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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Candidates take a tough stance on migrants as elections in France approach

PARIS – Uncontrolled influx of immigrants. Threats to French identity and stability. A reason to urgently close the borders of France.

Immigration has dominated the country’s political debate five months before the presidential election, as candidates from both the right and left gain ground. The drowning of 27 migrants off the northern coast of France last week only strengthened the argument that migration should be stopped.

Despite the harsh words during the election campaign, the reality is different: almost all of France’s neighbors have a large proportion of immigrants in their population. Over the past decade, immigration in France has grown less than in the rest of Europe or other wealthy countries in the world.

The numbers show that the migration situation in France is “fairly common, rather moderate,” said François Héran, a leading migration expert teaching at the Collège de France. “We are really not a country overrun by immigration,” said Mr. Eran.

That hasn’t stopped politicians promising to impose a moratorium on immigration, hold a referendum on the issue, or simply close borders – as opposed to other wealthy countries such as Germany and Australia taking action to attract migrant workers to fill labor shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. As French restaurants, hotels, construction companies and other services face shortages of workers, politicians with a wide range of ideological views are proposing higher wages, but not the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country.

“In France, we never talk about economics when we talk about immigration,” said Emmanuelle Auriol, an economist at the Toulouse School of Economics and co-author of a recent government-sponsored report that describes how France’s growth has slowed. its immigration policy. “All talk about national identity.”

Fears of traditional French identity being threatened by Muslim immigrants from Africa, who have been fanned for decades by either the overtly far-right or the winks and whistles of others, have long sparked discussions about immigration. A series of terrorist attacks in recent years, some of which have been perpetrated by the children of immigrants raised in France, have heightened these fears.

These fears have had a cumulative effect in France – any recognition of immigration as political suicide, discouraging urgently needed reforms to attract skilled workers from abroad, and pushing inland into what was once known as the global crossroads.

“We are in a new phase,” said Philippe Corcaff, a far-right expert who teaches at the Institute for Policy Studies in Lyon. “What we are seeing is the result of what has happened in France over the past 15 years: the collapse of the left, which is now silent about immigration, and the rise of the extreme right, which may ultimately not win the election. but it sets the conditions for discussion. “

The Republican nominees, the main center-right party, agree on the need to “take back control” of borders and tighten immigrants’ eligibility for social benefits. One candidate, Michel Barnier, who acted as EU negotiator with Britain during the Brexit negotiations, even proposed changing the French constitution to impose a “moratorium on immigration” for three to five years.

Left: While most candidates chose to remain silent, the former economy minister has pledged to block remittances sent home by migrants via Western Union to countries he says refuse to repatriate citizens who are in France illegally. The proposal follows the recent announcement by President Emmanuel Macron that he will solve the problem by reducing the number of visas issued to citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

On the right, Eric Zemmour, a writer and broadcaster who on Tuesday announced his candidacy for next year’s presidential election, said France’s very survival is in jeopardy because immigration from Muslim countries threatens its Christian heritage.

“We will not allow us to be dominated, turned into vassals, conquered, colonized,” Zemmur said in a video announcing his candidacy. “We will not allow ourselves to be replaced.”

With the nomination of Mr. Zemmour, the previously taboo “big replacement” topic – conspiracy theory accusing politicians like Mr. Macron of using immigration to replace white Christian people – has become part of the campaign discourse. Mr Zemmour accused successive French governments of concealing “the reality of our replacement” and said that Mr Macron “wants to dissolve France in Europe and Africa.”

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During a recent primetime debate, although center-right candidates were hesitant to accept the expression – which has been quoted by white supremacists in the mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas – they pointed out that the threat of replacement posed the real problem facing France.

According to a recent poll, 61 percent of French respondents said they believed Europe’s white and Christian populations would undergo a “big replacement” by Muslim immigrants.

The intensity of the campaign rhetoric contrasts with the recent elections in Germany, where immigration was not a problem, although in recent years Germany has led the way in Europe in accepting refugees.

“Immigration was absent from the campaign in Germany,” said Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of international migration research at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“The French are obsessed with immigration issues,” added Mr Dumont. “Actually, France is not a major country for immigration.”

In 2020, the proportion of immigrants in France – 13 percent – was below the OECD average. Between 2010 and 2020, this share increased by 16 percent.

In contrast, immigrants made up 16 percent of Germany’s population – an increase of 30 percent over the same period.

France stopped accepting vast numbers of workers from its former colonies in North Africa as a long period of economic growth came to an end in the mid-1970s – several years before the rise of the far-right anti-immigrant National Front. now known as the National Rally, which helped make immigration a radioactive item in French politics.

Since then, labor migrants have accounted for only a small proportion of new immigration, dominated by foreign students and family-based arrivals.

“We do not accept immigrants to work, but to join their spouses,” said Ms Oriol, an economist.

As a result, France’s immigration population is much less diverse than that of other wealthy countries. More than 40 percent of all arrivals in 2019 came from Africa, especially from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, according to government figures.

This lack of diversity, coupled with the concentration of new immigrants in urban areas like Paris, is fueling immigration concerns, said Patrick Weil, an immigration historian who teaches at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris and Yale University.

While anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, immigration in France, closely tied to its colonial history, especially in Algeria and other Muslim countries, makes it an even sharper topic, Mr Weil said. … …

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

Right-wing fears of immigration and a perceived threat to France’s Christian heritage make it extremely difficult for any reform debate to attract skilled foreign immigrants to be held, said Ms. Oriol, an economist.

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

There have been modest changes in recent years. But they are not enough to attract those motivated, skilled immigrants that France desperately needs to bring innovation and fresh thinking, Ms Oriol said. Given the anti-immigrant climate, France also attracts relatively few citizens from other European Union countries who are free to move to France, and suffers from low retention rates for foreign students after graduation, she said.

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

Leontine Gallois made reporting.

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