Foreign Policy Blogs

French immigration policy: History repeated?

©AP/Deutsche WelleFrench voters will take to the polls for the first round of presidential elections on April 22nd. Immigration and national identity have emerged as key topics in the debate between the four leading candidates: Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative UMP, Ségolene Royal from the Socialist Party (PS), centrist candidate François Bayrou and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the front-runner of the far-right Front National. A summary of the immigration debate in France can be found in this week's analysis on the FPA homepage. In that article, I argue that since the arrival of the Front National on the political scene, it has had a considerable part in shaping the country's immigration policy, as both conservative and socialist governments aimed to keep this far-right force at bay.

We will examine the evolution of France's immigration policy and the candidate's debate in a series of blogs over the coming days. The first part in our series will look at immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Contested Policies: France's immigration policy in the 1980s

Francois Mitterand's election as the first socialist president of the fifth republic gave immigration policy in France a more human face, after legal immigration had been halted in 1974 an restrictive measures introduced to reduce illegal migration in 1980 (through the so-called Bonnet laws). In the first euphoric days of socialist victory, the government emphasized a need to end the insecurities faced by migrants with respect to their legal status and set out to improve the situation inherited by twenty years of conservative rule. Thus, the expulsion of all foreigners born in France was suspended, retroactive regularization of illegal migrants that had entered the country before January 1, 1981 was introduced and immigrants were given the right to form interest organizations. The latter remains crucial for the immigration debate today, as powerful civil rights groups such as SOS Racisme and MRAP emerged from this shift in legal framework. Between 1981 and 1986, France saw an unprecedented increase in legislation on immigration related matters: 16 laws, 79 decrees and 220 circulars were issued during that time – many of these unfortunately reversed these early steps toward a comprehensive, rights-based approach for legal immigrants.

As the Front National began making inroads in local elections in the early eighties, winning key mayoral elections, the socialists soon began reverting to the traditional, restrictive line. Faced with rising unemployment, linked in part to the presence of migrants by the media, the socialists began to shift their policies in a last attempt to gain credibility among the French electorate on the issue. What followed was a reintroduction of an earlier repatriation scheme that gave migrants financial compensation if they returned to their home country and a toughening of already existing legislation whereby immigrants had to prove their employment status ahead of being granted residency. In the years leading up to 1986, the government's policy became so riddled with contradictory elements, all legitimized by reference to French républicanisme, that both the FN and immigrant organizations saw a huge swell in membership and activism. According to numerous analysts, the socialists’ attempt at keeping all sides somewhat satisfied proved its biggest stumbling block in the 1986 elections.

Following the conservative victory in the 1986 parliamentary elections, Jacques Chirac became Prime Minister under Mitterand. His government faced the difficult task of having to win back the electorate that had been swayed by the FN, giving it a seat in parliament. The Pasqua laws of 1986 facilitated immigrant expulsion and gave local prefects and mayors a say in who should be sent back, localizing the debate. As a result, France's deportation figures doubled only three months after the introduction of this new legislation, accompanied by street protests by anti-immigrant groups. In an attempt to steer a debate on French citizenship away from the populist arguments of the FN, the conservatives proposed to change the automatic attribution of French citizenship. This plan backfired, giving Jean-Marie Le Pen an even greater forum for his ideas. The return of a socialist Prime Minister under Michel Rocard and later Edith Cresson meant a gradual reversal of the Pasqua laws.

The so-called ‘headscarf affair’ in the late 80s, in which three Muslim students were banned from attending classes because they refused to remove their scarves in school, sparked an outcry of public opinion on the separation of church and state and the degree to which migrants needed to observe French traditions. This heated debate evidenced the the gaps that still remained between the actual inclusion of migrants in society and the tolerance of their respective religious and cultural differences. To respond to these questions, the government created the Haut Conseil d’Integration, a new state body to address the challenge of coordinating local integration programs in 1989. But even the creation of a new institution could not remedy the deeply rooted contradictions within the French immigration system.

Tied to the ’90s

The 1990s was the most confusing time in immigration legislation in France: race riots and a fresh debate on the Muslim headscarf gave the FN more grounds for their popular argument that the country's national identity was being eroded by foreigners. The violent riots in Lyon and Paris were an early sign of the deep crisis in the country's social cohesion that remains unresolved today, borne from the social and economic marginalization and exclusion of many of the country's second and third generation immigrants.

During that same period, immigrant organizations became vocal players in shaping the political debate, which forced the government to launch a policy of regularization on a case-by-case basis, a policy, which is now being advocated by presidential-hopeful Ségolene Royal. Citizenship laws went from restrictive to more liberal, with the 1998 Gigou law reintroducing the automatic right to French citizenship for children born in France from foreign parents. Institutions were created to manage immigrant housing and social funds, but were chronically under-funded. Relegated to the outskirts of major cities, alienated by a system that claimed to respect diversity but relied largely on secularist French traditions transmitted through education, immigrant sub-culture began to play an increasingly larger role.

The mid-nineties saw a flood of legislation that curtailed the right to asylum, introduced stricter rules for French citizenship and facilitated deportation. Charles Pasqua had returned as center-right interior minister and introduced a vastly unpopular package of rules in 1986. The so-called “Pasqua I” law  undid the ius soli principle, according to which all born on French territory were quasi automatically French citizens. Immigrant children now had to certify their willingness to assimilate (NOT integrate!) and relinquish all “rights to be different.” Pasqua II officially eliminated France's remaining constitutional obligations to grant asylum, while Pasqua III rescinded the automatic residency permit after 15 years on French territory, making it easier for long-term illegals to be deported in a matter of hours. His successor gave local prefects the right to expel foreigners locally, something only the interior minister could do prior to 1996. Insecurities among resident migrants grew, while the influx of foreign nationals to France was essentially set to zero.

Vowing to put an end to the “electoral football” (Maxim Silverman) consecutive conservative and socialist governments played with the immigration portfolio, socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin ordered a comprehensive examination of all migration related policies. Migration specialist Patrick Weil was given the job, though his advice nearly led to a major crisis in the socialist government. Critics felt that Jospin was “dishing into the bolws of the RPR and the FN” to achieve a widely held consensus. Weil's report had one main objective: “to move away from the rhetoric of incrimination and suspicion” that had dominated the policy framework in the 70s and 80s. While remaining tough on illegal migration, Weil suggested a root causes approach that addressed development problems in migrant home countries, such as Northern Africa. Most of Weil's suggestions were watered down considerably to make them palatable to French parliamentarians and in this form failed to achieve Weil's original goal of raising the acceptance of immigrants in France. Too reined in by the threat of the next election, the Jospin government's lofty plans of introducing a comprehensive immigration policy came in a dollar too short. Aside from giving in to public pressure and legalizing 80,000 'sans papiers’ (illegal migrants), this last socialist government of the 1990s had little to show for itself.

The 1980s and ’90s serve as good examples of the patchwork of policies pursued by different governments over the years. With policies that shifted radically, sometimes within a few months, a large part of France's immigrant population was left in a situation of insecurity. Little was done over these two years to assist in the active integration of migrants, who were for the most part relegated to social housing areas outside major French cities. The formation of the types of ghettos decried during the violent outbreaks in the fall and winter of 2005/2006 have their origins in the failed and ever-changing policies of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The second part of our series will examine the developments between the end of the 1990s and today to help understand and contextualize the suggestions made by the presidential candidates ahead of the vote next week.



Cathryn Cluver

Cathryn Cluver is a journalist and EU analyst. Now based in Hamburg, Germany, she previously worked at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Belgium, where she was Deputy Editor of the EU policy journal, Challenge Europe. Prior to that, she was a producer with CNN-International in Atlanta and London. Cathryn graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's Degree in European Studies and holds a BA with honors from Brown University in International Relations.

Areas of Focus:
Refugees; Immigration; Europe


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