The issue of immigration dominates the political debate in the country five months before the presidential elections, as candidates on the right and the left harden their positions. The drowning last week of 27 migrants off France’s northern coast only added to the argument that migration must be controlled.
Despite the fierce comments of the electoral campaign, the reality is quite different: almost all of France’s neighbors have a higher proportion of immigrants in their population. Over the past decade, immigration has grown less in France than in the rest of Europe or in other rich countries around the world.
The figures show that the migration situation in France is “rather ordinary, rather moderate,” said FranÃ§ois HÃ©ran, a leading migration specialist who teaches at the CollÃ¨ge de France. âWe are really not a country overrun by immigration. “
This has not stopped politicians from imposing a moratorium on immigration, holding a referendum on the issue or simply closing the borders – unlike measures taken by other rich countries, such as Germany and the Australia, to attract migrant workers to fill labor shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. As French restaurants, hotels, construction companies and other services face a shortage of workers, politicians from all ideological backgrounds have proposed raising wages – but not the number of allowed immigrants to the country.
âIn France, we never talk about the economy when we talk about immigration,â said Emmanuelle Auriol, an economist at the Toulouse School of Economics and co-author of a recent government-sponsored report that describes how the growth of France was hampered. through its immigration policies. âAll the speeches are about national identity.
Fears that traditional French identity might be threatened by Muslim immigrants from Africa – stoked for decades, either openly by the far right or with doggy winks and whistles by others – have long been in the air. fueled discussions on immigration. A series of terrorist attacks in recent years, some perpetrated by children of immigrants who grew up in France, have heightened these fears.
These concerns have had a cumulative effect in France – turning any embrace of immigration into political suicide, hampering much-needed reforms to attract skilled workers from abroad, and pushing inward a country once known as a global crossroads.
“We are in a new phase,” said Philippe Corcuff, an expert on the far right who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon. “What we are seeing is the result of what has been happening in France for 15 years: the collapse of the left, now silent on immigration, and the rise of the far right, which may ultimately not win the elections. . but fixes the terms of the debate.
Candidates among the Republicans, the main center-right party, agree on the need to “regain control” of borders and tighten the eligibility of immigrants for social benefits. A candidate, Michel Barnier, who was the European Union negotiator with Great Britain during the Brexit negotiations, even proposed to modify the French constitution to be able to impose a “moratorium on immigration” of three to five. years.
On the left, while most of the candidates have chosen to remain silent, a former Minister of the Economy has pledged to block remittances from migrants via Western Union to countries which he says refuse to repatriate them. citizens who are illegally in France. The proposal follows President Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement that he would tackle the problem by reducing the number of visas issued to Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian citizens.
On the far right, Eric Zemmour, the writer and television personality who announced his candidacy for the presidency of next year’s elections on Tuesday, said France’s very survival was at stake because immigration from Muslim nations threatens its Christian heritage.
“We will not allow ourselves to be dominated, to become vassals, conquered, colonized,” Zemmour said in a video announcing his candidacy. âWe will not let ourselves be replaced.
With Zemmour’s candidacy, the previously taboo topic of the “great replacement” – a conspiracy theory accusing politicians like Macron of using immigration to replace whites and Christians – has become part of the electoral discourse. Zemmour accused successive French governments of hiding “the reality of our replacement” and said Macron “wants to dissolve France in Europe and Africa”.
In a recent prime-time debate, as center-right candidates hesitated to adopt the phrase – which was quoted by white supremacists during mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas – they have indicated that the threat of replacement is a real problem facing France.
According to a recent poll, 61% of French people polled said they believed Europe’s white and Christian population would be subject to a “great replacement” by Muslim immigrants.
The intensity of the electoral rhetoric contrasts with the recent elections in Germany, where immigration was not an issue, even though Germany was the first in Europe to accept refugees in recent years.
âImmigration was absent from the countryside in Germany,â said Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of international migration research for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD.
âThere is a French obsession with immigration issues,â said Dumont. âIn reality, France is not a great country of immigration.
In 2020, France’s share of immigrants in its population – 13% – was lower than the average for OECD countries. This proportion increased by 16% between 2010 and 2020.
In contrast, immigrants made up 16% of the German population, an increase of 30% over the same period.
France stopped taking in large numbers of workers from its former North African colonies as a long period of economic growth ended in the mid-1970s – a few years before the rise of the far-right National Front. anti-immigrant, now known as the National Rally, which helped make immigration a radioactive subject in French politics.
Since then, migrant workers have only made up a small part of new immigration, dominated by foreign students and family-related arrivals.
“We welcome immigrants, not to work, but to join their spouses,” said Auriol, the economist.
As a result, France’s immigrant population is much less diverse than in other rich countries. In 2019, more than 40% of all arrivals were from Africa, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, according to government data.
This lack of diversity – coupled with the concentration of new immigrants in urban areas like Paris – fuels immigration anxieties, said Patrick Weil, immigration historian who teaches at the PanthÃ©on-Sorbonne University in Paris and at Yale.
While anti-immigrant sentiments played a role in former President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, immigration to France – closely linked to its colonial history, particularly in Algeria and other Muslim countries – in makes an even hotter topic, Weil said.
âIn France, there is a link between immigration and religion, while in the United States, they are separated,â Weil said.
Stirred by the right, fears surrounding immigration and a supposed threat to France’s Christian heritage make any discussion of reform to attract skilled foreign immigrants extremely difficult, said Auriol, the economist.
Current immigration policies, she added, are stifling economic growth and economic recovery from the pandemic.
Modest changes have taken place in recent years. But they are insufficient to attract the type of motivated and skilled immigrants that France desperately needs to bring innovation and new ideas, Auriol said. Given the anti-immigrant climate, France also attracts relatively few citizens from other European Union countries, who can move freely in France, and suffers from low retention of foreign students after graduation. , she said.
âIn the 20th century, all the talents of the world came to Paris,â she added. âImmigrants who have contributed to the economic greatness of France, its scientific greatness and its cultural greatness. We were an open country. What happened to us? “
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