The French in London are a significant and still growing community. The current consular estimate of the number residing in the UK is 300,000, most of whom are based in London and the South East. Despite anxieties over the UK’s departure from the EU, migration flows from France to London remain high, rising by 5.19% in 2016-2017. However, the French presence is a fundamentally ambivalent one: simultaneously visible and invisible. There are 13 State-run French schools in London, educating around 6,000 students; French companies have almost 3,000 branches in the UK, with a yearly 132-billion-euro turnover, employing 400, 000 people; there are over 500 French restaurants, 54 of which are Michelin-starred; the logos of Veolia, EDF, JCDecaux and Paul adorn the London cityscape, and yet, the French community itself is generally absent from social, political and academic discourses.
Among the few exceptions are Mulholland & Ryan’s investigation of a highly-skilled segment of the community (2013, 2014, 2017) and Kelly & Cornick’s rich historic mapping (2013), but the socioeconomically and demographically diverse contemporary presence has escaped scholarly attention. Paradoxically, the positive contributions of the French to wider society and their seemingly effortless integration into the multicultural mass that is London (Lulle et al. 2018: 3) prevents their acknowledgement as a minority community. This socio-political invisibility is intensified by the fact that many London-French migrants do not conceive of themselves as belonging to a “French community”, considering “the community” to be an elite based in and around the ultra-wealthy area of South Kensington, with which they cannot self-identify. Therefore, this is a two-way process of negation, top-down and bottom-up, reinforcing the need to preserve the digital traces of the London-French presence. Just as Berthomière (2012) referred to the “non-histoire” of the French diaspora across the Internet, so this paper discusses the curation and preservation of the London-French “non-community” in the UK Web Archive, the implications involved and the sociocultural meanings that can be teased out of these multilingual, multimodal “diasberspaces”.
Given the visible/invisible duality of the French presence on-land and the tensions between the so-called (South Kensington) “community” and the more diverse “non-community”, the paper presents a Bourdieusian three-stage model for the curation of the London-French Special Collection and its viability as a mechanism to inhibit the on-line reproduction and perpetuation of the on-land South-Kensington myth. The holistic Bourdieusian paradigm, involving the reflexive selection and harvesting of field-level (institutional, commercial, philanthropic, etc.) websites alongside habitus-level resources, such as blogs, ensures that the process of curation does not become one of artificial community creation, but instead reflects the multiplicity and complexity of the diaspora on the ground.
However, through a fine-grained analysis of a specific blog in the Special Collection, the paper also reveals the reproductive power of the Internet beyond the scope of the Collection itself. That is, through the very structure of the nationally bounded Web Archives of, for example, France, the Netherlands and the UK, physical borders find themselves replicated in the on-line archival space. Automated harvesting of top-level domains fails to capture those Web objects which fall outside the nation-based spaces and, in turn, London-French resources are overlooked, being institutionally invisibilised in a manner similar to the negation of the community on-land. This structural omission consequently risks erasing these valuable migrant histories from future historical memory. Online space and national domains are therefore not innocent constructs: the digital reinstatement of historically embedded national borders even challenges the applicability of the term “World-Wide Web”.
Furthermore, the paper illustrates how the phenomenon is again replicated on-line from the bottom up. By monitoring the migrant blog and its developments over time – invisible in the integrated blog archive – not only are transformations to the blogger’s identity, sense of belonging, experiential knowledge of London as home and her changing relationship with her audience revealed, but linguistic and national divides between the UK and France emerge. Thus, despite the habitus changes uncovered, the blog’s distinct .uk and .fr incarnations from November 2015 (significantly after the EU-Referendum announcement) offer deeper, socio-political insights, as well as resulting in the erasure of the French presence from the UK Web archive from that point onwards.
Finally, the paper argues that when UK domestic policy is actively enforcing a “hostile environment” for migrants, ensuring against the threat of collective amnesia is all the more vital and the skills of humanities’ specialists, in possession of the linguistic and cultural sensitivities needed for diasporically themed selective Web curation, all the more valuable.