France - Portugal

Migration: the long, hard road from Portugal to France

Two men in the Portugese shanty town in Champigny-sur-Marne, France
Two men in the Portugese shanty town in Champigny-sur-Marne, France Archives communales de Champigny-sur-Marne

The Portuguese in France make up one of the country’s longest-established communities. Arriving in the 1960s and 70s, they faced tough working conditions, life in shanty towns and resentement from some of the local population. Their story, for many years thought best forgotten, is now celebrated with a monument in a suburb east of Paris.


A cluster of six towns along the banks of the River Marne are home to France’s some 83,000 people of Portuguese origin, according to the country’s embassy in Paris.

Marina, a worker on a Portuguese stall in Champigny market
Marina, a worker on a Portuguese stall in Champigny market Tony Cross/RFI

Report on Portuguese in France

“We came for a better life,” traders selling Portuguese food on the market in Champigny-sur-Marne will tell you, adding that they have kept their links with their country of origin, returning during their holidays to see friends and family still living there.

But some add “I came to work,” perhaps implying that is not the case for today's new arrivals.

The first Portuguese to settle in the area were demobbed soldiers who had fought in World War I and their number reached 50,000 in the 1930s.

But the biggest influx was during the 30-year boom that followed World War II.

By 1975, the number of Portuguese in France had soared to 750,000.

Desperate for labour

The factories that surrounded Paris were desperate for labour, employing migrants from former French colonies in Africa and from poorer European countries, notably the Iberian peninsula.

“We came because, first of all, we had nothing in Portugal,” remembers Valdemar Francisco, who came to France as a child in the 60s.

His family came from Leiria, a region in central Portugal where France opened an immigration bureau. “French doctors went to Portugal to choose people to come to France and the doctors examined people’s teeth, saw if people were strong … They would send the person’s name to France and French companies would send a contract.”

Portugal was a dictatorship at the time and most people, especially from poor rural areas, didn't trust the authorities, so many did not choose to take the legal path.

"It was really complicated to get the right to leave,” author Altina Ribeiro, who came to France in 1969 and has written about her experiences, explains. “And people who lived in small, isolated villages had more confidence in a people-smuggler, who was part of their milieu, than in the authorities because the authorities tended to belittle the people.”

"On top of that, many were illiterate and found the necessary procedure too complicated."

But their confidence in the smugglers was sometimes misplaced.

Often they were transported in cattle trucks for much of the journey but also had to walk some of the way - at the very least when crossing the mountainous borders between Portugal and Spain and between Spain and France.

"When you were walking across the Pyrenees you didn’t want to twist your ankle or break a leg,” Francisco explains. “Because the smuggler would say ‘Go on, keep going, I’ll look after him,” and then they’d hear either a shot or a cry and that was it."

For those who did arrive, however, not having papers was not a big problem.

Such was the need for labour that work and residency permits were handed out to all new-comers, as long as they were ready to queue for hours in long lines at official buildings in central Paris, to the annoyance of residents of the capital’s posher districts.

Salazar’s secret police

A minority of the new arrivals were political refugees, fleeing the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, and his successor Marcelo Caetano.

But most were what would be called "economic migrants" today, escaping the poverty of rural Portugal or low wages in the cities.

Then there were young men dodging military service.

The desperate, and doomed attempt to hang on to Portugal’s African colonies meant conscripts had to serve four years fighting guerrilla movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea in wars that sapped the country’s budget and added to the widespread poverty.

But none of the migrants escaped the attention of the dictatorship back home.

Salazar and Caetano were terrified the migrants would catch the bug of Marxism in a country with thriving trade unions and a massive Communist Party.

So they recruited agents for their secret police, the Pide, in the factories of companies like Renault and Citroën.

That also discouraged workers from being involved with French trade unions, forcing them to accept long hours and poor conditions.

It also left them wary of the Communist Party, even as it started to campaign for better living conditions for them.

"The people who had fled were sort of hostages because if they criticised the regime there were reprisals against their family back home,” Valdemar Francisco says. “At that time you just had to say something bad about your neighbour and people would disappear overnight."

Thousands in shanty town

Valdemar Francisco shows where the shanty town once stood
Valdemar Francisco shows where the shanty town once stood Tony Cross/RFI

If work was easy to find, housing was not so readily available.

So shanty towns appeared on the outskirts of Paris.

The biggest, in Nanterre in the west, was mainly inhabited by Algerians.

The second biggest was Portuguese and it was in Champigny.

From 1956 onwards, shacks started to appear on a plateau overlooking Paris and the number of residents swelled to 15,000, according to a census taken in the 60s.

Francisco insists it was nearer to 20,000, that suspicion of authority having kicked in again leading several thousand to be strategically absent when the census-takers called.

Conditions were mostly dire.

Although some families, like Valdemar Francisco's, constructed solid houses, most were ramshackle structures on muddy paths without water, gas or electricity.

Resentment from locals

The residents were not that well-viewed by their French neigbbours, even though some had sold them the land illegally.

"When you ask French people of my generation how they see the Portuguese of that time, they say ‘A gas bottle on their heads, holding chicken by their feet on the way back from the market’," Francisco remembers.

“These people have no notion of the most elementary hygiene and live in the most rudimentary conditions,” a certain Monsieur Bouland wrote to the authorities, urging them to investigate whether his new neighbours had been legally employed.

Another correspondent complained that Portuguese children were “filling the schools on the plateau, while we French people keep ours at home”.

Altina Ribeiro remembers the intimidating experience of arriving in a country that was, she says, 50 years in advance of her homeland.

Francisco is indulgent towards these reactions.

“Put yourself in their place,” he comments. “When you have a house and there are shacks around it, it loses value.”

And he does have one story with a happy ending.

His schoolfriend Jaime fell in love with Yolanda, a blonde, blue-eyed girl who lived in a house near the shanty town.

“He was crazy about her. He chased after her a bit. She was young and had plenty of admirers. Her father, who worked for the council, told him ‘Jaime, stop pestering her,’ and in the end her brothers beat him up … twice. But he persisted.

“Today they’ve been married quite a while and he’s his parents-in-law’s favourite because of the help he gives them. But at the time it was unthinkable that a Portuguese would marry a French girl.”

Ribeiro, too, had trouble fitting in.

"We were shut up in a two-room apartment,” she recalls. “We didn’t understand the language. We didn’t know our schoolmates and they made fun of us because we must have looked odd, we went to school in our Sunday best but to them we were completely old hat. I’ll always remember the way they looked at us. It was awful."

A monument, a stolen hand

The monument erected in 2018 in Champigny
The monument erected in 2018 in Champigny Tony Cross/RFI

Conditions in the shanty town did improve, thanks largely to Champigny's mayor, Louis Talamoni.

A Communist of Corsican origin, Talamoni was shocked by the conditions.

He put on a water supply, sent coaches to ferry the children to the municipal baths and, in the end, provided proper housing, levelling the shacks to stop some stubborn residents returning to be with their compatriots.

Francisco remembers him as a “strong leader with a big heart”.

"It has taken many people of my generation 50 years to talk about this freely,” Francisco says. “Because it was a bit shameful and it was a bit buried in us. It was almost taboo for us to have been through that."

That began to change in 2008, when sculptor Ruis Chafes erected a first statue in the park where the shanty town used to stand.

This year, largely due to Francisco's campaigning work, a striking monument was inaugurated on the heights - a glowing white pile of books topped by a portrait of Talamoni, surrounded by pillars topped by globes and four huge hands symbolising fraternity.

A festival was laid on for the inauguration with both the president and the prime minister of Portugal in attendance.

Unfortunately, the bonds of fraternity were broken when one of the hands was stolen shortly afterwards.

Francisco and Dan Inger Dos Santos, who had performed at the inauguration, discovered the theft after an evening in a nearby Portuguese café.

But there was a further strange twist to the tale, Dos Santos remembers.

“Bizarrely, the hand turned up a few metres away on the plateau because Valdemar had spoken about it both in the local papers and on social media. And, luckily, the hand made a miraculous reappearance.”

Migrant experience

The arduous journey, the humiliations on arrival, the struggle to be housed - there are many parallels between the Portuguese experience and the situation confronting migrants today.

“If anyone can understand them, it’s someone who has been through the same experience,” comments Valdemar Francisco. “They’re fleeing poverty and it was the same for us.”

Not all the now well-established community see it that way.

"Some Portuguese people, not all of them, are forgetting where they come from,” says Altina Ribeiro. “Some are racist towards the immigrants who are arriving now and I find that regrettable because there aren’t good and bad immigrants. We’ve all come for legitimate reasons. And I think everyone has their place."

Champigny 2018 is home to people from many parts of the world who face the challenge – and the pleasure - of living together in a multi-cultural town.

My thanks to the Archives communales of Champigny-sur-Marne for allowing me access to residents' letters and other material used in this article.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning