As French Election Looms, Candidates Stake Out Tough Positions on Migrants

PARIS — An out-of-control influx of immigrants. A threat to French identity and stability. A reason to urgently close France’s frontiers.

The issue of immigration is dominating political debate in the country five months before presidential elections, as candidates on the right as well as the left harden their positions. The drowning last week of 27 migrants off France’s northern coast has only added to the argument that migration must be checked.

Despite the fierce words on the campaign trail, the reality is far different: Nearly all of France’s neighbors have a greater proportion of immigrants in their populations. In the past decade, immigration has grown less in France than in the rest of Europe or in other rich nations worldwide.

The figures show that the migration situation in France is “rather ordinary, rather moderate,’’ said François Héran, a leading expert on migration who teaches at Collège de France. “We’re really not a country overrun by immigration,’’ Mr. Héran said.

That has not stopped pledges by politicians to impose a moratorium on immigration, hold a referendum on the issue or simply close the borders — in contrast to moves by other wealthy nations, like Germany and Australia, to attract migrant workers to fill labor shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. As French restaurants, hotels, construction companies and other services face a shortage of workers, politicians across the ideological spectrum have proposed raising wages — but not the number of immigrants allowed into the country.

“In France, we never talk about the economy when we talk about immigration,’’ said Emmanuelle Auriol, an economist at the Toulouse School of Economics and the co-author of a recent government-sponsored report that described how France’s growth has been hampered by its immigration policies. “All the talk is about national identity.’’

Fears that traditional French identity is threatened by Muslim immigrants from Africa — fanned for decades, either openly by the extreme right or with winks and dog whistles by others — have long consumed discussions about immigration. A series of terrorist attacks in recent years, some perpetrated by children of immigrants who grew up in France, have heightened those fears.

These concerns have had a cumulative effect in France — making any embrace of immigration political suicide, obstructing badly needed reforms to attract qualified workers from abroad and pushing inward a country once known as a global crossroads.

“We’re in a new phase,’’ said Philippe Corcuff, an expert on the far right who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon. “What we’re seeing is the result of what has been happening in France for the past 15 years: the collapse of the left, which is now silent on immigration, and the rise of the extreme right, which ultimately may not win the elections but is setting the terms of the debate.”

Candidates among the Republicans, the main party of the center right, are agreed on the need to “retake control” of the borders and to tighten immigrants’ eligibility for social benefits. One candidate, Michel Barnier, who served as the European Union’s negotiator with Britain during the Brexit talks, even proposed changing France’s constitution to be able to impose a “moratorium on immigration” for three to five years.

On the left, while most candidates have chosen to remain silent, a former economy minister pledged to block remittances sent home by migrants via Western Union to countries that he said refused to repatriate citizens who are in France illegally. The proposal followed President Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement that he would tackle the problem by slashing the number of visas issued to citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

On the far right, Éric Zemmour, the writer and TV personality who on Tuesday announced a run for the presidency in next year’s elections, has said France’s very survival is at stake because immigration from Muslim nations threatens its Christian heritage.

“We won’t allow ourselves to be dominated, turned into vassals, conquered, colonized,” Mr. Zemmour said in a video announcing his candidacy. “We won’t allow ourselves to be replaced.”

With Mr. Zemmour’s candidacy, the previously taboo topic of the “great replacement” — a conspiracy theory accusing politicians like Mr. Macron of using immigration to replace white, Christian people — has become part of the election discourse. Mr. Zemmour accused successive French governments of hiding “the reality of our replacement’’ and has said that Mr. Macron “wants to dissolve France in Europe and Africa.’’

During a recent prime-time debate, while center-right candidates hesitated to embrace the expression — which has been cited by white supremacists in mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Tex. — they indicated that the threat of replacement represented a real problem facing France.

According to a recent poll, 61 percent of French respondents said they believed that Europe’s white and Christian population would be subjected to a “great replacement’’ by Muslim immigrants.

The intensity of the election rhetoric stands in contrast to the recent elections in Germany, where immigration was not an issue — even though Germany has led Europe in accepting refugees in recent years.

“Immigration was missing from the campaign in Germany,’’ said Jean-Christophe Dumont, the head of international migration research for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D.

“There is a French obsession with immigration issues,’’ Mr. Dumont added. “In reality, France is not a major country for immigration.’’

In 2020, France’s share of immigrants in its population — 13 percent — was below the average of O.E.C.D. nations. That proportion grew 16 percent between 2010 and 2020.

By contrast, immigrants made up 16 percent of Germany’s population — a 30 percent increase during the same period.

France stopped taking in huge numbers of workers from its former colonies in northern Africa as a long period of economic growth came to an end in the mid-1970s — a few years before the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, now known as the National Rally, which helped make immigration a radioactive subject in French politics.

Since then, migrant workers have accounted for only a small share of new immigration, which has been dominated by foreign students and family-linked arrivals.

“We take in immigrants, not to work, but to join their spouses,’’ said Ms. Auriol, the economist.

The result is that France’s immigration population is much less diversified than in other rich nations. In 2019, more than 40 percent of all arrivals came from Africa, especially Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, according to government data.

That lack of diversity — coupled with the concentration of new immigrants in urban areas like Paris — fuels anxieties related to immigration, said Patrick Weil, a historian of immigration who teaches at Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris and at Yale.

While anti-immigrant sentiments played a role in former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign in 2016, immigration in France — closely linked to its colonial history, especially in Algeria and other Muslim nations — makes it an even more combustible topic, Mr. Weil said.

“In France, there is a link between immigration and religion, whereas in the United States they are separate,” Mr. Weil said.

Fanned by the right, the fears surrounding immigration and a supposed threat to France’s Christian heritage make it extremely difficult to hold any discussions about reforming to attract qualified foreign immigrants, said Ms. Auriol, the economist.

Current immigration policies, she added, stifles economic growth and the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Modest changes have been carried out in recent years. But they are insufficient to attract the kind of motivated, skilled immigrants that France desperately needs to bring innovation and fresh thinking, Ms. Auriol said. Given the anti-immigrant climate, France also attracts relatively few citizens of other European Union nations, who can move freely to France, and suffers from a low retention of foreign students after graduation, she said.

“In the 20th century, all the world’s talented people came to Paris,’’ she added. “Immigrants who contributed to France’s economic greatness, its scientific greatness and its cultural greatness. We were an open country. What happened to us?”

Léontine Gallois contributed reporting.


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