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Home » ‘It’s Purely Political’: Why France’s Newest Immigration Bill Is So Controversial

‘It’s Purely Political’: Why France’s Newest Immigration Bill Is So Controversial

by Aitor Piedrabuena
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In France, introducing new immigration laws seems almost like a governmental rite of passage.

In France, introducing new immigration laws seems almost like a governmental rite of passage. This executive is case in point. Lawmakers are currently battling over the country’s 29th bill since 1980, which experts have likened to an act of “political theatre.” 

The bill was designed to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. Some measures would give undocumented workers a path to legal residency. Others would make it easier to enforce deportation orders. But it has had the opposite effect. The left argues the bill is too restrictive, the right argues it’s not restrictive enough, and the result is a months-long deadlock.

“It’s purely political,” Camille Le Coz, Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said over the phone. “Each government feels the need to do something on migration, and the way to do that is to pass a new law, even though they haven’t evaluated or assessed the effect of the previous one.”

Immigration has been a contentious topic in the French political discourse for decades. The narrative has been shaped, reshaped and used to support efforts from post-war labour recruitment to the rise of the far-right National Rally (RN), leveraged both to promote prosperity and incite fear.

“The narrative of migration in the past year has been increasingly framed as something that is dangerous, that we need to curb,” Le Coz said. “We’ve somehow forgotten that migrants are part of the national fabric of France and always have been.”

‘After WWII, this attempt to open borders and welcome immigrants had several different roots’

France took in hundreds of thousands of immigrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

While English, Irish, German and other European nationals were leaving the continent en masse throughout the 19th century, France attracted foreign workers. Belgians were recruited to work in the textile industry, and Italians worked largely in vineyards. Spanish, Swiss and Polish immigrants were other big diasporas. 

But labour market competition triggered episodes of violence. In 1893, French villagers massacred Italian seasonal workers in Aigues-Mortes that were working for low wages.

But immigration continued to expand.

“During the 1920s and 30s, there were workers from French colonies who came to France to work in factories and usually were very poorly paid… because they were immigrants,” Laura Frader, a historian specialised in French social history, said over the phone. “But they did important work in factories, in the automobile industry and other industries.”

There were explicit programmes and labour agreements between immigration and emigration countries to recruit workers particularly for the mining and manufacturing sectors, according to Nancy L. Green, a member of the Center for Historical Research and migration specialist.

“After WWII, this attempt to open borders and welcome immigrants had several different roots—on the one hand, it was economically motivated,” Frader said. “At the same time, after WWII there was this tremendous impulse to undo the damage of European fascism, and to re-articulate the rights of man and human rights… that was part of the whole impulse to welcome immigrants.”

AP/1940 AP
Refugees have tacked notes on the door of the City Hall in Poitiers, France on July 4, 1940 to enable their relatives to find them.AP/1940 AP

‘Since the 1980s, the use of an anti-immigration language on the part of the far-right has become standard’

The public attitude toward immigrants drastically shifted in the second half of the 20th century. The 1973 oil crisis and subsequent economic crash coincided with the rise of the far-right National Front (now RN).

“Until about 1973, France had a relatively liberal policy toward immigration,” Frader said. “The oil crisis put an enormous pressure on not just the French economy, but all European economies… unemployment spiked, because the price of oil just got so high, and from about 1973 on, French immigration policy began to shift and they began to impose more controls over immigrants because they couldn’t absorb all the workers that were attempting to come over.”

Throughout the 1980s, the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen pushed the anti-immigration narrative that has been a pillar of the party’s platform ever since. In 1993, Interior Minister Charles Pasqua introduced the ‘zero immigration’ policy—the precursor to ‘chosen immigration’—tightening residency conditions for foreigners. Marine Le Pen, the current head of the now National Rally, narrowly lost the presidential election against Macron last year pushing a nationalistic pro-France, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“Since the 1980s, the use of an anti-immigration language on the part of the far-right has become standard, then it’s used and reused by other politicians as well,” Green said.

Thibault Camus/AP
Migrants walk on a road outside the Eurotunnel area, in Calais, northern France, Wednesday, July 29, 2015.Thibault Camus/AP

‘To just say that France is colourblind is not sufficient’

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister turned President of France, officially introduced the concept of ‘chosen immigration’ in 2007. Two years earlier, two teenagers – Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, from Mauritian and Tunisian families—died during a police chase in Clichy-sous-Bois, triggering widespread riots and a political crisis around immigration. Many public officials portrayed a failure of integration as the root cause—mandatory signing of a cultural integration contract came into law the following year.

Paradoxically, while integration is consistently invoked in political debate across France—and inherently conjures an “us versus the other” distinction—race is legally written out of the discussion. France has officially instilled a ‘colourblind’ approach to race since 1978, when it banned the collection of racial data, which is still not included in the census.

“Colourblind attitudes are a good idea—but in fact they don’t actually work,” Green said. “To just say that [France] is colourblind is not sufficient.”

Michel Spingler/AP
In this Nov. 8, 2005 file photo, firefighters work to extinguish burning cars set on fire by rioters in Gentilly, south of Paris, France.Michel Spingler/AP

A bill designed to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum

France’s new bill proposes to ease regularisation measures for some migrants and streamline the deportation process for others. It would also fast-track the asylum process, though Le Coz cautions against taking this at face value.

“They want to change the way the asylum process works in order to make it faster… which in theory is very good, unless this is happening at the detriment of having a fair process and having the possibility to appeal the decision,” she said.

Other measures include setting a minimum level of French for a multi-year residence permit, issuing ‘talent’ visas for certain foreign workers and letting asylum seekers work while case decisions are pending.

“In the first sense… it’s a ‘chosen’ immigration for economic reasons,” François Asselineau, former presidential candidate and leader of the UPR party—that maintains it is not right or left-wing, though some media outlets argue the party is extreme-right—said. “In the second sense, it’s the opposite… it’s against undesired immigration, and in particular to reinforce the fight against illegal migrants.”

In 2022, there were 881,200 first-time asylum seekers in the EU, a 64% increase from the previous year. France receives the second-highest number of applicants behind Germany. 

In parallel with the French bill, the EU is finalising its New Pact on Migration and Asylumafter years of debate. But it is being met with similar skepticism. Alberto Horst-Neidhardt, interim Head of the European Migration and Diversity programme at the European Policy Centre, argues that the primary driving force of the reform is political.

“The member states and the EU parliament will be under incredible pressure to adopt these measures by the end of the current legislative period,” he said. “The risk is that policymakers are seen as being unable to find solutions on a salient political issue, right before the election, [which] could have significant implications on their re-election chances.”

European parliamentary elections will be held next June.

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