Migrants walk in the streets of Calais, October 2019 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Migrants walk in the streets of Calais, October 2019 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil.

With less than two months before the first round of the French presidential election, immigration is once again a major campaign issue for a number of candidates. While the issue has always been a source of passion and tension, "the debate has become more radical," says François Héran, chair of Migrations and Societies at the Collège de France, and author of the book 'Parlons immigration en 30 questions' ('Let's talk about immigration in 30 questions').

InfoMigrants: The latest Ipsos-Sopra Steria survey shows that finance is the main concern of the French. Immigration is only in fourth place, behind health and the environment. Yet it is a major campaign theme for the candidates. How do you explain this?

François Héran: The economy is a very difficult issue to deal with, it is hard to find solutions. It is difficult to attack the current government on this subject after the plans put in place to preserve jobs during the health crisis.

On the other hand, it is easy to criticize the management of immigration, without worrying too much about the facts, while trying to gain advantage over political competitors.

IM: When did immigration become such a headline issue in the political discourse in France?

FH: France has always been very passionate on the issue of immigration.

During the two world wars, we needed foreigners but we were simultaneously suspicious of them. At that time, there was a certain amount of reflection, particularly on the type of people chosen to participate in the war effort.

During the 1940s economic crisis, a large number of Poles who had been brought in to work in the mines and textile factories were then deported. This was a time of great xenophobia as a whole series of professions called for a ban on foreigners working.

During the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the rise in oil prices, work-related immigration was banned in the hope of reducing unemployment. The official theory at the time -– shared by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and his Secretary of State in charge of immigrant workers – was that people of French origin should replace immigrants for manual labor, which was a profession that was at the time mainly occupied by foreigners. It was a way of saying: we don't need immigrants. But this doctrine is very controversial, and economists have demonstrated the opposite.

In the 1980s, during the rise of the National Front, part of the electorate discovered that the children of Algerian immigrants were French by birth, without knowing it – unlike Moroccans or Tunisians who had to wait until they came of age. This is explained by the fact that Algeria was French, so Algerians born in French Algeria became French. This question was a source of controversy for months. So much so that young people born of foreign parents were forced to express their desire to acquire French nationality. This law was abolished when the Socialists came to power.

In 1993, the slogan of Charles Pasqua, then Minister of the Interior, was 'zero immigration'.

The unpopular subject of immigration is therefore not new. What has changed is that the debate has become more radical.

Instead of analyzing the failures of previous policies, it is easier to say: since most migrants arrive in France because they have the right to do so (marriage / family reunification / asylum / studies), these are the rights must be targeted.

This idea, although it takes different forms depending on the candidate, is shared by a certain number of politicians, on the right and on the extreme right.

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IM: During her meeting on Sunday, conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse referred to the 'Great Replacement' conspiracy theory. This is the first time that a right-wing presidential candidate has used this expression, which until now has been confined to the extreme right. What do you make of this?

FH: Valérie Pécresse has clearly crossed a line by using the conspiracy expression 'Great Replacement'. She is obviously feeling the push from extreme right candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen and is hoping to win votes from the extreme right.

But this theory is totally unfounded. It is true that in some communes, notably in the Ile-de-France, the proportion of immigrant children is higher, but in other areas there are no or very few immigrants. Immigration is very unevenly distributed throughout the country. Those who use the expression 'Great Replacement' take examples only from the most concentrated areas.

The proponents of this thesis also point to the difference in fertility between women of French origin and those of immigrant origin, except that there is little difference between these two categories.

Moreover, only one in six births is to an immigrant woman, so it cannot be said that this has much impact on the national fertility rate.

It should be noted that this theory already existed as far back as in 1880. In the north of France, it was felt that there were too many Belgians compared to the French.

Even in Napoleon's time, the idea of 'Great Replacement' was already being discussed. Jewish people were forbidden to settle in Alsace because it was thought that they would overpopulate the region. They were supposedly more fertile and bought more land in Alsace.

In the past, people were shocked by the arrival of pizza restaurants everywhere, today it is by halal butcher shops.

IM: Has France been "invaded" by foreigners, as some politicians say? Is the issue of immigration more important today than before?

FH: Today, immigration is more important because of globalization. The increase in France has been constant, regardless of changes in government. Regardless of the president in place, migration continues to increase. Clearly, politicians cannot do anything about it.

The migration stream that has actually notably increased the most in recent years is that of foreign students.

But this increase in the immigrant population is much less than that observed in other countries, such as Spain, Italy, Germany or the United Kingdom.

According to OECD data from November 2021, France is below average in terms of the number of foreigners on its soil, and also below average in terms of annual arrivals. We are not a big country for immigration.

IM: These facts go against the grain of the dominant political discourse. Why is there so much misinformation on the subject of immigration?

FH: We spend more time refuting a counter-truth than it takes to state it. As Henri Louis Mencken used to say: 'For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, clear and false'. This quote sums up the situation well.

IM: Has the health crisis changed the way the French view immigration? Many essential front-line jobs are occupied by immigrants.

FH: In surveys conducted before the health crisis, two-thirds of French people felt that there were too many foreigners in France and that they were not integrating enough.

In the autumn of 2020, after the first containment, this figure had dropped to 50%. On the question of integration, too, the percentage has dropped sharply. The French appear to have realized that migrants play a vital role in front-line jobs.

But will this new appreciation have a lasting effect? It's hard to know.


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