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  • Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century
  • Michelle McKinley
Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century. By Elisa Camiscioli (Durham, Duke University Press, 2009) 227. pp $79.95 cloth $22.95 paper

Camiscioli deploys the body—its corporeality, its procreative potential, and its motility in this wonderfully written book about early twentieth-century [End Page 455] immigration to France. As Camiscioli reports, nearly 3 million foreigners resided in France during the 1920s. After World War I, France confronted labor shortages, a vastly reduced male population, and a diminished enthusiasm for repeated childbearing among French couples. Immigrants were recruited for their productive and reproductive potential. But prontatalists, influenced extensively by demographic “race-science,” ranked immigrants preferentially according to their assimilative capacity and racial compatibility. Although much in opposition to Germanic-based notions of blood purity and particularism, French hybridity privileged European “racial” pairings of French women and southern European men. Camiscioli shows how the racialized naturalization of labor, the “suitability” or predisposition of certain people for undesirable work, was reinforced by the au courant geographical determinism, evolutionary racial science, social hygiene, and ethnology.

Taking her cue from feminist studies of empire and sexuality, Camiscioli brings the insights of biopolitical regulation (particularly the regulation of intimacy) to the site of immigration. Immigration was rarely studied, let alone studied so well, in concert with imperialism before Camiscioli’s book. She uses five particular moments in the immigration debate—pronatalist debates, industrial production, métissage (crossbreeding), white slavery, and independent nationality for married women. These five moments reveal the profound effect of mass movement on French intimate life, how the state actively recruited certain types of bodies for specific tasks, and how these bodies were coded according to the racial grammars of French republicanism. A thoroughgoing analysis of disparate sources ranging from social hygiene to army records on prostitution demonstrates how “social critics in this period of immense human mobility imagined the parameters of a racialized and gendered national identity” (2).

Camiscioli adopts the themes of labor and intermarriage as optics to view the emerging discourse of republican citizenship. French republicanism deployed inclusive exclusion, theoretically encompassing of all but practically privileging a masculine, Gallicized vision of the citizen and legitimate bearer of rights. Camiscioli explores these tensions through the body of the métis subject—the conspicuous product of sexual improprieties and a threat to the perceived moral superiority (and hence imperiling the mission civilisatrice) of the French Empire. As Camiscioli’s review of metropolitan and colonial sexual practices demonstrates, selective inclusion policed the boundaries of the intimate. Though neither procreative interracial nor recreational interracial sex was officially promoted or tolerated, the procreative act prompted anxieties distinct from the recreational one. Social hygienists, feminists, and race scientists devised a segregated system for servicing the sexual needs of men from the colonies (particularly African and Asian immigrants), vis-à-vis their French compatriots in the metropolitan bordellos (maisons de tolérance).

In the colonies, regulationists devised a series of “ambulatory prostitution units” to meet the needs of French and colonial troops (118). As [End Page 456] Camiscioli notes, ambulatory prostitution units were not unique to French military policy, but they were installed primarily to discourage same-sex practices or interracial recreational sex. Similarly, the virtue of French women and the depravity of colonial men fueled the histrionic debates about “white slavery” and sexual trafficking of the early 1920s. Patriarchs repeatedly spelled out the danger of unaccompanied female travel, bereft of the protection/surveillance of father[land] or husband.

The final chapter on the battle over restoring married women’s divested nationality reveals the fortitude of egalitarian republican discourse and gendered national identity. Not surprisingly, feminists selectively fought for the restitution of French women’s nationality by decrying “inappropriate” (non-European) exogamous marriages, and emphasizing women’s citizenship as a matter of reproductive obligation and civic duty.

Reproducing the French Race skillfully weaves together the discourses of empire, corporeality, racialization, citizenship, and intimacy in a bold and innovative look at the foundational fictions of republican citizenship, gendered identities, and the racial grammar of early twentieth-century France. Camicsioli’s command of the feminist...


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pp. 455-457
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