There's no place like home

“My home is in Tunis,” metalworker Chedli, who migrated to France in the 1970s, used to say until recently. Now he is not so sure. “They do not want me down there.”

Chedli retired in 2002, and as pensioner he has some time and money.
And he has had thoughts of home, back in Monastir. “But they now say that I am an invader, that I bring them misfortune,” he says. “I rather stay here in France.”

Social scientist Atmane Aggoun is not surprised. “When Algerian immigrants return from France as old-age pensioners to their home towns, the prices of all goods skyrocket.” And the locals do not seem to like it. Store owners in Algeria, Tunis, and Morocco clearly believe that pensioners from France are immensely rich.

Algerian-born Aggoun has been studying the living conditions of immigrant workers and now pensioners for several years. He published a book last month titled The Muslims in the Face of Death in France.

Aggoun says that both the immigrant workers and the European countries that invited them in the 1960s and 1970s to fill gaps in the work force thought the immigration would be temporary.

Until recently Germans used the word “Gastarbeiter”, meaning “guest workers”, to describe workers from immigrant families. But most have stayed. Few immigrant workers thought in their early years that they would die in France or Germany as pensioners.

In France, most pensioners live in social housing projects created in the 1940s and 1950s. “I have many friends, former colleagues and some relatives close to me here,” Chedli says. “I spend my leisure time in the café near my apartment, with my friends. And the children of my friends I see as my own.”

Invaders and traitors

But despite feeling unwelcome in his hometown, Chedli feels guilty living in France, and goes back to Monastir often.

“Whatever immigrant pensioners do is wrong,” says Aggoun. “If they go back home, they are treated as invaders, but if they do not, they are traitors. Therefore many of them travel constantly between France and their home country.”

The duality is finally resolved with death. “Most immigrants say they want to be buried in their home countries,” Aggoun says. “This is their way of paying what they see as a moral debt to their origins.”

But those born in France will have nothing to go back to when they are old. “My mother, who is now 73, went back to Senegal, and lives there,” says Abdou Ndiaye. “I do not see me going back to Senegal when I am 65. I have children, they are French, and when I die I want to be buried near them. They are now my roots.”

A survey carried out last year estimates that about 150 000 immigrants above 60 years of age live in France. They represent about 3% of the immigrant population of 4,9-million. France has a population close to 61-million.

Immigrant pensioners were recently at the core of a dispute between the French government and human rights and leftist groups over welfare allowances to complement pensions. Under new legislation that came into force on July 1—and which was later withdrawn—immigrant pensioners were required to spend at least nine months of the year in France in order to have access to these additional allowances.

“This measure led during the summer to the deletion of tens of thousands of immigrant pensioners from the files of the social-security system in Marseille alone,” Louis Bastille, from the left-wing union Lutte Ouvrière, says.

The official High Council on Integration, a forum of experts appointed by the government to analyse the living conditions of people of immigrant origin, said in a report in August that the new legislation amounted to “discrimination against immigrant pensioners”.

The measure, the council said, “imposes upon immigrant pensioners a constraint and hinders them from freely choosing their country of residence”.

The protests forced the government to abandon the legislation.—IPS

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