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Regions and migration memories. Northern France from a European perspective

Régions et mémoires migratoires : le Nord de la France au miroir de l’Europe

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Published on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 by Céline Guilleux


Alors que la patrimonialisation des migrations s’est affirmée à l’échelle nationale en France – avec l’aboutissement, en 2007, du musée de l’histoire de l’immigration – et plus généralement en Europe, ce colloque entend poser la question du rôle des territoires locaux et des régions d’accueil dans ce mouvement de reconnaissance collective. Dans le contexte de la décentralisation et du « rééchelonnement » de l’État, quelle place les migrations tiennent-elles dans la construction des identités régionales et l’affirmation des territoires locaux ? À l’heure des replis identitaires et de « l’insécurité culturelle », la mémoire migratoire peut-elle se faire une place dans le récit collectif local ? Le colloque examinera la question à partir de l’exemple du Nord de la France (et en particulier la région Hauts-de-France), mais en ouvrant des comparaisons avec d’autres régions en France et en Europe.



While the heritage value of migration has been affirmed at national level in France – with the opening of the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (Immigration History Museum) in 2007 (1) – and in Europe more generally, this symposium raises the question of the role played by regions and local territories in this movement of collective recognition. In a context of decentralization and rescaling of the state, what place does migration occupy in the construction of regional identities and the affirmation of local territories? At a time when cultural isolationism and “cultural insecurity” are increasingly prevalent, can migratory memory find its place in local collective narratives?

The symposium will consider this issue by focusing on Northern France (and in particular the Hauts-de-France region (2) and inviting comparisons with other regions in France, Europe, and beyond. Northern France is one of Europe’s major migration regions: as a mining basin and an important centre for the textile and metallurgical industries, it has experienced significant diversity in terms of labour migration – mostly unskilled, but also elite – since the late 18th century. As a major crossroads close to national borders, Northern France has, for two centuries, also been an area of transit for all sorts of migrants, from Flemish seasonal workers to the current exiles of the Middle East trapped by the reconfiguration of borders in an increasingly closed Europe. However, this long migration history is still a work on progress (3), and institutional recognition is limited. While migrant workers’ contributions to mining history are more widely acknowledged, their greater visibility has the effect of overshadowing other, less visible, migration memories, which may focus on other economic sectors (textiles, steel, agriculture) or involve other types of migration, including movements and flows linked to the proximity of the border. Northern France is therefore something of a laboratory when it comes to questions of memory, as it presents the paradox of being a large region with a long history of immigration but where migratory memory is still largely absent from its institutions.

This multidisciplinary symposium will compare the situation in northern France with that of other major French and European migration regions. It will draw on history alongside other social sciences that study current uses of migration memories in the construction of identities and power dynamics in host regions and regions of origin and transit (sociology, geography, anthropology, political science). It will also involve civil-society actors and local cultural institutions involved in the question of migratory memory.

Priority will be given to three fields:

Migratory inequalities and the fragmentation of memory

The construction of collective memory is always based on a balance of power and a rewriting of history. Contributions to the symposium must therefore be attentive to the actors who produce migration memories – “memory entrepreneurs” – at regional level, as well as to the unequal treatment that these stakeholders’ interactions foster for different local migratory flows. For instance, the French assimilationist model has long resulted in the preservation of migration memory being left to the private domain and civil society. Official political recognition of the contribution made by migration to national history is recent. This is especially true at regional level: in Northern France, preserving migratory memory is still largely a task taken on by descendants of migrants themselves, in particular through the voluntary sector, as in the case of Moroccan miners’ associations in the Nord département.

In this context, there are profound inequalities between different migration memories, depending on local political power and the capacity for self-organization of the actors who take on such tasks. Owing to the local importance of mining companies in the past – and current regional territorial-marketing choices – the memory of mining migration largely takes precedence over the rest. There are also profound differences between older waves of migration, which have enjoyed public visibility and local recognition of their places of memory, as in the case of Polish miners in the Nord–Pas-de-Calais coalfield, and more recent migrant groups, such as the Moroccans who came to close the mines (4). Finally, there are strong inequalities between territorialized migration resulting from public policies (family reunification, local integration, etc.) and transit migration, which is largely invisible. Accordingly, even though the first “jungles” were formed near Calais during the Yugoslav Wars almost 25 years ago (5), the history of movements through and into Northern France is still to be written, for the most part.

Places of migration memory and regional identity

Contributions will also examine the role of space and places in the construction of regional migratory memories. Because space makes social realities visible, it plays a key role in the processes of heritagization and political recognition of minorities. Northern France has many places of local memory, produced by migrant communities, such as Polish churches in the mining basin. But what about places of memory for communities that have arrived in the region more recently? Has the emergence of places of institutional memory, supported by public authorities, also been observed?

The question of space in migratory memory will be raised on several levels. First, at the micro- local scale of places and monuments. Second, at the larger scale of urban neighbourhoods, bearing in mind that many cities in Northern France are home to “ethnic” neighbourhoods or areas shaped by immigration, the importance of which is clearly stated in their identity and landscapes – but which, to date, have been the subject of very little research. Third, more broadly still, sometimes entire towns and cities choose to emphasize their migratory image, like the networks of “welcoming cities” that have formed around the refugee crisis. Contributions will therefore study the role played by migrants and immigrant associations in the production of campanilismo in working-class cities – which is particularly strong in Northern France. The notion of “migration regions”, whether host regions or regions of origin or transit, will be at the heart of these questions. The problem of the role that local territories play in migration and its time frames (places of transit, dead-end places etc.) will also be raised.

Migratory memory and local development

Finally, this symposium will raise the question of the role of migration memory as a lever for regional development. How do museums and regional institutions deal with such memory? In North America and Europe, many cities and regions have long used their migratory history as a component of territorial marketing and a driving force for the development of tourism, even if folklorization is not always avoided. In France, such practices are much more limited, as evidenced by the recent UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Nord–Pas-de-Calais mining basin (2012), where the legacy of migration features only minimally. In some towns and cities, the issue of migration is even perceived quite clearly as an obstacle to territorial marketing policies geared towards leisure and tourism, as in the case of Calais. Policies promoting a shift from manufacturing to tertiary activities in the creative economy, currently popular in old industrial regions, also play a role in keeping the memory of workers – and the associated migration memories – at a distance.

(1) BLANC-CHALEARD Marie-Claude. « Une Cité nationale pour l'histoire de l'immigration. Genèse, enjeux, obstacles », Vingtième Siècle. Revue d'histoire, vol. no 92, n°4, 2006, pp. 131-140.

(2) The Hauts-de-France region, created in 2016, comprises the former regions of Nord–Pas- de-Calais and Picardy.

(3) RAINHORN Judith, Histoire et mémoire des immigrations dans le Nord-Pas-de-Calais, XIXe-XXe siècles [rapport final], Agence Nationale pour la Cohésion Sociale et l’Égalité des Chances (French National Agency for Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunities), mai 2007

(4) PERDONCIN Anton, Des marocains pour fermer les mines : immigration et récession charbonnière dans le Nord-Pas-de-Calais (1945-1990), thèse de doctorat, Université Paris-Saclay, soutenue le 30 novembre 2018.

(5) AGIER Michel, BOUAGGA Yasmine, GALISSON Maël, HANAPPE Cyrille, PETTE Mathilde et WANESSON Philippe, La jungle de Calais, Paris, PUF, 2018.

Presentation proposals

in French or English, up to 500 words in length - should be sent by

15 april 2020

to Thomas Pfirsch (thomas.pfirsch@uphf.fr) and Céline Vaz (celine.vaz@uphf.fr).

Date and Location

5-6 november 2020 in Valenciennes, France – Université Polytechnique des Hauts-de-France (UPHF), Institut Sociétés et Humanités

Organization committee 

  • Thomas Pfirsch (Université polytechnique Hauts-de-France)
  • Céline Vaz (Université polytechnique Hauts-de-France)

Scientific committee

  • Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard (Université Paris Nanterre)
  • Yasmine Bouagga (ENS de Lyon)
  • Irène Dos Santos (CNRS, URMIS)
  • Marco Martiniello (Université de Liège)
  • Judith Rainhorn (Université Panthéon-Sorbonne)
  • Philippe Rygiel (ENS de Lyon)
  • Camille Schmoll (Université de Paris)


  • Valenciennes, France (59)


  • Wednesday, April 15, 2020


  • migration, mémoire, patrimoine, région, développement local, France, Europe


    courriel : thomas [dot] pfirsch [at] uphf [dot] fr
    courriel : celine [dot] vaz [at] uphf [dot] fr

Information source

    courriel : celine [dot] vaz [at] uphf [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Regions and migration memories. Northern France from a European perspective », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, https://calenda.org/726848

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