Chinese immigrants form a growing community in France. Two manicurists gave me insight into challenges facing workers in Paris’s beauty industry.

(All photos by Amari Leigh)

By Amari Leigh

Finding a good nail salon in a new city can be a challenge.

After roaming the streets of Paris’ 14th arrondissement — the neighborhood I called home for six weeks this summer — I finally found myself seated across from Ping, a woman with a foreign accent as thick as mine.

As Ping applied neat layers of pink polish to my nails, she shared parts of her story with me. Her 11-year-old daughter sat quietly in the corner while we talked, speaking up occasionally to help translate for her mother.

Ping has always worked in the nail business, she explained. But she now also proudly claims the title of salon manager — “a first” she told me with a toothy smile.

Paris’ nail industry is dominated by Chinese immigrants, Ping said, especially as “more and more people are coming from China.”

I could tell there was more to her story.

Later, in my walks around the city, I took note of this. Peeking through the windows of beauty salons in different neighborhoods, I saw that it was almost always an Asian woman tending to a customer’s nails.

A few weeks later, at a salon in the 15th arrondissement, I met Lena.

Like Ping, Lena is from a rural region in China. But she moved to France much more recently, arriving last year to follow her husband, who came for work.

Imagine Lena’s enthusiasm when she discovered I am about the same age as her daughter.

Through the help of Google Translate, I asked Lena if she hoped her daughter would eventually move to France. She shook her head no and explained that her child will stay in China to attend university.

I could tell there was more to the story than she was able to communicate to me.

A large minority

There are 6.2 million immigrants in France, and they make up 9.3% of the total population. Most of these immigrants (44.6 %) come from Africa, according to 2015 French statistics.

While the number of Chinese immigrants is a fraction of France’s overall immigrant population — estimates range from 600,000 to 700,000 — ethnic Chinese are the third largest group of newcomers to France, after Moroccans and Algerians, according to the National Research Agency.

France has the largest overseas Chinese population in Europe, according to a 2017 Washington Post  article.

Yet this large class of immigrants has not traditionally been a focus of France’s oft-heated debates over immigration. Rather, in France discussion focuses most on immigrants who come from countries in Northern and West Africa, often former French colonies.

Like many of the other immigrant groups, however, the Chinese population in Paris frequently faces casual discrimination and regular racism, despite mostly living in ethnic enclaves like Port-du-Clingy, Arts en Métiers and Belleville.

During my visits with Ping and Lina, both women alluded to this dark reality.

“French people are not always very nice,” Ping admitted. As my nails dried, I watched how she interacted with the French women who walked through the door, often correcting herself and repeating her sentences when they didn’t initially understand what she said.

Lena, who, like Ping, works in a predominately middle-class, white neighborhood, was even more timid when speaking to customers. She repeatedly apologized for her lack of fluency in French and avoided making eye contact. When I asked if she liked living in Paris, Lena laughed and shook her head. “I miss home,” she said.

Ripe for change

In the past few years, this “invisible” immigrant community has started to attract more attention after being the target of racist attacks, particularly in northern areas of Paris.

In some cases, the Chinese community has responded to discrimination with lively protests, a sign that the community is fighting more to assert its “visibility.”

In 2014, Chinese employees without proper working papers at a salon in the 10th arrondissement  — a neighborhood populated with low-cost beauty salons — went on strike to protest their employer’s failure to pay them for two months. The former employees ultimately won their case in federal court three years later.

But a 2018 report by The European Trade Union Institute found that problems with salons persist, including poor working conditions, staff health problems relating to poor equipment and long work hours.

Barely any concrete changes had been introduced in similar salons in the area, the report concluded. It noted that increased regulations for the nail/beauty industry had not been introduced.

And while organizations to protect workers in this industry do exist, including La Confédération Nationale de L’Esthétique et de la Parfumerie, it is not clear that workers always know about them.

Both Ping and Lena did not.

“No, no, I am not a part of one,” said Ping, who has 20 years of experience in the industry. “I do not think these types of organizations exist here.”

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. What challenges does France’s Chinese immigrant community face?
  2. Does your country have ethnic enclaves of the kind that the author describes?
  3. What types of industries do new immigrants tend to work in within your city or country?

Amari Leigh was News-Decoder’s 2019 summer intern. An American citizen, she is studying French and world politics at university in the U.S. state of New York. Born and raised in New York City, Leigh has lived in Brazil, France and Portugal. She enjoys theater, learning languages and exploring new cities.

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