Thus sanctified, the place can become a site for prayer or religious education, so that space is defined by practice, not convention, much as it is described in several chapters of this book.

In the quest for identity, black Africans have endeavored to appropriate different collective areas of the foyers, including the corridors, the communal dining rooms, and the courtyards. The foyer has become multifunctional—a place of business and a place of worship. In nearly every African foyer, there are traditional activities such as craftsmen’s workshops, markets, and restaurants. The latter are run by women, Malians for the most part, who are helped by “slaves,” and sometimes by unemployed young commoners. The food usually consists of rice, meat stews, and sometimes chicken and chips (called a “European meal”). The price varies between eight and ten francs. The midday meal draws customers from outside, both migrants and French workers, into the foyers.

In most of the foyers, the common rooms and the corridors also serve as marketplaces. The market is usually conducted by men of high rank from the community, and their rooms become warehouses. The market provides different types of products—cigarettes, soap, chewing gum, sweets, African toothpicks, kola nuts. At weekends, the market increases in size, and, in some foyers, it is “sanctified” by such products as religious tapes, prayer rugs, Islamic calendars, religious books for different reading levels, prayer beads, incense, “Indian” perfumes, and even “halal” meat. The markets that specialize in these products are situated in foyers in which the “mosques” and village association meetings draw from five to eight hundred people on weekends.

In summertime, the courtyards of the foyers are taken over by men selling both raw and roasted ears of corn. An ambience conducive to informal socializing is created. The smell of roasted corn fills the air, and people stay up late. These marketplaces become places for meeting, discussion, and the construction and the consolidation of different kinds of identity.

In the 1970s, the landlords began to tolerate workshops in the foyers, so that black Africans could make a living related to their “tradition and culture.” Tailors, cobblers, and smiths carry on their professions in tiny shops—perhaps fifteen square meters for five or six craftsmen. Some of these people work only on weekends; others work every day and even at night—especially tailors at the approach of Islamic festivals.

During the Islamic holiday of the ‘Id (French: Ayd), people of lower status, especially cobblers, become butchers. The slaughtering of sheep in black African foyers began in 1971, after a social commission associated with the sixth national plan advocated support for cultural activities in the foyers. With the money that was allocated for this purpose, black Africans working through the foyers bought sheep for sacrifice at the Islamic new year and during the ‘Ids, and invited lodgers, policemen, and mayors’ delegations for these occasions.

In the France of the 1990s, however, ritual slaughtering has become a big issue, giving non-Muslims presumed moral ground to challenge the Muslim presence. This recalls “moral” causes discussed elsewhere in this volume in relation to Muslims: architectural conservation (Eade), “noise pollution” (Eade), and women’s rights (Bloul). Petitions have been drawn up by humane societies, the National Front, and the French butchers’ lobby to protest this practice. In January 1990, the famous movie star Brigitte Bardot vigorously attacked religious animal slaughter, both Jewish and Muslim, in an interview on French national television. She repeated these attacks in August in Présent (August 1, 1990), a newspaper sympathetic to the National Front, France’s extreme right-wing party. But this time she objected, not only to the Muslim method of animal slaughter, but also to the French government policy, which “tolerates such ritual sacrifices and allows the spread of Islam in France. It’s a shame.” In the meantime, the Conseil de réflexion sur l’Islam en France, composed of Muslims of different nationalities and created in 1990 by the ministries of Interior and Culture, is trying to find ways to resolve this issue.

The foyer is also a place of worship. The first prayer room to be instituted in a black African residence appeared in 1967, located on the ground floor of the foyer “La Commanderie” in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris. The next year a marabout living in the same building transformed his own sixth-floor room into a prayer room. He argued that a “mosque” should not be something given by non-Muslims; Muslims should themselves open their own prayer room. The marabout, who has now returned to Africa, thus drew a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate prayer places.

Only in 1977 did a second foyer introduce a prayer room. Despite this slow beginning, now almost all foyers have prayer rooms, which are subsidized by all residents of the foyer, whether Muslim or not. UNAFO, the principal organization of black African foyers, has, for example, 126 foyers in the Ile-de-France, of which 119 have prayer rooms.

The prayer rooms may be located on any floor—basement, ground floor, or various upper floors. The sizes vary, averaging around thirty to forty square meters. The prayer room is usually well furnished with multicolored carpets and contrasts with the rest of the building in its tidiness. A box for donations is always hung inside the room, next to the exit.

On weekdays, the prayer room may not be more than 20 to 30 percent filled. But on Fridays and during the ‘Ids, it is completely full and people—both residents and outsiders—overflow into the courtyard. On such occasions, the nearby pavements become part of the prayer place, bewildering French neighbors, who talk about being “invaded,” a telling metaphor. Two other dates offer opportunities for gatherings. The first is the Night of Destiny, the 26th to the 27th of the lunar month of Ramadan, when people assemble all night for prayer and recitation of the Qur’an, and food is brought in by the families of the residents and by outsiders. The second opportunity is Mawlud—the Prophet’s birthday.

In some foyers, the prayer rooms are used as classrooms, albeit without tables or chairs. Qur’an and Arabic classes are conducted for children, with the lowest-level group next to the teacher and more advanced groups and individuals scattered about in different corners of the room. For the adults, lectures and talks follow the weekend afternoon prayer (salat al asr).

The “mosque” in the foyer contributes to the formation of Muslim identity. Even nonpracticing Muslims seem proud of its existence. The territory of the “mosque” is perceived, in principle, as a base that belongs to all Muslims, and, as such, it is a symbolic place of safety.

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