When French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited Calais, he defended his immigration policies. Talking about the 100,000 new asylum claims filed in France last year, he made a distinction in his speech between economic migrants and refugees fleeing persecution. His message was balanced yet firm. He asserted that economic migrants should be turned back, while genuine refugees allowed to stay.
Following terrorist attacks in France two year ago, a sharp debate about immigration broke out. In addition to the National Front that never misses an opportunity to express its anti-immigrant views politically, Eric Zammour, a prominent French figure, ignited considerable controversy on television and radio programs in which he blamed all the troubles of France on French Muslim communities, particularly from North Africa, even though only 2.4 percent of the French population are originally from Maghrebian countries. A recent headline in Causeur, a popular French newspaper, proclaimed: “Immigration: France falls apart.” According to journalist Elizabeth Levy, the author of the headline, “the debate over immigration in France is still impossible.“
When President Macron put forward a new immigration proposal last September he announced he wanted “a complete overhaul” of his country’s policy. In a sense he was engaged in a high tightrope walking act since Macron was accused of being too lax by the right and too strict by the left. The proposed law was definitely firmer on immigration than past French legislation and resembled the new German model.
The problems regarding immigration are not the same in France as they are in the United States. While French immigration policy certainly parallels American policy on concerns about national security, it diverges from U.S. immigration when it comes to integration policy. When it comes to the former, that is to say to national security, President Trump’s anti-immigrant stance is popular in some groups in France. Even if not everyone in France supports Trump’s approach, the terrorist attacks there and more generally in Europe have made it impossible to dissociate immigration from national security, especially since the large waves of refugees, such as those in Calais, have created an apprehension of an invasion of the country by foreigners.
But the more complicated problem in France is in the realm of who feels a sense of belonging to the country. In 1993, the Pasqua law questioned why descendants of immigrants are barred from obtaining citizenship. Even today it is still a challenge for many descendants of immigrants to consider themselves “French.” Even well respected athletes descended from immigrant parents regularly have to prove their dedication to the blue, white and red flag. French celebrities growing up in immigrant ghettos, such as comedians Jamel Debouzze and Omar Sy, share this same problem despite their successes.
The marginalization of minorities in France is worse than elsewhere. Immigrant communities in France often live on their own in ghettos where violence, drugs and the unemployment rates are high. Public authorities often refuse to intervene, leaving these communities without police or medical assistance and feeling completely neglected by the state.
Zemmour’s comments linking the problems of immigration to North African immigrants reflect a popular perception that exists for several reasons.
First of all, France’s colonial ties with the Maghreb countries inevitably created a common history. French identity is linked to this colonial past. There is a deep fear of a turnaround where France itself will be transformed into a colony by a foreign cultural invasion. France also fervently defends the concept of secularism which collides with the allegiance of these immigrants to Islam. For example, offering an alternative to pork in school lunches has grown into a huge debate.
Integrating the Maghrebian community has been difficult. The first immigrants from this community came to help rebuild France following the Second World War. Yet they were not integrated, nor have their descendants integrated and instead, those descendants now live in ghettos where their living conditions are badly deteriorating and where they feel marginalized. It does not help that nearly half of those who left Europe for Syria to fight in “the jihad” there were from France. Nor does it help that there is a large number of people in these minority communities with “fiche S” status – that is to say, they are under police scrutiny, even if they are not under arrest. Add the fact that French authorities dismantled several Islamist terrorist cells linked to this community and you have the toxic mix that plagues France today.
So what can France do?
As Elizabeth Levy says, the issue of immigration needs to be separated from the concept of national identity. A more North American approach that rationalizes immigration by metrics employing more objective criteria could gradually reduce tensions. In a sense this is what Macron’s policy is trying to achieve with his “Talent Passport” initiative which could result in a better quality of immigrants from North Africa. Initiatives such as the INSEE reports tabulating better statistics about immigration will help to get a better picture of integration in France.
In the end, however, what is needed in France is a change in paradigms. The French have to change their conception of their country from a homogeneous nation to a multicultural France.
There is a need to leave behind the 20th century notion of a national identity based on one ethnic origin to a more modern conception based on diversity and inclusiveness. A narrow French nationalism needs to be replaced by a broader French patriotism. Until that happens, the problems of immigration will continue to plague France.
This article is reprinted from an article formerly published in the Forbes.