A French policewoman was killed by a  Tunisian man in Rambouillet on April 23, 2021 / Photo: Picture-Alliance
A French policewoman was killed by a Tunisian man in Rambouillet on April 23, 2021 / Photo: Picture-Alliance

French politicians have been debating whether there is a link between terrorism and immigration, after a policewoman was killed by a Tunisian man in Paris on April 23. InfoMigrants reviews the current laws on immigration and legalizing undocumented foreigners in France.

The April 23 killing of a French policewoman by a 36-year-old Tunisian man in Rambouillet, near Paris, reopened a contentious debate about the legalisation of undocumented foreigners in France. After several simplistic, inaccurate or false statements were made by politicians in the news and social media, InfoMigrants takes stock of the immigration laws concerning the legalization of foreigners in France.

1. "We must stop legalising illegal immigrants. When a person enters our country violating French law, and stays on with an illegal status, we must end the possibility of legalising him under the law."

-- Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing National Rally party (formerly the National Front) on BFM-TV, April 23, 2021.

Marine Le Pen talked about revoking the possibility under the law of regularising a foreigner who has entered French soil illegally. This is legally complicated, if not impossible.

First, this proposal contravenes the principle of the right to asylum, governed by the Geneva Convention, to which France is a signatory. An individual has the right to request international protection without any prerequisite. There is no need to have an "authorisation" to enter French soil.

The law does not require an asylum seeker to have valid papers when submitting his or her claim for asylum, which is decided by Ofpra (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons).

The protection of a foreigner threatened in his or her country is enshrined in the French Constitution. It is not a priori possible to question the access to asylum.

Secondly, it is estimated that there are about 350,000 undocumented foreigners in France, according to the Washington DC-based Pew Research Center. Some of them work and participate in the French economy, but they do not meet the criteria for legalisation by the administration. Others are parents of children born in France. Still others have entered legally (as students, for example) but have not renewed their residence permit and are now in an illegal status.

The cases are varied and covered under specific regulations. "Stop legalising illegal immigrants" implies that the cases of all undocumented migrants are identical. This is not true.

2. "We must come to our senses: [we must] deport illegal immigrants."

-- Marine Le Pen on BFM-TV, April 23, 2021

This is already the case. France is deporting people who have no legal status. In 2020, France sent back a total of more than 9,000 people. That's half as many as in 2019 when 19,000 people were sent back. According to the Interior Ministry, this decline can be partly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous border closures.

The deportation trend has been steadily rising in recent years. In 2016, 12,900 people were sent back to their countries of origin compared with 14,200 in 2017, 15,600 in 2018 and 19,000 in 2019.

Second, the expulsion of an undocumented migrant is subject to rules. It is not automatic. For example, a foreigner without a passport or without nationality cannot be expelled. In order to send him/her back, s/he must have the agreement of his/her country of origin and request a consular pass. However, these documents are issued piecemeal by the countries concerned. A deportation can therefore take a long time.

Last November, the French government chastised countries that refuse to take back their nationals, especially those imprisoned for radicalisation. French President Emmanuel Macron is particularly targeting Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, countries that are reluctant to allow potential criminals to return home. According to the Interior Ministry, as of November 2020, France had 231 undocumented foreigners being monitored for "radicalisation" and has made their expulsion a priority.

3. "How could a man who remained illegal for 10 years on our territory be legalized?"

-- Marine Le Pen on BFM-TV, April 23, 2021

According to anti-terrorist prosecutors, the attacker in the Rambouillet stabbing case was born in Tunisia and arrived in France in 2009. In 2019, he received an exceptional employment authorisation and in December 2020, a residence card valid until December 2021. His illegal status therefore lasted 10 years.

Le Pen is offended that after several years as an undocumented resident, a foreigner can be granted a residence permit. These cases are not rare and they are regulated. A 2012 Interior Ministry circular set the terms for legalisation, such as duration of stay in France, family situation, children in school, sufficient resources, etc.

Manuel Valls, who was Interior Minister at that time, did not want to "legalize en masse" but to provide a roadmap to prefectures to help them grant residence permits in a consistent manner.

Generally, undocumented migrants must be able to prove a promise of employment or a work contract. They must also prove that they speak French and that they adhere to French values.

Many foreigners contacted by InfoMigrants are helped in these procedures by specialised lawyers or by groups defending undocumented migrants.

4/ We must "stop denying the link between terrorism and immigration."

Valérie Pécresse, head of the Soyons Libres party on Europe 1, April 25

"There is a link between immigration and terrorism. It is necessary from now on, from today, in a radical way, to stop all immigration"

Guillaume Peltier, deputy vice-president of the Les Républicains (LR) party on France 3, April 25

The link between immigration and terrorism regularly comes up in public debates on France’s security situation. To support their anti-immigrant statements, many politicians cite the latest attacks in France as an example.

The most recent was on October 29, 2020, when a 21-year-old Tunisian man who had just arrived in France murdered two women in the Basilica of Notre Dame in Nice, in southern France. The attacker is effectively an undocumented foreigner. He reached France by taking advantage of the "classic" migration route taken by thousands of migrants, via the Italian island of Lampedusa.

A few days earlier, Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Russian of Chechen origin, beheaded French school teacher Samuel Paty, Anzorov is not French either. He arrived in France at the age of six with his parents. All of them had residence permits.

However, since 2012, most of the other terrorists involved in the deadly attacks in France were French and born on French soil. The include “Toulouse attacker” Mohammed Merah, the Kouachi brothers (Cherif and Said) who conducted the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a kosher supermarket in 2015) and Larossi Abballa, who killed a police officer and his partner in their home in Magnanville, near Paris, in 2016.

The November 13 2015 Paris attacks case is particular. Six of the 10 Islamic State (IS) group members who conducted the attacks were French, two were Iraqi, one was Belgian and the last one Belgian-Moroccan. None of them were "migrants" in the humanitarian sense of the word, but all of them (except the Abdeslam brothers) took advantage of the migration flows via Greece, to go back and forth to Syria.

The October 2019 attack at the Paris police headquarters was conducted by a Frenchman, Mickaël Harpon, who murdered four police officers. The man was originally from the French overseas territory of Martinique.

Cherif Chekatt, the alleged perpetrator of the attack on December 12, 2018 in downtown Strasbourg is also French.


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