France’s immigration politics

Patrice de Beer
12 February 2007

In France, whenever the immigration question is mentioned politics is never far behind, especially at election-time. In a primetime Q&A session on 5 February, rightwing presidential candidate and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy elaborated on his notorious comment - made just before the riots of November 2005 - about unruly young racaille (scum) of foreign origin in the banlieues (suburbs), and on his equally provocative remark made in April 2006, "France, either you love it, or you leave it". In his television interview, he added: "Nobody is forced to live in France. And when you love France, you have to respect her".

Sarkozy, to avoid being misunderstood by British retirees in Dordogne, Swiss bankers based in Paris or affluent tourists from Asia shopping at Vuitton or Cartier, then put his finger where it hurts, where it is easiest to play on racial fears from the far right (i.e., by referring to Muslim immigrants): "When you live in France, you respect her republican rules, you don't practise polygamy, circumcise your daughters or slaughter sheep in your bathroom".

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis"
(April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (October 2006)

"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference" (November 2006)

"French politics: where extremes meet" (December 2006)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate"
(20 December 2006)

"Sarko and Ségo: the odd French couple" (January 2007)

"France's immigration politics"
(February 2007)

Equality's others

France is a country which counts as one of the defining moments in her history the repulsion of the Arabs in Poitiers in 732 CE. It also recalls the construction of a colonial empire in the 19th century on the southern banks of the Mediterranean. Today, in part as one of the empire's legacies, 31% of the population of foreign origin (an official total of 5 million - illegal immigrants excluded, of course) come from the three Maghreb countries: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia.

In such circumstances, and notwithstanding the fact that France's motto is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, it is never difficult to play on fears of a beur (Arab) or Islamic overwhelming of the French nation. This can even be done while proclaiming in the same breath that you are not a racist.

France's immigrant population has diverse origins: 35% come from European Union countries, 12% from sub-Saharan Africa and 17% from the rest of the world (mostly from Asia, including hundreds of thousands from Turkey, China or the Indian subcontinent). The percentage of Muslims among Arab and African immigrants is 56%; only 4% of these are considered "extremists" (the same percentage as that of Roman Catholics and Christians among the native-born French population). The norms of égalité forbid by law any official ethnic classification of France's population, but some studies have estimated the number of French having at least one foreign grandparent as about 23%.

The Arabs are not the only ones to feel they are not always treated fairly. In 2006, some black militants founded the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires (Representative Council of Black Associations / Cran - an acronym that also spells a word meaning "guts" in French); this followed in the footsteps of a more established organisation, the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions / Crif). The Cran has just released the first opinion poll based on ethnic criteria; it finds that 56% of blacks (who represent 3.86% of the French population, or 1.86 million) feel themselves to be victims of some sort of discrimination: 12% often, 19% from time to time, 25% occasionally.

Their main grievances are lack of respect (24%), verbal abuse, and discrimination; the last experienced when looking for housing, during police ID checks (23%), and in dealing with public services (22%). To overcome these problems, black people in France put much more trust in NGOs, schools or the statutory anti-discrimination body the Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l'Égalité (Halde) than in police or politicians. Even if "white" French receive similar ill-treatment from rude bureaucrats or police officers, or have equal mistrust of politicians, the poll clearly shows the depth of a malaise which affects not only recent immigrants but also black Caribbeans who have been French citizens since the abolition of slavery in 1848.

A survey released in 2006 by the political-science research group (Cevipof) showed that - far from dreaming of a communalist society, like many in Britain - France's "black & beur" immigrants were mostly converts to the French ideal of égalité as well as to the leading role played by the state in society (see "France's immigration myths", 9 February 2006).

The Muslims among them, rather than calling for a caliphate or for sharia law, want to be part and parcel of the society they live in. The problem is that this ideal egalitarian society they dream of has mostly been denied to a population crammed in housing estates located far away from city centres, often deprived of basic public services and discriminated against by employers.

This discrimination has created a deep sense of frustration, not only among unqualified youth easily tempted by gangs, police-bashing or by Islamic fundamentalism, but also by an elite who fought hard to get a good academic training and respects the "republican rules" advocated by Sarkozy. If suburban violence and fundamentalism have to be tackled, the source of these frustrations has to be tackled too: both to protect the "bourgeois" order, and to restore to the French model its lost founding principles.

In Europe's frame

The French share with many of their fellow Europeans a tendency to forget that the problems they experience as a result of immigration or crime are not unique. France may now have among the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in Europe (higher than Britain or Germany, though perhaps lower than Luxemburg and Switzerland), but southern countries like Italy or Spain too have in the last few years known a phenomenal increase in immigration. The bodies washed ashore in Lampedusa or the Canary Islands show where Europe's frontline lies.

The countries on Europe's southern flank are relatively new to the phenomenon, and were unprepared for the massive influx now coming from all parts of the developing world: the Indian sub-continent, Africa, Latin America, as well as east-central Europe (including the most recent European Union members, Bulgaria and Romania); the adjustment to this social, soon to turn political, crisis is arguably even more delicate than in France.

Massive legalisation has failed to reduce the flow, in Italy as in Spain. Now, Nicolas Sarkozy - who since 2003 has been responsible for two bills to restrict immigration, the second of which passed into law in July 2006 - is advocating a "selective" system of immigration, which he wants to be tailored to the needs of the country as he sees them. In exchange for tighter cooperation with Africa's "departing" countries, he has promised more financial incentives for illegal immigrants to return home and an increase in economic aid to African countries (though the money offered is only a drop in the sea).

The domestic logic of this approach is clear: the tightening of visa conditions, the expulsion of thousands of illegal immigrants (including schoolkids), and tough - sometimes borderline - language against those sans papiers (without proper documents). This has created a deep and heated debate between those who protest against violations of human rights and those who favour law order or, in Jean-Marie le Pen's discourse, want La France aux Français (France for the French).

This debate will of course play a role in the presidential elections due on 22 April and 6 May. An interesting and important development in the campaign so far has been massive new registrations in the electoral rolls, many by young people and from the banlieues. If these registrations turn into actual votes it might have an impact on the result - because, in a country where left and right are constantly fighting for power, around 70% of the immigrant population consider themselves to belong to the left. Until now, "Sarko" the candidate has been unable to visit the banlieues he promised in 2005 to "clean out". But will his socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, be able to convince them to vote for her?

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