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'Invisible Migrants': Italian Repatriations from French North Africa

10 May 2021

Dr Valerie McGuire has been awarded a grant from the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS) for her project, 'Invisible Migrants': Italian Repatriations from French North Africa.

The project has two goals in mind: on the one hand, it adds to a growing body of scholarship on transnational identities in Italian culture. It studies both the extent and the cultural impact of the Italian community in French North Africa. On the other hand, the project aims to provide a new perspective on the postwar decolonization of French North Africa, a story which is mostly told as the return to France of pied-noirs, or Algerian settlement communities of French extraction.

To date, the repatriation of the Italian populations in Tunisia and Algeria during the European decolonization of North Africa Africa, between 1955-62, has produced just one autobiographical account of it. The lack of research on this period contrasts with the significant body of scholarship on the Italian colonies in the interwar period when Mussolini’s ambition for mare nostrum in the Mediterranean, or a fascist empire that stretched from Morocco to East Africa, led France and Italy to break all diplomatic ties. Yet key early thinkers of what we know today as ‘postcolonial theory’ were of Italo-Tunisian and Italo-Algerian extraction (as one important example, the author Albert Memmi was of Italian descent). By retracing literary production by and about the Italian community in French North Africa during the postwar period, this project will restore to our knowledge the role Italian intellectuals played in the creation of a postcolonial thought.  

At the same time, this project adopts an ethnographic and historiographical approach that can help to counter overly romantic notions of the Mediterranean (notions that reproduce the imaginaries of the colonial period). While it is little known, Italian migration to French North Africa increased in the decades after World War 2 with Italians providing the labor for the extraction of primary resources in North Africa for export to metropolitan France. Italians had never presented the same unanswerable questions about religious and racial difference as the indigenous Algerian population had. During decolonization, the French state encouraged Italian migration in order to slow migration by Muslim Algerians. Italians that chose to ‘return’ to France joined an ever-growing population of Italian workers in postwar France. By the early 1970s, a half a million Italian nationals permanently resided in France; they were the second largest immigrant community in France, just after 800,000 Algerians. But the fate of these two immigrant communities strongly diverges. While Italians went on to become “Europeans,” with their right to work and reside in France eventually secured in bi-national treaties, Maghrebi-origin immigrants as well as their children have remain “citizen outsiders” in France, to use the phrase coined by scholar Jean Beaman in her recent book, Citizen Outsiders: Children of North African Migrants in France.  

No study has yet to seriously consider how European decolonization took place alongside (and potentially in dialogue with) the formation of the European Economic Community (EEC), what was the forerunner to European integration. The EU as an open-border region stands in stark contrast with the Mediterranean as Europe’s de facto border. In this regard, Italian repatriation from North Africa offers a unique window onto how European economic integration was set into motion after World War 2—not only in Europe, but also in North Africa. The researchers hope that ‘Invisible Migrants’: Italian Repatriations from French North Africa will ultimately prove how the end of European colonial empires in the Mediterranean potentially coincides and helps to create the institution of Europe as empire, despite its otherwise federalist design.