Tour de France (5) – Sharif Gemie

Presentation - Photograph

Miles of Aisles

To Albi, way down in the south of France and a twelve-hour train journey from Nancy. I’m going in order to attend a meeting of the EXILIO network: a small research project which links researchers in Britain, France and Spain who are studying refugee history. Ideally, we’d just like to get together and chat, but in order to get funding for a meeting, we have to do something more spectacular, so we’ve organised one day of public papers, to be followed by a morning of private debate.

Albi University is gaining quite a reputation in France: it’s one of France’s newest universities, one of its smallest universities and – as all French academics comment – probably also one of its cleanest. It’s based in a converted barracks, dating from 1880: big, symmetrical, three-story buildings, typical of Third Republic (1870-1940). Today, the sun is shining, and the University certainly seems to be gleaming in order to meet the EXILIO network.

There’s an unpleasant shock as we arrive: the – for want of a better word – ‘leader’ of the EXILIO network, Scott Soo, has sprained his ankle very badly, and is unable to attend. The organisers of the conference are unwilling to just drop one paper, and so they ask me to provide a paper in French. I have just given one paper twice in Nancy and Rennes, but it’s not really on the conference theme: Anti-Fascist Refugees. I spend the day before the conference tinkering about with my powerpoint presentation, setting myself the question of considering whether UNRRA could be considered as ‘official anti-fascism’. I think I’ve got enough material to last twenty minutes.

The conference starts: Laure Humbert, who was my research assistant in 2007-10, gives one of the first papers. Her title suggests that she is going to talk about Displaced Persons in the French zone of Germany: in practice, she talks at some length about UNRRA, asking whether this organisation could be considered as anti-fascism in practice. Although she approaches the topic from a different angle, and although she doesn’t show illustrations, I can’t help thinking that her paper is quite similar to mine. Over the lunch hour, I look again at my paper, and decide that I could say more about The Search, a film produced in 1947-48 with the help of UNRRA. I speak last, and most of the conference audience is not looking for a long paper at that point. I feel quite nervous at the beginning. Afterwards, everyone is very polite about my paper at the end: Laure herself comments that I sound more confident in French. I’m not entirely convinced.

Albi University, France: Photograph

The conference as a whole seems to suggest some problems with ‘anti-fascism’ as a concept. Many refugee groups were positively attracted towards elements of Nazism in the 1930s, and many turned anti-communist after 1947 or 1948. Even those who were motivated to become anti-fascists had very varying motivations. I find myself thinking that there seem to be two interpretations present: a political analysis of refugees, and a social analysis of refugees. How can the EXILIO network survive?

By the next morning we’re all tired. There’s a certain amount of administrative formalities to complete, but we finally get on to discussing the main themes. We all like each other, and nobody is going to say anything openly critical of anyone. Normally, discussions are tri-lingual (English, French and Spanish), but as I’m the only Brit present, and as everyone can speak French, we tend to speak in French most of the time, with a few comments in Spanish. I do comment that I think we had all been rather naive before the conference in assuming that the concept of ‘anti-fascism’ would be a simple, unproblematic term. There seems to be some agreement that we could look again at the term. Things look up as the delegate from Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) says that he thinks he could obtain funding for another conference, with Spanish as the principal language.

We’re all keen to meet again: we leave with the firm intention of meeting in the City of the Way in summer 2012.

Sharif, 16 April 2012

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