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E.g., 09/28/2022
France Reckons with Immigration Amid Reality of Rising Far Right

France Reckons with Immigration Amid Reality of Rising Far Right

People in France rally for far-right politician Marine Le Pen on May Day.

People in France rally for far-right politician Marine Le Pen on May Day. (Photo: iStock.com/DWalker44)

As a major European economic power, France has long been a country of immigration, and the arrival of newcomers especially from less developed countries has been central to its political debate for many years. The economic and social effects of immigration have been sources of contention since the end of the 19th century, and the debate has intensified since the 1970s,  amid an economic slowdown, higher unemployment, and the slow but gradual rise of the far right. In 2002, far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election by focusing on concerns over immigration, and in 2017 and 2022 his daughter and political heir Marine Le Pen repeated the feat, coming within 17 percentage points of defeating President Emmanuel Macron in the April 24 runoff.

To far-right parties such as Le Pen’s National Rally, immigration represents a threat to French identity and security, as well as a huge economic and social cost, to which the government should respond by closing its borders. Immigration and integration issues have often been conflated with religion, notably since the latter half of the 20th century, when many Muslim immigrants arrived from former colonies in North Africa and posed what some interpreted as a challenge to France’s avowedly secular national identity.

Although the voices of the Le Pens and the even more radical far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour represent the fringe, the language and policies embraced by more centrist politicians has also gradually evolved to view immigration with greater skepticism. Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007 by advancing a vision of a more selective immigration system, and Macron, seemingly in response to the electoral threat from the far right, has over his tenure pushed to harden the European Union’s external borders and restrict asylum seekers’ access to government services. Meanwhile, in 2022 the center-right Républicains party decried what it saw as an out-of-control influx of immigrants.

However, the central role of immigration in political debates is outsized compared to the demographic reality, which has led to a public misperception of the size and growth of the immigrant population. More than 6.5 million immigrants resided in France as of 2018, the most recent year for which definitive census data are available, accounting for about 10 percent of the total population. Of these immigrants, 37 percent were naturalized citizens. While France’s foreign-born population has increased by about 36 percent over the last 20 years, its growth rate is lower than in Germany (where the immigrant population has grown by 75 percent over the same period) or the United Kingdom (where the immigrant population has almost doubled). There are no accurate estimates of the size of the unauthorized immigrant population in France, but evidence from state medical assistance data suggests a low-end estimate of approximately 315,000.

Government reforms of immigration policy have been nearly constant. Since 1945, France has passed a formal law on immigration every two years on average, in addition to multiple directives, circulars, and other regulatory instruments. Le Monde in 2019 calculated 100 reforms enacted since World War II, which have resulted in a labyrinth of regulations complicating immigrants’ access to rights and services. However, these rules do not achieve what some have proclaimed as their target of halting all immigration, deporting and expelling all irregular migrants, or drastically reducing family and humanitarian immigration. Meanwhile, France’s closer integration with other members of the European Union has allowed for easier movement and interconnectedness across the continent. 

It is difficult to assess the individual effects of many of the immigration-related measures taken by successive governments, since changes have occurred so frequently and many issues are the result of factors outside the government’s control, such as the 2015-16 European migration crisis or the recent exodus of millions of people from Ukraine. Yet combined, they suggest that the government has shown an increasing interest in more selective immigration policies, which in recent years has sought to attract highly skilled migrants and impose barriers for asylum seekers and others. In different phases over the last century, immigrants came largely from southern Europe and then from former colonies in North Africa, often to serve specific economic functions until the situation and public attitudes changed. This country profile examines the trends of immigration to France since World War II, with a particular focus on developments over the last two decades.

Defining Immigrants in France

The French census collects data on respondents’ nationality at birth. Not every individual born in France is automatically a French citizen, so an immigrant is an individual who was born abroad as a foreign national but now resides in France. This does not include people born in France without French citizenship who may or may not have acquired citizenship later in life, such as when they became an adult. Immigrant status is permanent, and individuals who acquire French citizenship are still considered to be a part of the immigrant population.

Historical Immigration Trends

France’s formal immigration system began after World War II, as the country emerged from years of conflict in serious need of rebuilding. The period between World War I and World War II was characterized by an intensification of intra-European migration to meet the needs of reconstruction. Between 1921 and 1931, France’s immigrant population increased from 1.4 million to 2.7 million, according to census data. However, the economic crisis of the 1930s prompted France and other Western European countries to tighten controls and introduce measures to encourage settled immigrants to return to their places of origin.

To accommodate the increased need for labor following World War II, France opened migration channels for foreign-born workers and their families, particularly from nearby European countries. Similar to Germany and other major European destinations, France established programs to admit large numbers of foreign workers and was a founding member of the European Economic Community, which preceded the European Union and allowed for free movement of workers and others.

As a result, France’s immigrant population nearly doubled from almost 2 million in 1946 to 3.9 million in 1975. Almost half of all immigrants in 1975 were from three European countries: Italy, Spain, and Portugal (see Figure 1). Newly independent former colonies in North Africa were another major source of immigration over the latter half of the 20th century, representing 26 percent of the foreign-born population in France in 1975.

Figure 1. Immigrants in France by Place of Birth, 1946-2018

Source: Author's analysis of multiple years of census statistics from the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE).

Economic crises following oil shocks of the 1970s led to drastic restrictions including suspension of the entry of new foreign workers, payments to encourage immigrants already in France to voluntarily leave, and tightened border controls. These efforts were mainly targeted at North Africans and other non-European nationals who were excluded from the right to free movement and settlement granted by the European Economic Community and its successor, the European Union. But these restrictions were largely ineffective, as many immigrants from former colonies did not return to their origin countries. Many were unwilling to go to places with even worse economic situations and were also uninterested in giving up residence and work permits which many feared they would never regain. Instead, many people who had initially come alone to work on a temporary basis subsequently brought their spouses and children to settle permanently.

The 1970s also saw the emergence of Jean Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National political party, which has since under Marine Le Pen evolved into the Rassemblement National (RN, or National Rally). The far right has focused heavily on immigration, associating it with the worsening economic situation. A 1973 Front National poster, for instance, read, “Stop unemployment, jobs for the French people,” while in 1978 legislative elections a similar slogan claimed, “1 million unemployed is 1 million immigrants too many.”

Legal labor immigration of non-European nationals remained very limited for a long time after the 1980s. This led to an important change in the composition of immigration, with more families and humanitarian migrants. Nevertheless, from 1975 to 1999 the foreign-born share of the overall population remained stable at slightly more than 7 percent. Meanwhile the composition of the foreign-born population diversified with the increase of immigrants from non-European third countries, mainly from former colonies.

Current Immigration Population and Policies  

Over the last 20 years, immigration has increased France’s population by approximately 2.3 million, and comes from a more diverse set of origins. In 1975, six countries were the origins for 75 percent of the immigrant population, whereas in the 2018 census the top ten countries of origin accounted for less than 60 percent of all immigrants. Still, the largest origin countries are those with deep ties to France—Algeria is the main country of origin, followed by Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Italy (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Top Countries of Origin for Immigrants in France, 2018

Source: Author's analysis of INSEE, “Étrangers - Immigrés en 2018,” updated June 30, 2021, available online.

A little more than half of all immigrants in France are female. The share of women and girls among the immigrant population has risen slowly, from 46 percent in 1946 to 52 percent in 2018, a development that is particularly visible among immigrants from Africa. In 2018, 49 percent of African immigrants were women and girls, compared to 29 percent in 1975. Approximately 76 percent of all immigrants in 2018 were of working age (between ages 16 and 64), which is higher than the 64 percent in this age group among the overall population.

The major policy development in recent years has concerned immigration of skilled laborers, which the government has encouraged in several ways. The 1998 Chevènement Law on immigration and asylum aimed to create residence permits specifically for artistic, cultural, and scientific professionals, now grouped together as Passeport Talent residence permits. These permits are unusual in that, unlike many other employment-related residence permits, employers generally do not need to first prove that the job on offer has not been filled by a candidate already living in France, and do not need to ask for a work permit.

Similarly, Sarkozy, first as interior minister and then as president from 2007 to 2012, thoroughly shaped France’s current immigration system, in part by promoting a policy of “chosen” immigration (l’immigration choisie) rather than immigration that he described as “imposed” on France (l'immigration subie), such as of families and humanitarian migrants. A series of reforms were enacted under this philosophy, beginning with a November 2003 law that intended to halt irregular migration and tighten the conditions for obtaining a ten-year residence permit. Similar laws in 2006 and 2007 provided measures to attract skilled workers and combat irregular migration, such as by easing some international students’ transition to work permits and scaling back regularization programs. The 2006 law also introduced restrictive conditions for family reunification, such as higher income requirements, and simplified the procedure to forcibly return irregular migrants.

The government undertook large-scale regularization programs in 1981 and 1997 that gave legal status to approximately 200,000 migrants; broad-brush legalizations have since been replaced by individual determinations. Before the Socialists came into office in 2012, the criteria for regularization were discretionary depending on the prefectures, however a ministerial circular issued that November, known as the Valls Circular, specified clear eligibility rules and additional requirements. As a result, the number of people regularized on employment grounds each year has increased since 2012, from nearly 3,000 to just under 8,200 in 2018.

Under Macron, the government has promoted a balance between “humanity and firmness,” but at times has enacted restrictive measures seemingly to defend against political challenges from the far right. A 2018 immigration law known as the Collomb Law increased the maximum detention for migrants entering without authorization to 90 days, shortened the deadline to apply for asylum, and increased the possibility of deporting rejected asylum seekers. On the other hand, the law also facilitated the entry and stay of international students and highly qualified workers, extended family reunification pathways to the siblings of protected minors, and introduced a four-year residence permit for stateless people and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. In 2019, the government unveiled measures tightening access to health care for asylum seekers and unauthorized immigrants, which it described as “taking back control” of immigration. It also announced a willingness to share the responsibility for migrants rescued in the Mediterranean and adopt a more open employment-based immigration policy to meet labor market needs.

Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically limited international mobility and caused a near-global lockdown affecting France’s economy and public services, as with other countries. Economic sectors in which immigrants have largely been over-represented were hard hit, including hospitality, security, and cleaning services. To deal with the closure of public offices and restrictions on travel, the French government extended residence permits, temporary authorizations of stay, and asylum application certificates for a six-month period. Government support measures for employers, businesses, and employees were also opened to legally present immigrants, and  international students have been allowed to work more hours. At the end of 2020, 17,000 foreign workers in occupations identified as essential had become naturalized.

A Significant Increase in Immigrants’ Educational Attainment

Perhaps in part due to the efforts of successive French administrations, immigrants’ level of education has risen sharply in recent decades. In 1975, just 3 percent of immigrants had a higher education degree (which includes a postsecondary diploma or a certificate from a professionally oriented program), compared to 28 percent in 2018.

Immigrants tend to be at one end or the other of the education spectrum: Compared to the overall population, a greater share of immigrants had only a primary-level education (33 percent of the foreign born and 14 percent of the total population in 2018) or a university degree (19 percent and 22 percent respectively; see Figure 3). At the same time, the proportion of immigrants with some postsecondary education (which may include certificates from professionally oriented programs) but not a bachelor's degree are lower than in the resident population. However, recent immigrants who have been in France for less than five years tend to be better educated.

Figure 3. Educational Attainment in France by Nativity, 2018

Note: Recent immigrants are those who arrived between 2014 and 2018.
Source: Hippolyte D’Albis and Ekrame Boubtane, “Les étudiants internationaux : des immigrés comme les autres?” La Vie des idées, December 17, 2021, available online.

EU Nationals in France

EU nationals in France enjoy the right to freely enter the country, reside there, and find a job. This is not the case for non-EU nationals, who require a residence permit. The 1957 Treaty of Rome introduced free movement of workers and their family members within the European market, and the scope has changed with the multiple enlargements of the European Economic Community and then the European Union. The 1994 creation of the European Economic Area extended some of the bloc’s provisions to three European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries—Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway—as well as Switzerland, which is also an EFTA member but has its own bilateral agreements with the European Union. Thirty-one countries, including France, are in Europe’s free-movement zone.

European migrants benefiting from free movement represented 30 percent of the immigrant population in France (nearly 2 million people) as of the 2018 census. They were mainly from the 15 mostly Western and Southern EU Member States that comprised the bloc before its 2004 enlargement (the EU-15) and EFTA countries. Nevertheless, the number of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe has sharply increased over the last 20 years.

Accurate data, however, are limited. Unlike some other countries, France has no source for tracking migration other than residence permit figures, and the free movement of people between EU Member States makes it more difficult to record immigration from these countries. According to estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), France in 2019 received slightly more than 78,000 immigrants from elsewhere in the European Union and 450,000 EU workers sent by their employers in France under local contracts. These posted workers remain attached to the social protection systems of their countries of origin, generally hold short-term contracts, and work in construction or freight transport sectors. Social security contributions are high in France compared to Eastern European countries, so some critics have alleged that posted workers from these places are allowed to unfairly compete against native-born laborers. In his first major political struggle on a European scale, Macron had advocated for a European Commission proposal to strengthen enforcement and revise rules for posting workers, which the European Parliament adopted in 2018. This reform tightened rules to apply local labor standards for posted workers and shorten the period of their postings.

Emigration from France

Approximately 2.3 million people born in France lived abroad as of 2020 according to UN estimates. While this is amounts to a 48 percent increase compared to 2000, France nonetheless has one of the lowest emigration rates in the OECD.

Most French emigrants live elsewhere in Europe or in North America. Neighboring Spain is the top destination, with 221,000 French migrants, followed by Belgium (nearly 190,000), the United Kingdom and Switzerland (each with 170,000), and the United States (162,000), according to 2020 UN estimates.

Trends in Immigration of Third-Country Nationals

Immigration to France from outside the European Union and EFTA tends to be most closely monitored by authorities and is the object of most policy concerns and public debate. Before the onset of COVID-19, arrivals of third-country nationals were at a significant high.

Data on residence permits are the primary way to understand this migration flow, and in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, France issued slightly more than 257,000 first residence permits valid for at least one year to non-EU and non-EFTA immigrants—the highest since at least 2000 (see Figure 4). Immigrants from third countries settled in France mainly for family reasons (41 percent) and for study (25 percent), followed by immigration for humanitarian purposes (13 percent) and for work (12 percent). Immigration for family reunification has been broadly stable for the past 20 years, but immigration for work and education has increased sharply since 2012.

 Figure 4. Third-Country Nationals’ Immigration to France by Pathway, 2000-19

Source: Update by the author of data contained in Didier Breton, Nicolas Belliot, Magali Barbieri, Hippolyte d’Albis, and Magali Mazuy, ”Recent Demographic Trends in France: The Disruptive Impact of COVID-19 on French Population Dynamics: Fewer Births and Marriages, a Downturn in Migration, More Deaths…” Population 76, no. 4 (2021): 537-94, available online.

The number of third-country nationals immigrating for work purposes increased from fewer than 12,000 in 2012 to more than 30,000 in 2019—a growth of 158 percent. Over the same period, immigration for study purposes increased by 50 percent, from 43,000 to 65,000. However, amid the onset of the pandemic, 2020 witnessed a 46 percent reduction in immigration for work purposes and 24 percent drop in immigration for study, according to the Ministry of the Interior’s estimates.

Immigration for humanitarian reasons has also increased, with the number of refugees, stateless persons, and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection tripling, from close to 10,000 in 2013 to almost 30,000 in 2019. With an average of 109,700 asylum applications per year between 2015 and 2019, France is Europe’s second largest host country for asylum seekers, after Germany, which had an average of 358,800 applications per year over the same period. Asylum seekers in France receive provisional, six-month, renewable residence authorization pending a decision on their application. If their application is accepted, they are granted a residence permit for four or ten years. Asylum seekers whose applications are rejected must leave France within one month, after which they are considered irregular migrants. Some are regularized by obtaining a residence permit for another reason (such as through education, family, or employment), often many years later. Among asylum applicants in 2000, almost 60 percent had been admitted for residence by the end of 2016, one third of them as refugees, stateless persons, or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, and slightly more than half for family reasons. In 2019, nearly 47,400 asylum seekers were admitted as permanent immigrants for any reason, accounting for about 18 percent of all immigrants that year.

At times, would-be asylum seekers have also used France as a transit country, particularly for heading to the United Kingdom. At multiple points since the 1990s, thousands of migrants have camped in and around Calais, where they have sought to cross the English Channel often as stowaways, spurring heightened political tensions between Paris and London. The United Kingdom’s 2021 departure from the European Union and the significant halt to movement brought on by the pandemic has prompted many migrants to attempt the hazardous crossing in inflatable boats or other small vessels, with sometimes tragic results; in November 2021, 27 people died attempting the journey in a dinghy, spurring new public outrage.

Immigrants Who Enter as Students Increasingly Stay on to Work

In recent years, France has had one of Europe’s largest populations of international students, with 283,700 at the start of the 2018 academic year (including EU nationals), second only to the United Kingdom and representing 11 percent of France’s students in tertiary education. Between 2000 and 2018, an average of 47,400 third-country students entered France each year, with steadily increasing numbers after 2012 and as many as 65,800 in 2018, when students represented around one-quarter of all immigrants.

Many of these students stay in France for multiple years. Between 42 percent and 50 percent of international students who arrived from 2000 to 2014 continued to hold a valid residence permit five years later, a range that has remains remarkably stable over time (see Figure 5). Most were still students, although since 2006 an increasing share has obtained work permits (notably for highly qualified individuals), reflecting greater labor market integration of immigrants arriving as students. The figures decreased slightly for the cohorts that arrived in 2007 and 2008, reflecting actions by the interior and labor ministries in 2011 asking prefectures to “rigorously” examine students’ applications for change of status, although these provisions were repealed the following May, after François Hollande became president.

Figure 5. Share of International Students Holding a French Residence Permit Five Years after Arrival, by Reason for the Permit’s Issuance, 2000-14

Note: Years in the figure refer to the year of the student’s arrival in France. Data reflect the share of international students holding a valid residence permit on December 31 of the fourth year after arrival.
Source: D’Albis and Boubtane, “Les étudiants internationaux : des immigrés comme les autres?” 

For the most part, less than 10 percent of all recent immigration from countries outside the European Union and EFTA has been for work. However, annual flows have been increasing steadily since 2012, partly due to political changes. Since 2008, highly skilled immigration has grown at a steady pace (in 2019 more than 7,000 highly skilled immigrants arrived with at least a master’s degree and an offer for a job paying above the average wage), and the government has used employment channels to regularize irregular migrants, including asylum seekers whose applications were denied. Employment-based immigration is overwhelmingly male and highly concentrated in Paris and a few neighboring departments.

Issues on the Horizon

Until July, France holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, and during its six-month term has sought to advance bloc-wide migration priorities including the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was first unveiled in September 2020, as well as preventing irregular migration and controlling inflows.

As of this writing it is unclear how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will influence the bloc’s approach to migration, particularly the European Council’s adoption of the new immigration and asylum framework. The conflict has presented Europe with the largest refugee movements since World War II, with well more than 5.5 million Ukrainians seeing refuge abroad as of early May. The overwhelming solidarity in support of those displaced people prompted the European Union for the first time to invoke a special temporary protection mechanism granting them at least one year of legal status. Yet the consequences of a prolonged conflict and extended stay are unclear.

Before the war, approximately 18,000 Ukrainians lived in France, according to UN data. The vast majority of those displaced by the war went to neighboring countries such as Poland; the terms of their protection allow them to move freely within the European Union. According to the government, approximately 30,000 Ukrainians had arrived in France in the first month after the invasion, although half were expected to continue onward to Spain or other destinations.

Members of the French political class including Marine Le Pen have by and large expressed support for Ukrainians, although there have been some exceptions, such as Zemmour. This is a change of tone from previous years when refugees, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, were generally not welcomed with open arms. “While taking our share, we cannot welcome all the misery of the world,” Macron said in 2017, quoting the former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

Le Pen’s approach towards displaced Ukrainians might suggest a slight softening by some elements of the far right. Still, her campaign speeches and platforms demonstrated the opposite. Her recent electoral performance underscores the public’s receptivity towards politicians who claim France has already taken its share of immigrants and cannot afford to host more. Républicain candidate Valérie Pécresse, who in 2022 finished in fifth place with 5 percent of the vote, sought to revise the constitution to “stop uncontrolled immigration” and promised to hold a referendum on immigration policies. Although Le Pen may have improved her political standing by softening her rhetoric on immigration, she may arguably have been aided by Zemmour's outflanking her on the far right; his proposal of a referendum to achieve “zero immigration” made Le Pen appear more moderate than she might have otherwise.

Outsized Focus at Odds with Reality

Despite these political pressures, immigration trends in France are comparable to other countries and not, as some of the far right have claimed, a reflection that the government has lost control. Immigrants represent just about 10 percent of France’s total population and the numbers have not increased dramatically in recent years, yet issues of migration were prominent during the 2022 election and appear likely to persist.

In particular, government efforts today are focused on encouraging immigration of highly educated people deemed to be good for the French economy, and limiting arrivals of everyone else. In many ways, this is simply an updated version of France’s decades-old focus on welcoming immigrants whose characteristics and skills are considered useful to the economy, as it did in the years after World War II. Yet the distinction between beneficial and detrimental migration is misplaced, both because it can be deeply hurtful to those who are deemed unwanted, but also because economic analysis by the author and others shows that family migration has led to an increase in France’s per capita gross domestic product and that asylum seekers do not burden European economies.

Political figures on France’s far right have advanced an apocalyptic and radical vision of how immigration is changing their country, which is out of step with current realities. During her campaign, Le Pen promised to stop family reunification, make it harder for children of immigrants born in France to be citizens, and limit welfare benefits to French citizens. Even in defeat, her performance in 2022 underscores how willing many French voters are to embrace these kinds of approaches.

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