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Migration and Inequalities: The Importance of Social Class

An Interview with Anne-Catherine Wagner

Since the 1990s, Anne-Catherine Wagner’s research has focused on migrants from the most affluent classes in society. In this interview, she returns to the notion of international capital, which she used in her work to shed light on inequalities relating to mobility, particularly in her pioneering survey of “expat” executives in France.

Where does your interest in upper-class migration come from, and what do you see as the contribution made by work on this subject?

When I began my PhD dissertation in the 1990s, in a context where immigration was beginning to become established as a political and scientific subject, particularly under the influence of Gérard Noiriel’s work, I wondered what meaning different categories of immigration took on when we looked at foreign populations that belonged to a social milieu other than those traditionally associated with the term “immigrants.” I wanted to show that analyses in terms of “integration,” “identity,” “second generation,” “ethnicity,” and so on, were very much linked to the socioprofessional categories of immigrants, and lost their relevance as soon as one focused on more affluent categories. I was also trained by Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, who at the time were beginning their investigations into the upper middle classes. [1] It was with them that I began my work on the “wealthy foreigners” of western Greater Paris.

I entered this field via the schools in which international executives enroll their children, such as the Lycée International in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the École Japonaise de Paris in Montigny-le-Bretonneux or the Internationale Deutsche Schule Paris in Saint-Cloud [all in the western suburbs of Paris; translator’s note]. I conducted ethnographic observation in these schools, carried out interviews with teachers, and was able to meet students’ parents, especially mothers, who are often very active in these circles. A number of associations provided access to other respondents, such as the American Club or associations whose goal was to create female sociability networks. These observations and interviews were subsequently complemented by a questionnaire survey to obtain contextual data on executives’ trajectories.

At the time, I was criticized for working on a very small population, with limited impacts on society. I thought it was important to reason in terms of inequalities and to show that the factors that differentiate migrants are above all social categories and the levels and types of capital held at the moment of migration, as well as the value attributed to these categories and this capital in the host country. At the time when the Pasqua laws were passed, [2] highlighting the different ways in which foreign populations were treated also had a political implication.

How does the notion of international capital enable you to analyze these inequalities?

International capital is a Bourdieusian concept that enables us to consider different resources as an ensemble: economic capital, on the one hand, but also linguistic and social capital. In order to understand the positions of different categories of foreign populations, we must look at the type and amount of international capital they hold. The upper classes hold all forms of international capital. They own multiple places of residence as well as businesses, they were often raised in contact with Irish or English nannies, and they have an internationally extended family that allows them to fit in with “society” and clubs in any country. Often heirs to banking or industrial families, they represent an ideal-typical case of international mobility because they have the ability to be at home anywhere in the world. I remember, for example, a count who told me: “Today, transportation is so fast, I can call my daughter who lives in Argentina, she invites me to dinner, I hop on a plane, and I am there by the evening.” In comparison, international executives are not always as wealthy, their language skills are more variable, and they may join clubs or associations where they network, but they do not have an extensive international family network.

This notion is also useful in considering the circulation of resources. Although privileged migrants are not the most mobile population group, they do hold the forms of capital that circulate best on an international scale: money, qualifications, culture, and so forth. Their practices have symbolic effects on the celebration of mobility and travel, particularly in the educational values they pass on to their children. In parallel, unskilled migrants who experience more intense mobility have extensive linguistic resources and sociability networks, but which are more difficult to convert in the host country. While bilingualism is celebrated in affluent circles, mother tongues can become a stigma among the working classes.

What terms do you use to talk about the migration of the “privileged” and how do you view English-language research on this topic, particularly work that forms part of the “lifestyle migration” movement? [3]

The term “privileged migrants” has the advantage of applying the idea of migration to populations that do not consider themselves migrants, or who do so only in an ironic manner so as to better distance themselves from this category, like the American executive who told me, “After all, I am an immigrant.” We can either we use indigenous terms, which are not entirely satisfactory, or we can focus on deconstructing categories. In my dissertation, the survey population was precisely defined in statistical terms, as it consisted of executives and intellectual professionals of foreign nationality. I also used the term “expatriate,” which respondents identified with, and by which they defined themselves. The notion of “the elite” enables the inclusion of a whole range of dominant sections of the population, such as diplomats, private-sector executives, and journalists, but it has a political connotation that not everyone is comfortable with, as the term is often used in opposition to the working-class “masses.”

It should also be noted that international mobility is a highly gendered phenomenon. The population of foreign executives in the Paris region is mostly composed of men, who arrive accompanied by their wives. This type of migration implies a marital selectivity, as the woman often has to give up the professional activity she conducted in her home country and retrain in professions that are also highly gendered, typically related to teaching, languages or assisting expatriates.

With regard to the English-speaking literature, the expression “highly skilled migrants” is, to my mind, a pertinent way to describe these populations, even though it is an administrative category. I have more reservations about the “lifestyle migrations” trend, which encompasses quite different population categories: students, young workers, retirees, etc. Moreover, this literature approaches migration in terms of the subjective plans of migrants, who are in search of a better life abroad, in often idyllic spaces, near the coast, in sunny countries. It seems to me that all migrants are looking for a better life. On the other hand, I find it interesting that these studies approach the move abroad as a way of escaping social determinisms and the rigidities of national structures. Going abroad can represent an opening-up of one’s field of possibilities, giving the illusion that one can escape a destiny determined by one’s schooling, as I was able to observe in the context of my study of French people employed in the cultural sphere who have settled in Mexico City. French citizens in mid-ranking professions in Mexico City enjoy a privileged situation and lead a good life. But these respondents also had a lot of uncertainties about the conditions of their return to France, especially regarding their children’s futures. Once again, we must take into account the forms of capital held at the moment of departure. Mobility does not trump countries and social structures. Capital circulates and accumulates, but it can also deteriorate.

How do you analyze privileged migrants’ relationship to space? What types of neighborhoods do they live in, and what are their spatial practices?

In France, a number of foreign executives choose to live in and around Nice and Lyon; however, their places of residence are mostly concentrated in the “beaux quartiers” of the Paris region, and in particular in the 16th arrondissement of Paris and around the international schools, that is to say in the western suburbs, in places like Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The more bourgeois the neighborhood, the more foreigners there tend to be, although this also related to the high proportion of foreigners among service personnel in these areas. In order to find accommodation for expatriates, companies use specific real-estate agencies. Most of the time, these expats keep their home in their country of origin and rent luxury properties in the host country, which can then be transferred to another expatriate family when they move on. There are numerous service companies that take care of the administrative and legal aspects of their expatriation. Guides and directories, often compiled by the wives of foreign executives, are also available to help them access the services they need.

These populations mostly frequent international spaces linked to business, schools, or the activities of the clubs and associations of which they are members. They have a selective knowledge of Paris and the rest of the country, built on a somewhat stereotyped image of France as a country of culture, luxury, and cuisine. Their knowledge of urban spaces and the country more generally is mainly oriented around tourist circuits and the search for French authenticity through visits to forests and castles. But executives also develop critical discourse on French society, which is not very welcoming to foreigners. In their daily lives, they see the neighborhoods they live in as closed, and they talk about a certain snobbery on the part of their neighbors who belong to the more traditional French bourgeoisie. These are people who do not stay long in France and have different codes of sociability, which lead them to accept very intense friendships over short periods. The women in particular tend to stick together and share many of their activities.

These very exclusive spatial practices can also be explained by the location of international high schools. International executives have, to a certain extent, their own neighborhoods with their own clubs, churches and schools. School is really important for these migrants. The French and American school systems are the most present in the big cities. This enables executives to travel without causing too much disruption to their children’s education. Families plan for their children’s academic futures, and the choice of a French or American system is determined above all by parents’ origins and the plans they have for their children. One of the great anxieties of French families is that their children will not be able to enter classes préparatoires [one or two years of high-intensity post-baccalauréat studies to prepare for the entrance exams of France’s highly selective grandes écoles; translator’s note] because they are too far away. There are countries where foreign higher education is less highly valued than elsewhere, such as Japan and, to a certain extent, France. Parents from these countries typically want their children to “go back home” to study. In countries where foreign higher education is more highly regarded, parents encourage their children to choose whatever studies they like, but on a global scale.

I also conducted a study in Mexico, where the upper classes are highly disparaging of the Mexican education system. We noticed that the economic upper classes tended to send their children to American schools and then to university in the United States, while the wealthier, more intellectual classes turned to French and Italian schools, because they were looking for a more distinguished profile with a European culture, although generally speaking their children would not subsequently go to France or Italy to pursue their higher education. Qualifications and places of study are transferable to varying degrees in different countries, so education is a question of great concern for these migrants.

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To cite this article:

Garance Clément & Claire Gellereau & Hélène Steinmetz & Anne-Catherine Wagner & translated by Oliver Waine, “Migration and Inequalities: The Importance of Social Class. An Interview with Anne-Catherine Wagner”, Metropolitics, 19 November 2021. URL :

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