European Elites: Migrants Like Any Other?

The history of migrations has long concentrated its efforts on the most disadvantaged populations forced into migration by misery or war. Yet elites migrate as well. Scientific or intellectual elites, and entrepreneurs with or without their capital, have both been seen as a factor of cultural and financial enrichment, while migrants fleeing misery have readily been thought of as a necessary evil. The reality is more complex, for the notion of elite itself is multifaceted, as host countries have not always rolled out the red carpet for them, with the logic of exclusion—of political opponents and minorities—often winning out over the search for attractiveness. Finally, it is also important to consider the effect that the flight of elites has on the country of departure.

Victor Hugo in Jersey (anonymous photographer), Paris, Musée d’Orsay (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes, 1984).
Victor Hugo in Jersey (anonymous photographer), Paris, Musée d’Orsay (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes, 1984). Source : Wikimedia Commons.

The political and human tragedy that accompanied the 2015 migrant crisis helped give contemporary migration a face, that of a sub-Saharan man in distress on a makeshift boat in the Mediterranean. However powerful it may be, this image is nevertheless reductive with regard to the greatly diverse journeys of the 78 million migrants that Europe counted in 2017 according to the United Nations. Paradoxically, while the great narrative of globalization has given prominence to transnational elites, the migration of elites is somewhat overshadowed by forced mobility from the south toward the north. What is there in common between the trajectory of an African or Syrian seeking asylum in Europe to flee misery or war, and that of a European studying at a university in North America or working in an oil monarchy? Similarities nevertheless exist, for both experience a more or less forced uprooting in trying to improve their living or working conditions abroad, and both must navigate the logic of states seeking to select and sometimes to dissuade them from doing so. While fleeing war or persecution is naturally a more urgent reason than the desire to make a fortune, the notion of obligation is not enough to clearly distinguish the migrations of elites from others, for nineteenth-century political refugees and Soviet scientists also fled persecution. In the opposite direction, migration is always—even for the most destitute of refugees—the result of external constraints as well as individual or collective choices.

In fact, elites are far from representing a homogenous group. The term makes reference to a dominant position within a hierarchy based on different forms of capital: economic, political, cultural, social, etc. They nevertheless share an intense and early integration within European and even globalized networks, often allowing them to take advantage of effective welcome measures and aid networks. Most importantly, the relative rarity of their capital, giving them more negotiating power with authorities, with the power relations in the most extreme cases being reversed, as host countries find themselves competing to attract their talent and fortunes.

Fleeing One’s Country for Ideas during the “Century of Exiles”

If the nineteenth century was, in the words of Sylvie Aprile, the “century of exiles,” this was because exile became an important stage in the journey of political elites. In the aftermath of revolutions, the supporters of fallen monarchies were often forced into exile to escape persecution, or to find in another country the living conditions associated with their rank. For instance, the great emigration that accompanied the revolutionary period in France from 1789 to 1815 led some 140,000 people to leave France, including a majority of nobles such as the marquis de Bouillé (1739-1800) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), who both went into exile in London, in addition to members of the refractory clergy and legitimists of all ranks. Exile actually remained, throughout the century, a way to distance fallen sovereigns and their courts, including Napoleon at Saint Helena, Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, who was overthrown in 1860, and Isabella of Spain, who was forced to flee her country for France after the Glorious Revolution of 1868. Despite the forced nature of these court migrations, they generally met with a more favorable welcome, enabling the host country to preserve the possibility of a dynastic restoration, thereby potentially weakening a rival power. A number of recent works, such as those by Simon Sarlin and Alexandre Dupont, have shown the importance of these counterrevolutionary exiles in the emergence of a white international.

However, even more than the counterrevolutionary side, it was liberal political elites such as democrats and socialists who experienced the longest exiles. They have garnered renewed attention by scholars such as Aprile and Delphine Diaz. A number of key nineteenth-century political thinkers were shaped by their refuge abroad, as were patriots driven from their countries by the failure of the nationalitarian movement of 1848, in addition to socialist and anarchist thinkers. The former included the Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, who lived in Marseille, Geneva, and London, as well as the Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth, who had to leave for London and later the United States after the People’s Spring in 1848. For the latter, such as Karl Marx or Mikhail Bakunin, the political struggle was largely a lengthy exile, which took them through Belgium, France, Switzerland, and England. For those whose struggle met with success, such as Italian patriots or French republicans, exile became a source of prestige, which explains why many of them returned to their countries and played a key role in renewing the political elite.

The forced circulation of exiles drove the circulation of ideas and practices, as the sites of sociability for exiles in the cities where they formed the largest communities—such as London, Brussels, Zurich, and Paris—became places where ideas were exchanged and experiences shared. Alongside places for informal sociability, the late nineteenth-century saw the emergence of political organizations better identified as workers’ internationals, in which socialist thinkers from across Europe shared their ideals and perspectives.

The migrations of elites during the nineteenth century were hardly limited to the major figures of political life undergoing more or less forced exile. While the repression of political opponents remained an essential factor in the forced mobility of elites, it also hit many major figures from European literary and scientific life.  A number of the most renowned national poets, such as Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) in Italy and Victor Hugo (1802-1885) in France, built an important part of their legend while living far from their country of origin. Exile did not solely affect the political elite, as scientists, artists, writers, and academics who were more or less involved in the political crises of 1830, 1848, and 1870 were forced to move away at least temporarily; this forced circulation contributed as much to the emergence of a European intellectual elite as the international scientific congresses that developed in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

Attracting Elites, Driving Away Foreigners: The Tensions of the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Intensified migration in Europe led to improved systems of control at borders and in host countries. States became major actors in migratory processes, and gradually implemented a legislative system designed to regulate and select the entries and exits of persons. The primary objective was often limiting the arrival of vagabonds and dishonorable persons, as well as keeping potentially subversive individuals far from centers of power. However, with the development of labor migration from Southern and Eastern Europe toward Northern and Western Europe, and then from colonial empires toward metropoles, the question of the employability of the person entering and the need for skilled laborers became central.

The rejection faced by migrant workers, who were accused of exerting downward pressure on national salaries, gradually prompted authorities to restrict the labor market for the least qualified migrants. For instance, a bill was passed in France in 1932 “protecting national labor” against competition from foreign workers. Labor immigration was subsequently used as a variable of adjustment for the labor market: it was encouraged in “tight” sectors, and discouraged when supply outpaced demand. The most skilled workers—engineers, academics, and entrepreneurs—were to a great extent spared by these restrictive measures, precisely because their arrival was still seen as a factor of innovation and economic growth, as shown by the work of Catherine Brice and Diaz. Migrant elites thus had more negotiating power in their interactions with states than other workers did, and the question of attractiveness from the perspective of elites took hold to such an extent that it sparked competition between European nations. Guillaume Tronchet’s research on student mobilities has shown, following on the work of Victor Karady, how a European university area emerged at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with institutions implementing more and more measures to attract the best students.

The establishment of authoritarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Russia partially changed these circumstances, as emphasis on the economic value of elites was often replaced by political or racial considerations. Major fortunes and high-level scientists were forced to migrate and navigate European countries that were more or less inclined to welcome them. Albert Einstein (1879-1955), for instance, found refuge at Princeton after his home was looted in 1933, and the Hungarian physicist Laszlo Tisza (1907-2009) was welcomed in France. In this context of massive mobility, the welcome that awaited them was not always kindly, although organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States, Imperial Chemistry Industry in the United Kingdom, and the Comité français pour l’accueil et l’organisation du travail des savants étrangers (French Committee for the Welcome and Work Organization of Foreign Academics) organized by the Russian biologist Louis Rapkine (1904-1948), who was himself an émigré, strove to provide migrant scientists with the means to pursue their research.

From the Brain Drain to Tax Exile: Attracting Elites at Any Cost

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the increasingly stiff competition between developed countries to attract economic and scientific elites resulted in the weakening of the countries of departure, which were deprived of their elements for creating wealth and innovation. This phenomenon, which would soon be referred to in French as the “fuite des cerveaux” (brain flight) or “exode de compétence” (skills exodus), and in English as the brain drain, was identified by a UNESCO report in 1965. It pointed out that migration, which was too often perceived solely from the point of view of the host country, weakened the country of departure in particular. Contemporary financial globalization has increased this effect by facilitating the migration of not only scientific elites, but financial ones as well. The implementation of advantageous tax systems to attract economic elites and their fortunes has been a collateral effect. This phenomenon of tax expatriation, amplified by the dumping practices of certain states offering particularly advantageous tax conditions for large fortunes, has produced a considerable shortfall for public finances.

Translated by Arby Gharibian

To quote from this article

Antonin Durand , « European Elites: Migrants Like Any Other? », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 11/03/22 , consulted on 02/10/2023. Permalink :


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Scazzieri, Roberto, Simili, Raffaella, eds., The Migration of Ideas (Sagamore Beach: Watson Publishing International LLC, 2008), p. 195-202.