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Making Migrants Disappear

France redesigns the Calais border as a “magical” place

In 2015, a migrant camp on the French side of the English Channel known as “the Jungle” came to represent France’s migration problem as presented by the media and exploited by politicians. Located on a former landfill site outside the city of Calais, the camp was home to around ten thousand people at its peak. It had places of worship, schools and restaurants, and an active political community. It was also squalid and sometimes violent. For Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, the Jungle was a shameful symbol of the failure of public authorities—and a threat to the nation if it were allowed to “spread throughout France.” For migrant support networks, the 2015 surge in refugees was not just a humanitarian crisis, it was a setback to European integration, “triggering the renationalization of border control policies and other measures to reinstate the national sovereignty of individual member states,” as one analysis put it.

By October of 2016, the camp was razed. Yet now, seven years after its demolition, Calais’s sprawling, muddy camp city continues to shape ideas around migration in France. The government moved toward a “migrant dispersal” strategy, in which large encampments were swiftly dismantled and migrants were pushed—often violently—out of border zones and cities and into reception centers across the country. Media focus on this strategy hasn’t stemmed the nation’s anti-immigration sentiment. In January of this year, the mayor of Callac in Brittany abandoned a plan to welcome refugees after pressure from the far right—a case of fascists “reigning by terror on the town,” as two local left-wing members of parliament put it in a joint statement. In May, the mayor of Saint-Brevin-les-Pins in western France resigned after facing death threats and an arson attack on his house over plans to move a migrant center close to a primary school.

By this time, the French government had presented a new immigration bill to the Council of Ministers titled “Controlling immigration while improving integration.” Initial party support for the bill is wanting across the political spectrum; right-leaning parties are critical of its bid to legalize undocumented workers, while the left sees it “as another repressive law.” Integration is a pervasive yet contested term in French politics, and this latest call comes freighted with recent history. During the 1990s, integration was touted as a liberal alternative to the more rigid notion of assimilation. Yet the government’s attempt in the early 2000s to mandate conformance with “French identity” under a Reception and Integration Contract—requiring migrants to show their “willingness to integrate into French society and to accept the principle of respecting the basic values of the French Republic”—demonstrated the term’s flexibility, and its capacity to stretch from the liberal to the authoritarian.

A 2018 paper by Population Europe, a network of Europe’s demographic research centers, documents the many ways integration has played out across Europe. One writer notes that recent debates in France have been mostly about migrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Even in cases where there is some cultural connection due to colonial ties and a shared language, these migrants “face greater obstacles than other groups.” By contrast, another writer looks at the integration of Russians in Bulgaria and finds an “alchemy of integration” that is “almost magic.” There is “successful” integration and its opposite: the “un-integrated” migrant, represented in French media by images of tent cities like the Calais Jungle. The forced removal of migrants from Calais and the focus on integration hasn’t made the media specter of “the Calais Migrant” any less visible. In 2019 and again this year, a viral video shared across X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, showed a group of people, some shirtless and with faces covered, throwing stones at trucks. Described as migrants in Calais attempting to stop trucks to “jump on board and sneak into Britain,” the footage actually depicted Ethiopian protesters in Israel.

In an attempt to distance itself from the image of migrants in transit—both real and imagined—the city of Calais is attempting its own kind of alchemy, pledging to become “the seaside resort of the twenty-first century.” The city created a concrete promenade lined with expensive restaurants and a two-story gym, and commissioned production company La Compagnie La Machine to regenerate the seafront. The company constructed a nearly forty-foot-high steampunk-style mechanical sculpture of a winged dragon called le Dragon de Calais. Nearby boutiques sell dragon merchandise, local restaurants offer dragon-themed cocktails, and Airbnbs promise the great views of le dragon. The winged contraption carries tourists up and down the revamped shorefront, blowing smoke and breathing fire.

Led by architect and artistic director François Delarozière, La Compagnie La Machine describes itself as a collaboration between artists, technicians, and stage designers working to “dream the cities of tomorrow.” The dragon joins a collection of “living architecture” projects, the best known of which is a large mechanical elephant constructed in the city of Nantes—an homage to the 1880 novel The Steam House by Nantes local Jules Verne. While the Grand Éléphant responds to Nantes’s local history, the Calais Dragon project draws from a kind of vague, globalized folklore. A pamphlet produced for the opening of the project in December 2019 presents “the story.” Beneath the crust of the earth, there are “fantastical creatures” and passages that “connect the underground world to our world.” 

Since the dawn of time, these “gateways” have been sealed and held shut by sacred stones. The Dragons are the world’s gatekeepers. It is they who maintain balance. . . . Dragons only appear to humans in situations of extreme need, to settle a conflict or to allay an evil. They are naturally benevolent but can also be wild and unpredictable.

This new myth reimagines the violent history of the Calais border as a magical crossing uniting land and sea. “Calais has always been a border town crossed by thousands of people,” reads another statement from La Compagnie du Dragon, “travelers, sailors, tourists, with the sea as a horizon, bringing with it both hope and the unknown.” This is a promise extended, of course, to legal travelers only. Since dismantling the Jungle, the city has strengthened measures criminalizing migrants along with near-daily evictions, and covered the port and township with barbed wire. A local resident talking to Le Monde describes the scene as “what Trump dreamed of doing at the Mexican border.” They’ve also deposited nearly one thousand tons of boulders over any public spaces where someone might otherwise pitch a tent. While around two thousand migrants and refugees remained in the area in 2021, the new architecture renders them nearly invisible. Perhaps it’s this paradox of erasure and spectacle that poses the “extreme need,” in which dragons must “settle a conflict or allay an evil.”

One writer looks at the integration of Russians in Bulgaria and finds an “alchemy of integration” that is “almost magic.” There is “successful” integration and its opposite: the “un-integrated” migrant.

While the redevelopment of postindustrial towns to appeal to tourism isn’t unique to Calais, the city’s approach diverges from a French model focused on a kind of revisionist local history. In their 2020 book Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities, sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre examine how postindustrial towns use narratives of “heritage creation” to highlight, or even rewrite, the parts of their local history most likely to attract tourism, luxury, and contemporary art industries. They offer Arles in Southern France as a case study—arguing its historical associations with artists like Vincent Van Gogh offered rich fodder for a recent slew of contemporary art projects, most notably Maja Hoffman’s LUMA Arles, whose tower is loosely inspired by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Then there’s the town of Laguiole, known for manufacturing the famous “Laguiole knife” since the 1800s. While heritage creation can be “entirely reconstructed, reconfigured, or even newly created,” the narrative approach of Arles and Laguiole has at least some connection to historical events. Meanwhile, even as images of dragons saturate the city, no specific dragon lore precedes La Compagnie La Machine’s project in Calais.

While no doubt inspired by the UNESCO promotion of “traditional processions of giant effigies” in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, Calais’s approach to heritage is defiantly flexible. “Through its movements,” explains La Compagnie’s website, the dragon “meshes the city together, interacts with passersby and creates a collective and unifying imaginary heritage.” Heritage, freed from the weight of local history, becomes a collective feeling we create through special, shared moments: a mood, a vibe. 

Something similar happened in the early 2000s when François Delarozière first worked with the city on the cultural center Le Channel—transforming an old slaughterhouse into an arts venue. A dossier detailing the project described Delarozière’s approach as stripping “all nostalgia and folklore” and replacing it with a space primed for “universality” and “re-enchantment.” Le Channel’s themes—flexibility of time and space, a future constantly under construction—years later underpin the narrative of La Compagnie du Dragon. The promise to remake the city once again through the universal language of movement was embraced with enthusiasm by the local government. On the project’s opening, Natacha Bouchart, the city’s mayor since 2008 and member of the conservative party Les Républicains, announced, “The dream has finally become a reality. The Calais of the future is being written before our eyes, symbolized by our Dragon!”

Calais’s narrative focus on the universality of movement —ironic, given the city’s treatment of migrants—seems to circulate endlessly between the experimental present and a re-enchanted future. In the lead-up to France’s new immigration bill, Bouchart has called for stricter measures against migrants—an approach that Pierre Roques, from the association L’Auberge des Migrants, describes as “getting closer and closer to the line of the [far-right party] Rassemblement National and anti-migrant remarks.” Meanwhile, La Compagnie du Dragon held a summer solstice festival, offering magic-themed creative workshops and cultural events where participants can let themselves “be carried away by the artist’s universe.”

François Delarozière cites nature as one of his primary inspirations, while La Compagnie La Machine describes its most recent project, the repurposing of a quarry in Nantes into an “extraordinary garden,” as “like the growth of a tree,” where “its construction is a living process.” The latest exhibition from Paris museum Bourse de Commerce presented by the Pinault Collection of billionaire François Pinault, “Avant l’Orage,” or before the storm, invited visitors to “immerse themselves” in an ecology-focused exhibition where “the human and the non-human coexist.” The recent proliferation of projects like the billionaire-backed Avant l’Orage’s boasting of dissolving the nature/culture divide has also dissolved any notion that an “ecological” aesthetic is inherently subversive. For critical theorist Elizabeth Povinelli, any work engaging the idea of “entanglement” without addressing the ongoing violence of colonialism may well “function as an antipolitical diversion.” Post-Jungle Calais demonstrates her point clearly. The magic of the Calais Dragon supposedly represents how “the border between water and land is porous,” while the broader redevelopment of Calais’s seafront is touted in vague, ecological language as an “architectural, urban and landscape project, which is in harmony with the environment, in which it is placed.”

Meanwhile, after the forced removal of its residents, the site of the Jungle has been made into a conservation reserve, ironically, for migrating birds, described by the French Minister of the Interior at the time of the Jungle’s demolition as a “return” to nature. The project has been criticized widely by activists and researchers and examined in Hanna Rullmann and Faiza Ahmad Khan’s 2019 film Habitat 2190, with Rullman calling it a “weaponization of ‘nature’ and conservation management” in border security. That the cultivation of a kind of “essential” nature works actively against migrants in transit shows how a flexible approach to nature-culture entanglements, celebrated by the Bourse de Commerce and on the Calais seafront, depends wholly on biopolitical status.

Whether it’s the “alchemy” of successful migrant integration or the redesign of a violent border zone, the elasticity of magical thinking might help us trace how authoritarianism and neoliberalism coalesce within France’s migration politics. In an ethnographic study following a group of young Afghans living in Calais one year after the Jungle, Luca Queirolo Palmas describes the management of migrants in transit in Calais for the last two decades as an endless cycle “commuting between camps and interstitial spaces, squats, jungles, ‘humanitarian’ evictions, and deportations.” Faced with this cycle, authorities, he argues, are “enforcing an increasingly hostile and repulsive space—a hunting ground—aimed at destroying the border transgressors’ bodies and souls.” Such an endless and violent cycle also appears to operate on a larger scale across France; the predatory administration of migrants is stuck on a loop while the far right rises.

Even as Calais’s redevelopment shows us how the idea of re-enchantment works to obscure ongoing violence while the promise of an “alchemy of integration” continues to fail migrants in France, Palmas’s ethnography reminds us that not all magic is antipolitical. Included in his research is a painting made by migrants in transit at Secours Catholique, its author unknown. Titled Magic Truck, it shows a person appearing to hold onto the back of a truck. Carrying with them the possibility of crossing the border into England, trucks passing through Calais, as Palmas puts it, “become magical objects that can break the loop to which they are chained.”