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The Challenge of French Diversity

The Challenge of French Diversity

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After more than a decade of public debate and sharp media criticism, in February 2004 France adopted a law banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. That controversial decision, one of many recommendations by a 19-member commission established by President Jacques Chirac, has highlighted the complexity of managing diversity in the context of France's strongly secular traditions.

The so-called headscarf affair demonstrates the challenges of migration management and integration strategies for France, a longstanding country of immigration. The new law, applied only in the French public school system, is one of many strategies the government has considered at the local and national level to allow for individual religious and cultural expression consistent with longstanding national values.

In addition, concern about the place and visibility of Islam in the secular French democracy has stimulated action by the public authorities to counter discrimination. The long-anticipated independent body to combat discrimination was voted in by parliament in October 2004 and will be implemented in January 2005. The combination of informal and formal mechanisms that have emerged in France to prevent discrimination on one hand and promote integration on the other will be of keen interest, not least of all to other Member States across Europe.

As home to the largest Islamic community in Europe, France and its approach to immigration are likely to define the ongoing debate about successful integration measures.

Setting the Stage

Since the mid-19th century, French immigration policy has had two aims: to meet the needs of the labor market by introducing migrant workers, and to compensate French demographic deficits by favoring the permanent installation of foreign families, while ensuring their integration into the national body.

On the labor market front, the deepening of French colonial relations in the 19th and early 20th centuries laid the groundwork for steady movements of people between France and its colonies. While early information on the foreign population dates back to France's first census in 1851, the first attempts to codify and regulate immigration to France began in the post-World War II era.

The devastation of two world wars and low birthrates thereafter had left France with a limited national labor pool. The country saw a partial answer to its dwindling workforce in the recruitment of foreign labor, initially from Belgium and Germany as well as from Poland, Russia, Italy, and Spain.

Immigration to France increased during the wars of liberation and decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. For France, the impact was felt especially acutely in the free and unregulated entries of immigrants from Algeria. This was particularly true in the period leading up to and following Algerian independence from France in 1962 with the signing of the Evian Agreement.

New arrivals included former French colonists resident in Algeria, as well as Algerians who had sided with France during the war of independence. In 1962, about 350,000 so-called "French Muslims" were counted in France. The number of Algerians rose to 470,000 in 1968 and to 800,000 in 1982.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, however, ushered in a period of tremendous social change. The maturing of the baby boom generation and the entrance of large numbers of women into the labor force limited the need for foreign workers. Economically, the oil price shock of 1973 further hamstrung economic performance, and led to an extended period of high unemployment.

In July 1974, the French government followed the lead of other European counterparts and officially ended its labor migration programs. The legislation also included provisions for sanctions affecting employers who hired illegal immigrants, a French policy innovation originally developed in the 1930s. Nonetheless, immigration continued and diversified over the following decades.

Reversal of Fortune

Since then, immigrant integration issues and political reversals suffered by both left and right have had an impact on French immigration policies. In 1993, the conservative government's interior minister, Charles Pasqua, put forth the goal of "zero immigration," later qualified to mean zero illegal immigration.

The so-called Pasqua Laws prohibited foreign graduates from accepting in-country employment, increased the waiting period for family reunification from one to two years, and denied residence permits to foreign spouses who had been in France illegally prior to marrying. The legislation also enhanced the powers of police to deport foreigners and eliminated opportunities to appeal asylum rejections. The election of a conservative president in 1995 continued the course of limiting immigration channels.

Indeed, the ambiguity expressed by parts of the French electorate and political leaders was already apparent in the late-1980s when the far-right National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen began to make significant gains in local elections, building on an anti-immigrant agenda. By the early 1990s, with the popularity of Le Pen's party on the rise, the conservative right responded by embracing some components of the far-right agenda, particularly the immigration one.

The resulting legislative changes altered the migration landscape. In 1990, 102,400 foreigners settled in France (not including undocumented immigrants but including workers, refugees, and those joining their families). The years from 1995 to 1997 were marked by a continuous decline in permanent entries, which saw the lowest levels registered since the end of World War II: 69,300 entries in 1994, 56,700 in 1995 and 55,600 in 1996.

In 1997, the streams began to increase once more and exceeded the 100,000 mark. Of the 102,400 who entered in 1997, 78,000 foreigners came from outside the European Economic Area (the European Union plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein).

In the streets, however, the Pasqua Laws were not left unchallenged. In the summer of 1996, a group of Africans and Chinese who were unable to obtain residence permits - even though many had resided in France for several years and could not be legally deported - occupied a church in Paris.

These sans papiers (people without legal documents) mobilized the support of over 10,000 people who marched in Paris on their behalf. The police broke up the demonstration, but similar acts of civil disobedience by the sans papiers and their supporters continued throughout the 1995 to 1997 period.

In 1997, the Socialists won control of the National Assembly and began rethinking immigration policy. At the government's request, political scientist Patrick Weil and a team of government experts produced a report on nationality and citizenship. The report asserted that the Pasqua Laws deprived France of human capital by deterring foreign students and professionals from settling in France.

Weil's recommendations served as the basis for new 1997 and 1998 legislation. Ratified in the name of national interest, the new rules aimed to provide highly skilled workers, scholars, and scientists with a special immigrant status, while simultaneously combating illegal immigration.

The March 16, 1998 law on nationality along with the RESEDA Law of May 11, 1998 on foreign immigration sought to ease the admission procedures for graduates and highly skilled employees. In addition, a regularization procedure, launched in June 1997, legalized the status of roughly 87,000 unauthorized immigrants out of roughly 150,000 applicants.

Since then, the inflow of foreign students has continued to rise, accounting for 25,100 entries in 1999, compared to over 147,000 in 2001. Furthermore, the principle of jus soli that had been modified by the Pasqua Laws was reinstated. Under the Pasqua Laws, children born in France of foreign parents were required to make a "voluntary declaration" of their intention to acquire French citizenship. After 1998, children of foreign parents automatically acquire French citizenship at the age of 18.

The Current Context

More recently, despite poor economic performance and growing concerns about illegal immigration, immigration is on the rise again. According to the 2003 Trends in International Migration Report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), from 1999 to 2002, total permanent entries significantly increased, totaling 104,400 in 1999 and 141,000 in 2001 including European Economic Area (EEA) nationals.

The main reason for immigration remains family reunification, accounting for 70 percent of the entries from non-EEA countries and 33 percent of the entries from EEA countries. In addition, another 50,600 people entered as temporary immigrants, who include students and those with a temporary work permit.

In November 2003, the National Assembly passed a law amending legislation on immigration and on the residence of foreigners on French territories. The new law provides stricter regulations to combat illegal immigration and to regulate the admission and stay of foreigners in France.

Asylum Applications

Applications for asylum increased dramatically at the end of the 1980s, growing from 22,500 in 1982, to 34,300 in 1988, and 61,400 in 1989. The turn towards asylum channels by some immigrants can be partially explained by the stricter visa requirements and stiffer conditions of entry for work, family entry, and settlement.

Increased numbers of asylum seekers and greater scrutiny of approvals have reduced the number of approvals. Between 1980 and 1995, the approval rate for asylum applications fell from 85 percent to less than 20 percent, where it held steady for 1998 and 1999. This figure does not include those claims that were eventually granted an appeal, which would increase slightly the overall approval percentage.

From 1999 to 2003, applications for asylum in France continued to increase. The Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides (OFPRA), the French asylum determination body, received 30,900 applications for asylum in 1999 compared to 52,204 in 2003. These numbers may represent more than one individual as they do not include spouses or children of applicants.

In 2003, the OFPRA approved 9,790 initial applications for asylum out of 52,204 applications received. The admission rate in 2003 was 9.8 percent compared to 12.6 percent in 2002.

A 2003 report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) outlines some of the major trends in asylum. Asylum applications from Asia have been increasing, particularly from China, totaling 5,307 in 2003 compared to 2,885 in 2002. Also notable, applications from individuals from Turkey have steadily increased (7,345 applications in 2003 compared to 6,988 in 2002).

In general, applications from African countries have been decreasing. Applications from Algeria declined from 2,888 in 2002 to 2,448 in 2003. Despite a slight decrease in the number of applications received from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - 4,625 applications in 2003 compared to 5,375 in 2002 - the DRC remains France's largest origin country of asylum seekers from Africa.

The rising number of asylum applications has challenged the adequacy of French asylum policies. France does not provide for systematic refugee resettlement, nor does it yet accept the "safe third country" concept whereby an asylum seeker coming from outside the EU but through a "safe" country may be, under certain conditions, returned to this "safe" country. In addition, asylum seekers have limited access to social welfare benefits and are not allowed to work.

In 2003, the government made several moves to reform the asylum application process, including the introduction of the "safe third country" and "domestic asylum" concepts. The latter allows OFPRA to deny asylum to persons who could have found protection in their country of origin.

At the European level, France has expressed reservations on Dublin II, which came into effect in September 2003. Dublin II revised the terms of the 1990 Dublin Convention, which outlined common formal arrangements on asylum, stating that when people have been refused asylum in one member state, they may not seek asylum in another. Dublin II established criteria and mechanisms to determine the Member State responsible for examining applications for asylum. The goal of Dublin II is to expedite asylum application procedures and to counteract potential abuses of the asylum system.

The Sangatte Asylum Issue

In 1999, the opening of the Sangatte emergency center near the Eurotunnel transport terminal in Calais quickly became a source of political tensions and bilateral disputes between France and Great Britain. The center was a transit location for asylum seekers - most of them Afghans, Iraqis, and Kurds - intending to illegally enter Britain and to apply for territorial asylum there. The issue raised security and humanitarian concerns.

In July 2002, French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his British counterpart, David Blunkett, agreed to close the center. In the meantime, bilateral negotiations on immigration issues set the stage for burden sharing on asylum applications and security cooperation, and led to the adoption of the Sangatte Protocol. The Protocol provides for the establishment of additional control offices as well as provisions on asylum applications. In addition, Great Britain adopted a tighter law to control illegal immigration and to restrict the right to asylum in its territories.

In practice, the Sangatte asylum crisis has highlighted underlying difficulties to share responsibilities and to harmonize European asylum and immigration policies under the Dublin Convention. It has also underscored the need to create a comprehensive common asylum system in Europe.

French by Nationality and by Origin

The French census tracks "nationality" as a category and distinguishes between those who are born in France, those who have acquired French citizenship, and those who are foreigners. After the 1990 census, based on recommendations by the government's High Council for Integration, the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) also adopted the category of "immigrant," defined in France as "a person born abroad with a foreign nationality."

French statistics on immigration are best understood in three categories:

French by birth. This includes the offspring of French citizens who were born either in France or abroad.

French by acquisition. This includes individuals who have acquired French by naturalization after moving to France, by declaration (as with children born in France of immigrant parents), and some others.

Foreigners. This includes individuals in France who were born abroad as well as children, under the age of 18, who were born in France of immigrant parents. It also includes any individual born in France of foreign parents who chooses not to adopt French nationality at the age of 18.

Thus, because of the peculiarities of French nationality laws, not all foreigners are immigrants, because the children born in France of foreigners generally remain foreigners until the age of 18.

In 1999, the stock of foreigners born in France totaled 510,000. Another 1,580,000 immigrants born abroad had become French by acquisition.

By adding the category of "foreigners" to those who became "French by acquisition," a new category is derived - "foreigners by nationality or origin." This new category includes only a proportion of the descendants of immigrants. In total, this new category included nearly 10 percent of the population of France in 1999 (see Table 1).

The 1999 census shows that new immigrants compose a growing proportion of the foreign-born population in France, which has grown by 6.8 percent over its 1982 level, from 4,037,000 to 4,310,000. Algerians, still the largest group, make up 13.4 percent (575,740) of the immigrant population, slightly less than the 14.8 percent (597,644) in 1982. Similarly, Italian and Spanish populations in France are declining in terms of relative population.


Table 1: Population living in France according to nationality and place of birth, in 1999 (in thousands)
Place of birth
Born in France
Born Abroad
French by birth
French by acquisition
Total population
Of which
Foreigners by nationality or origin
Foreign born
Source: INSEE, Census 1999

More dynamic currents in the 1999 census include Moroccans (521,000 or 12.1 percent), Turks (176,000 or 4.1 percent) and people from sub-Saharan Africa (400,000 or 9.3 percent). With an increase of 43 percent, these groups have undergone the greatest increase in the period between 1990 and 1999, compared with the 3.4 percent increase of the overall immigrant population over the same period.

It is also important to note that immigrants from Southeast Asia are also increasing in number, especially those from China, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Since the 1990s, naturalizations have been on the rise. In 1995, 92,400 people assumed French nationality, including 61,884 by naturalization and 30,000 children of immigrants who assumed nationality. In 2000, 150,025 applications were approved. The origins of these new French citizens are North Africa (48 percent), Europe (16 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (7.5 percent), and Turkey (8.5 percent).

The results of the next census will be available in 2005.

Managing a Mosaic

The visibility of immigrants, especially from North Africa, has shed new light on the difficulties of integrating immigrants and managing diversity. France's long tradition of equating French citizenship with equal treatment has meant that the government has not tracked ethnic origins in official statistics, unlike in the United States or Great Britain. (France has traditionally viewed the retention of ethnic identity as an obstacle to both integration and national solidarity.)

Yet, since the mid-1990s, discrimination has become a new preoccupation of the authorities and scholars. Breaking with the French model of integration that emphasized French identity over ethnic identities, new terms have emerged to help identify these communities, such as the "second generation" or "persons born in France of immigrant parents." These terms have helped to provide more information on the scope of discrimination and its mechanisms.

The prime minister announced on July 8, 2004 the creation of a "cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration" (National Center for Immigration History), akin to the Ellis Island Museum in New York City. This center will promote the memory and heritage of different immigrant groups and explore their contributions to French society. It is an important step towards recognizing the crucial place of immigrants in contemporary French history.

Promoting Secularism in a Religiously Diverse Society

Since 1989, controversies surrounding the wearing of a headscarf (hijab) in public schools have sporadically punctuated social and political debates. The wearing of headscarves and other ostentatious religious symbols in public schools has been denounced by some as incompatible with French republican and secularist values. Others fear that attempts to curtail such religious expression only perpetuate an assimilationist model of integration that is not respectful of personal and religious freedom.

In July 2003, in the midst of intensified debates opposing Islamic religious organizations and political institutions, President Chirac appointed a commission to reflect and engage public thought on the principle of secularism in the French Republic. The commission was composed of a broad cross section of the French public, from parents to company managers.

The emphasis of the commission's resulting report is on the need to respect constitutional secularist and republican values in the public sphere as a unifying factor in a diverse society. Although the commission issued 25 recommendations to President Chirac and the parliament, the decision related to the wearing of headscarves has garnered the lion's share of attention. It is also the only recommendation that has been put into effect.

While supporting the argument that freedom of religion should be respected under constitutional law, the commission recommended that ostentatious religious symbols be banned in public schools. The commission's report argued that the French educational system should be a neutral environment where the principles of secularism, republicanism, and citizenship are taught and reflected. The report also supported developing other policies to fight against discrimination in the public sphere, responding to mounting concerns that discrimination is on the rise.

On February 10, 2004, the French Assembly passed the law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools with a majority of votes (494 to 36) and broad public support. L'Union pour une Majorité Populaire (UMP) and the Parti Socialiste (PS) have been the strongest supporters of the law while the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF) and the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) were divided.

The decision to ban headscarves and other ostentatious religious symbols in schools strikes at the core of French concerns about religious freedom in a diverse society. Some critics have argued that such a decision is a political statement designed to allay public concerns. They view the decision as profoundly anti-Islam rather than pro-secularism. It has also been interpreted as an indirect legitimization of anti-Arab stereotypes, fostering rather than preventing racism.

Others have welcomed the decision. They believe that the legislation frees those girls who do not want to wear a headscarf from growing pressures to comply with Islamic law. They view the legislation as an act against religious persecution of any kind rather than a statement on Islam, per se.

The Ministry of Education has been stepping up its efforts to enforce the new law. In practice, this has affected not only Muslim girls but also Sikh boys who have been asked to remove their turbans. Finding the right balance, and one that reflects the protections that the law is ostensibly designed to uphold, will continue to be a popular and political struggle.

While integration has long been viewed as a national prerogative, it is clear that France's actions in this regard will have ramifications across Europe, within other Islamic communities, and within the broader human rights community.


Ongoing efforts to resolve the headscarf affair reflect the myriad interests that have coalesced in France, shaped by immigration, religion, France's colonial history, emerging multiculturalism, domestic labor needs, and the broader context of post-September 11 security politics.

Whether the new law reaffirms the principles of secularism and republicanism in the French public sphere or simply responds to public and political concerns about extremist Islamist groups in France misses a broader point.

Any effort to manage diversity within a democracy requires fair, feasible, and transparent policies that result from broad consultation with affected communities. France is only at the beginning of that iterative process. It is likely that many more changes and adjustments will come as intended and unintended consequences of such legislation become apparent.


December 2003 expert commission report on the principles of secularism in France delivered to French President Jaques Chirac (in French). Available online.

European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), "ECRE Country Report 2003: France" Available online.

Hamilton, Kimberly. 1997. "Europe, Africa, and International Migration: an Uncomfortable Triangle of Interests." New Community 23(4): 549-570.

Law banning the wearing of any conspicuous signs in public schools (in French). Available online.

Law on the High Authority to combat discriminations and to promote equality (in French). Available online.

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