A comparative lens discloses that, despite different sociodemographic profiles, Senegalese migrants living in the U.S. and in France exhibit a similarly high propensity to engage in cross-border political and economic activities.
Comparing the general profile of Senegalese-born individuals living in France and in the U.S.
The determinants of transnational political participation
The historical links between France and Senegal are still perceptible through the size of the Senegalese diaspora, three times more important in the former metropolis than in the U.S. (see Tables 1 and 2). Also Senegalese immigration to the U.S. is more selective than immigration to France (62.6 % of emigrants living in the U.S. have at least some college while only 45.2 % of those living in France attended college). It gives credence to the idea that France has become a less attractive destination, in particular for elites, due to the growing impression that Senegalese-born migrants tend to be “déclassés” (Gueye, 2001, p. 130) and are discriminated against when it comes to employment or housing (Beauchemin et al., 2015, pp. 383–412).
As a matter of fact, “African migrants in general” are underrepresented amongst French “political or economic decision-makers” (Salzbrunn, 2004, p. 471). This can be especially frustrating for a population prone to engaging in political activities. Sub-Saharan migrants are indeed eager to participate in the political life of their country of destination when they are given the opportunity to do so. The TeO dataset (cf. supra) allows us to compare the electoral participation of individuals born in more than seventy countries, who are living in France today. The results indicate among foreign-born individuals who are entitled to vote (possessing the French nationality), migrants coming from Sub-Saharan Africa are more inclined to participate in French elections (amongst foreign-born individuals entitled to vote, 85.6 % of migrants coming from West Africa voted at least once in France, compared to 58.7 % of individuals originating from other European countries, see Table 3).
Migrants who vote in their destination country are also more likely to vote in their country of origin: 33.8 % of migrants who voted at destination also voted in their home country, while 30.8 % of those who did not vote in France participated in elections abroad (respectively 78.1 % and 70.6 % if we restrict the analysis to individuals possessing the French nationality, see Table 4).
This “cumulative participation” suggests that “electoral mobilisation in host countries helped to consolidate electoral mobilisation in countries of origin”, advances Dedieu et al. (2014) who recently looked at Senegalese political practices. Exploring the determinants of transnational voting behaviors, the authors show that, compared to the general population of Senegalese migrants, Senegalese voters tend to be better-educated and more integrated at destination. For instance, almost half of the individuals who voted at destination (47 %) had attended college, while this group only represents a quarter of the total reference population of Senegalese migrants (24 %). This contribution underlines that transnational voting behaviors are correlated with the same “heavy” socioeconomic variables than national electoral participation: education, employment, and income (Dedieu et al., 2014, p. 67). These findings are in line with previous studies underscoring that migrants’ propensity to engage in transnational activities is a function of their assimilation at destination (Guarnizo, Portes, & Haller, 2003; Itzigsohn & Saucedo, 2002; Levitt, 1998; Portes, Guarnizo, & Haller 2002; Portes & Zhou, 2012).
To date, most studies relate transnational practices to migrants’ trajectories at destination or to the characteristics of their community at destination (see Martiniello & Lafleur, 2008 for a review of the literature). This paper expands upon these findings by showing that political participation is irreducible to socioeconomic determinants. We need to factor in individuals’ agency. Migrants’ transnationalism also reflects their personal projects, and notably their intentions to return to their homeland in the medium or long run.
Who are these transnational activists? The temporal dimension of transnational practices
Migration scholars largely explored the spatial dynamics of migrants’ transnationalism; “in contrast, little is said about the temporality of transnational practices” (Lacroix, 2015, p. 11). This is all the more surprising that migrants’ long term plans (and notably their intentions to return) shape individuals’ trajectories at destination and their potential contribution to the development of their home countries (Flahaux, 2015). In an effort to account for the temporal dimension of migrants’ engagement, I use the TeO dataset (see Third section: data and methods) to compare the transnational practices of migrants coming from more than the five continents. I assess the extent to which individuals’ projects to either stay in their country of destination or return to their homeland shed light on their transnational commitment.
Multiple indicators confirm that migrants who are planning on going back are more prone to engage in transnational political practices (see Table 5). The latter are more interested in the political life of their country of origin (16.9 % are really interested in the political life of their home country compared to 9.7 % of those who are not planning on going back). They are also more likely to participate in the elections of their homeland (16.4 % vote in their home country, compared to 15.2 % for those who are not planning on returning, respectively 24.5 and 14.4 % among Senegalese migrants).Footnote 23
This suggests that transnational political activities cannot be seen as a mere consequence of migrants’ present socioeconomic positions, but relate to migrants’ long term plans. Migrants’ transnational practices are geared towards the preparation of a better future for their kin and for themselves. This perspective simultaneously illuminates why political and economic transnationalism are interrelated, as the next section shows.
The economic underpinning of migrants’ political transnationalism
Various forms of transnational practices have garnered increased attention from scholars since the 1990’s but researchers usually arranged these activities according to the typology of economic, political, and sociocultural transnational practices (see Beauchemin, Lagrange, & Safi, 2011; Itzigsohn & Saucedo, 2002; Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999). Such classifications stimulated useful analytical distinctions, but simultaneously concealed to what extent these practices are mutually constitutive.
The empirical evidence analyzed in this paper demonstrates the strong interdependencies between political involvement, economic investments, and plans to return to the homeland. The Tables 6 and 7 confirms that migrants who remit are more likely to participate in the elections of their country of origin – a tendency which is stronger among West African migrants in general, and Senegalese nationals in particular.
Among Senegalese-born individuals, 19.3 % of those who do not remit participate in elections in Senegal, this proportion reaching 30.4 % among those who remit. Similarly, 20.7 % of respondents who do not own a house in Senegal vote in Senegalese elections; this proportion reaching 34.9 % among those who own a house. Multivariate analyses confirm these correlations between political participation at origin and remitting behaviors (see Table 8).
The second dataset (SSU survey data, see Third section: data and methods) allows me to further test the interrelations between economic and political practices, on a smaller sample but with a broader set of indicators of political participation. Table 9 displays the significant and positive correlation between owning a house (or land) in Senegal and involvement in the electoral campaign.
Table 10 displays the significant and positive correlation between owning a house (or land) in Senegal and the probability of being a member of a Senegalese political party. We can also note the robust correlation between sending economic remittances and being a member of a Senegalese political party. Migrants who were the most active in the 2012 electoral campaign maintain not only political but also economic ties with Senegal. Migrants’ political engagement is spurred by their “strong economic interests” back home (Kapur, 2014, p. 484).
One might argue that these correlations are driven by the fact that a more active political participation reflects a better socioeconomic status. Indeed, better-educated migrants come from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. As such, they would be simultaneously more likely to own land or property in Senegal and to be engaged in political activities. Although, even after controlling for educational attainment, occupation at destination, income, and a series of other potential confounders, economic ties remain associated with a higher level of political transnationalism, all other things held equal. These results are consistent with the claim that the current literature overestimates the importance of educational attainment prior to migration and overlooks the incidence of current ties with their homeland, as well as individuals’ plans for the future.
Both political and economic ties hint at migrants’ projects of return. Transnational activists invest in their homeland – reminding us the polysemy of the term investment that refers both to the act of “investing money for profit or material result” and to the “act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result” in the future.Footnote 24 Taking into account individuals’ expectations sheds light on migrants’ incentives to dedicate resources to a country they left only temporarily. This approach paves the way for a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple and interrelated forms of transnationalism that have been studied in isolation thus far.
Economic ties are multidimensional
Indeed, albeit classified as “economic”, practices such as owning a house or sending money to Senegal are not merely financial. Economic remittances relate to a series of other cross-border activities, usually considered as “social”, such as calling relatives back home or visiting them (see also Vickstrom, this issue). Economic remittances have a symbolic and communicative function. These transfers “are to be understood as a communicative act, i.e. a mode of expression of emigrants through which they formulate what they think they have to do in accordance with who they think they are” (Lacroix, 2010). Through their transfers, migrants “take a stand on their plural being” and remittances constitute a tangible mean through which migrants weave together the “disjointed poles of their existence”, here and there (Lacroix, 2014).
Peter Kankonde makes a similar argument when he underlines “what lies beneath the surface of sent legal tenders is in fact the social and cultural subjective self of remitters as human beings and family members […] migrants remit primarily in a bid to foster familial belonging in order to escape social death and at the same time buy and sustain social status” (Kankonde, 2010, pp. 225-240). Expanding upon these insights, I claim that migration scholars could benefit from recent findings emerging from the field of economic sociology in order to systematically study how economic transactions fulfill social functions.
Economic sociology of migrants’ remittances
Economic sociology offers a conceptual framework especially relevant to advance our understanding of economic remittances, and to better comprehend the extent to which these transnational transactions are not exceptions standing alone in the socioeconomic life. To date, studies of migrants’ remittances constitute a subfield of migration studies that neither draw upon nor contribute to other fields interested in the social underpinning of economic life. This project suggests the heuristic decompartmentalizing of remittance studies.
The concept of relational work is especially relevant to describe how financial transactions (such as economic remittances) are irreducible to their monetary dimension. In “all economic action” Zelizer argues, “people engage in the process of differentiating meaningful social relations”. The process of relational work leads people to negotiate the exact content and nature of their relationships, notably through their material transactions (Zelizer, 2012, p. 146). Economic exchanges are integral to individuals’ constant efforts to create social boundaries and elaborate meaningful categories “distinguishing persons, activities, and relations on different sides of the boundaries” (Zelizer & Tilly, 2006, p. 17). Economic transactions are shaped, not only by economic objectives, but by interpersonal concerns as well.
Household economy offers a powerful illustration of the relational function of economic transactions. The circulation of money fulfills important symbolic and relational roles within families. As Zelizer notes: “the mere establishment of a shared ancestry” does not loom large without “the actual performance of kinship” (Zelizer & Tilly, 2006, p. 21). Money is vital to perform kinship, especially in West Africa (Boltz-Laemmel, 2013; Olivier de Sardan, 1996; Platteau, 2014) and this feature becomes blatant in transnational families. In the case of Senegalese migrants, remitting can be an explicit condition to maintain contact and retain ties, to remain a member of the family of origin and stay connected with friends and kin, as the case of Mariam shows.
My interview with Mariam takes place in rue Clerc, in the wealthy seventh arrondissement of Paris. The Eiffel Tower is two blocks away. Mariam works here, but she lives in La Courneuve, an hour away. She grew up in Saint-Louis, in Northern Senegal (3081 miles away) where she lived until 2005. At 22, she worked as a waitress in a small restaurant, where she met Mario, an Italian real estate agent. He told her about Europe and dreamt about living together. They left Saint Louis together, drove to Dakar, flew to Tunis and drove to Bizerte (Tunisia) where Mario had a small boat waiting for them. As they sailed to Naples, she became undocumented. They reached the Italian coast at night and settled in Florence. But after a violent argument, Mariam fled, took several trains to Lyon (France) and finally ended up in Paris, in 2007. In 2008, Mariam managed to become a legal resident in France and was eager to “testify” in her own words:
“…write, write what I say ‘cause you know, they don’t know, they don’t realize (…) my family, you know, they believe I am a liar when I say that I have no money. You know, they think that migrants who don’t send [remittances], it’s because they are selfish. While… [she sighs] it’s so hard here. So hard, I never thought that it would be this way… (…) I know that life is hard for them [in Senegal] too. I know that but what can I do… I just can’t [help them]. See! See how I live, how hard I work… I just can’t (…) it’s tough but now, when I see a number starting with 212 [Senegal’s area code], I don’t pick up [the phone]… ‘cause I know that it’s for money, I don’t pick up ‘cause I know that they’ll ask for money… I understand them, I know that life is hard in Saint Louis (…) but what can I do? I have to pay my rent (…) If I work honestly, I barely make ends meet, I just can’t send [remittances]… (…) I’m really sad about that, sure, ‘cause… because of that I don’t have news anymore, I don’t know how they are doing (…),I’m often worried… If something happened to my parents, or my brothers, I would even not know about it. (…) Tho now that I’m here, I try to make my way… even if it’s really not like what that I imagined my life to be…”
Interview with Mariam B.,
Paris (VII° arrondissement), April 2009.
Mariam’s inability to send money to her relatives at origin led to the termination of her relationships with her parents, siblings, friends and relatives in Senegal. Economic remittances illustrate that economic activity and intimate relations do not constitute separate spheres: “people constantly mingle economic activity with intimacy” (Zelizer, 2012, p. 152). In the case of transnational households, economic remittances signal the migrant is still part of the household; that is why no hardship and no misery in the host country can justify not sending money. The urge to maintain relationships leads migrants to transfer money in spite of sometimes truly difficult conditions. It has led scholars to show that remittances can flirt with the “sacrifice” (Fouron & Schiller, 2001; McKenzie & Menjívar, 2011; Singh, 2013). These patterns also account for the fact that economic transfers are typically sent in relatively small magnitudes at high frequencies (Yang, 2011) due to their function in fostering contacts and being part of the household’s daily life in spite of distance. It illuminates the correlations between phone calls, visits, and financial remittances: they are intrinsically linked (see Table 11).
These findings are consistent with an abundant literature claiming that economic remittances reaffirm migrants’ belonging to a household located thousands of kilometers away (Carling, 2008; Kankonde, 2010; Lacroix, 2010; Van Hear, Vertovec, & Pieke 2004). In this respect, taking into account the relational nature of economic transactions enables me to move the scholarship forward and describe how economic remittances participate in maintaining the transnational ties along which social remittances circulate.
How economic remittances foster social remittances
Economic remittances favor migrants’ influence
A relational perspective shows that economic transactions contribute to the renegotiations of the respective positions of the stakeholders. The concept of relational work underscores the efforts by individuals to negotiate constantly the content, the meaning of the relation, and the reciprocal positions of the partners (Tilly, 2006, p. 15). Relational work consists of sustained reciprocal efforts between the partners.”But reciprocity doesn’t mean equality. Just think of the Hegelian conundrum of the master and slave” (Bandelj, 2012, p. 180). Undeniably, if financial remittances signal the maintenance of transnational ties, they reinforce asymmetrical ties between senders and receivers. Elements of “power are integral to any relational work”, Bandelj adds (Bandelj, 2012, p. 180). In other words, economic remittances reinforce asymmetrical relations and these asymmetries pave the way for the circulation of social remittances. The acceptance of social remittances also reflects the domination of one actor on the other (see Levitt, 2001).
To test this hypothesis, I use the survey data (see Third section: data and methods) to look at migrants’ participation in the 2012 electoral campaign. In particular, I focus on the interrelations between economic remittances and electoral behaviors. By doing so, I show how migrants’ economic resources foster their political influence on non-migrants. More specifically, I take advantage of a series of questions aiming at measuring migrants’ attempts to influence the voting behaviors of their kin at origin by giving them explicit voting recommendations (see Table 14 for wording of the questions). A striking pattern emerging from the data is the high proportion of migrants who declared they strived to influence their kin at origin, as well as the conviction that their advice had been followed. Two thirds of the sample of migrants said they encouraged family members to vote and more than half of the sample (52 % in the U.S., 58 % in France) declared that their family members took the recommendation into account (Table 12).
Under which conditions do migrants think that they influenced their relatives back home? The multivariate models (see Table 12) show that more educated migrants, with more experience of the political sphere of their host country tend to think they are more influential. Above all, these results confirm the channels through which social remittances circulate: the link between being influential and sending monetary transfers is positive and statistically significant in the different estimations. The statistical correlations between the circulation of economic transfers and the circulation of voting recommendations corroborate the hypothesis that remittances have the power to reinforce asymmetrical relationships.
Economic remittances and voting advices
It is necessary to be cautious at this stage because individuals’ propensity to declare influencing others might be subject to bias that would lead to an overestimation of the impact of migrants’ voting recommendations. To address this concern, I turn to the data collected in Senegal, with non-migrants. Despite the smaller size of the sample, the same correlations appear: non-migrants are more likely to listen to migrants’ voting recommendations if they receive economic remittances from the latter, all other things held equal (Table 13).
These results support the claim that economic “remittances are just one mechanism” through which the diaspora has a political impact on the country of origin. “Members of diasporas participate in the politics of their country of origin in a variety of ways”. In particular, expatriates “influence the voting preferences of kin in the country of origin, an influence that is amplified if they send financial remittances” (Kapur, 2010, 2014, p. 484). This paper gives empirical support to such claims and it also illuminates: why financial remittances foster migrants’ political influence.
A theoretical approach to economic sociology can encompass and further these conclusions by showing why economic transactions foster intimate but asymmetrical ties. Indeed, “with its focus on the interactional efforts at negotiating economic relations, infused with sense-making, that have implications for power distribution between partners to an exchange, the concept of relational work is poised to serve economic sociology” (Bandelj, 2012) and migration studies.
Economic remittances affect the hierarchy between the sender and the recipient. Hence, the correlations between receiving economic remittances and following voting recommendations cannot be reduced to mere clientelistic relationships; the reality is more complex. To be sure “Money matters in politics […] But other things matter as well, and the direct correlation between money and outcomes that so many political scientists have sought simply is not there” (Baumgartner, 2009, p. 291). More precisely, the statistical correlations between economic transfers and political influence signal complex interdependencies that cannot be conflated to presence or absence of clienteslistic patronage. Complex practices renegotiate, reshape, nuance, and rework the role of economic resources when it comes to political mobilization. Non-migrants have their own agency: in polling booths, they might ignore migrants’ recommendations and cast their ballot for another candidate. However, fieldwork showed that non-migrants are susceptible of aligning their political preferences on the ones of migrants, for a series of reasons.
In countries where emigrants provide the population with financial contributions that significantly affect living conditions, non-migrants might have real incentives to vote for a candidate recommended by migrants. Non-migrants might think their personal interest coincides with that of migrants: given Senegal’s dependency on the resources of migration, it makes sense for the former to think a government that would protect migrants’ interests, or encourage the diaspora to invest in the country, will also (more or less directly) serve their own interest.
Economic dependency favors a political alignment. The following quote, from Issa Keira (37 years old), corroborates this point. He left Senegal at age 17 and has been working in Marseille (South of France) for more than 20 years at the time of this interview. His two wives and nine children almost exclusively rely on his remittances for their daily needs. He sends money at least once a month and visits Senegal at least once a year. In 2012, he travelled twice to Senegal, notably to support Macky Sall’s candidacy. He was actively involved in the 2012 electoral campaign. When I asked him about his participation, he replied:
“What do you mean? Financially or physically?
- Sure. Well (…) in Europe or in Africa, you know, campaigns are not the same. Here in Africa, you have to give [money] (…) you have to make them [the voters] understand. Because, here, they rely on migrants [émigrés] for their living. Politics… they don’t care about politics.
- They don’t care?
- What do they even know about it? The main thing for them is: getting enough to eat. I have to make them understand that if they wanna keep eating, they have to come vote for us [for Macky Sall, the candidate he is supporting]”
Interview with Issa Koïta,
Dakar (Senegal). April, 19th, 2012.
When one person, like Issa, provides the living of a dozen individuals back home, this breadwinner is likely to exert a real influence on those who stayed behind. Unequal exchanges, such as remittance transactions, “contribute to and reinforce honor, prestige, and authority” of one actor on the other, Eckstein points out (2010, p. 1651). Consequently, remittances might be reciprocated through recognition of the sender’s moral virtue and “concomitant support of their social standing” (Åkesson, 2009). The fact that non-migrants take into consideration migrants’ advice can be seen as a form of support of their social role in their community and country of origin.
More broadly, migrants can leverage their economic resources to foster their political influence. Diasporas “exhibit more active persuasion stemming from a didactic role in stimulating the international transmission of ideas”, notably because they are more likely to be economically successful than those remaining at home (Kapur & McHale, 2005, p. 122). The following quote, from Chillo Bomou, illustrates this point. In this excerpt, this 39-year old Senegalese woman living in a village hailed with high emigration rates, explains why she supports Macky Sall’s candidacy (in 2012), after supporting Abdoulaye Wade (the outgoing president) for more than 10 years:
“Who told you about Macky [Sall]?
- My husband convinced me [to vote for Macky Sall]
- Who told about Macky [Sall] to your husband?
- Syabou, Issa [Keira, both current migrants living in France]
- And you listened to them?
- Sure. They are good friends. Every time they are coming back from France, they offer us gifts (…) clothes, lots of clothes. And money too. (…) they are good friends.
- But… I imagine that you have other friends. All of them do not vote for Macky Sall?
- So how did you decide to follow these friends rather than other friends?
- Well. It’s a matter of personal interest too. They are our neighbors (…) they offer us many gifts. So, if they told us this [to vote for this candidate], (…) they bring back many things, to the village as well. We want them to keep doing this. So we go where our interest is, too.”
Interview with Chillo Boumou,
DiaramaFootnote 25 (Tambacounda), Feb. 26th, 2012
Beyond the relational argument, Chillo puts forth a plausible mechanism that empowers migrants. Indeed, the fact that migrants’ resources loom large in the Senegalese economy also explains migrants’ voice in Senegalese politics. The prestige associated with migrating (especially in countries such as France or the U.S.), the economic resources, and the social capital that migrants acquire in exile participate in their enhanced ability to be listened to. This is all the more true in a country such as Senegal, where common discourses depict emigrants as a symbol of success or “gold mines;” the latter being preferred by women and mothers as potential husbands (Riccio, 2005, p. 107) and admired by the young as role models (Fall et al., 2010). Poised with increased economic resources and prestige, migrants who maintain lively transnational ties are also likely to be more influential when it comes to politics.