French Integration Policy: Old Goals in New Bottles?
France is introducing a new three-pronged approach to immigrant integration: a revised integration plan, a proactive campaign against discrimination, and a more open but still highly selective immigration policy.
It remains to be seen, however, how much of this initiative is a repackaging of previous programs. The new concept builds on past integration policy, which has focused on encouraging immigrants to adjust to mainstream cultural norms as part of the process of settlement. Adaptation, more than integration, is in fact the key word in this policy.
The approach was introduced in an address on "national cohesion" delivered in October by President Jacques Chirac. His speech was quickly followed by supportive comments from Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as well as from the minister of social affairs, François Fillon, and of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who share responsibility for implementing integration policy. These comments by top leaders underscored the priority now placed on immigrant integration, and provided an opportunity to review the current phase in the ongoing process of redefining the French integration model.
The recent government moves come against the backdrop of a surprisingly strong showing by the extreme right in the June 2002 national elections. Most analyses of the extreme right's success highlighted the failure of other political parties to embrace the French cultural pluralism embodied in the more than five million people of Arab origin and growing communities from other parts of the world.
The main concrete measure in the plan is a new "integration contract" to be forged with recent immigrants. Such an agreement would provide new arrivals with extensive language classes and civic education. In addition, regular meetings with a "tutor" would facilitate access to social services.
However, this program is not new; it has been in place since 1993 and roughly 20,000 immigrants have taken advantage of it. The Chirac plan is new only in that it increases the capacity of the state to provide the training.
While participation in the program is not mandatory, officials say that strong incentives will be developed to encourage immigrants to take part. Such incentives will place the responsibility for achieving integration -- in this case defined as completed language and civic training --falls on immigrants rather than the state.
In other aspects of integration, the National Assembly in December denied foreigners from outside the European Union the right to vote in local elections, quashing a strategic proposal to extend voting rights by the Socialist Party. Commenting on the vote, the prime minister emphasized that French citizenship should remain the main path leading to integration into French society, and from that this would flow from voting rights.
On the other hand, Sarkozy confirmed in December that sections of the law relating to "double penalty" -- the deportation of foreigners who commit offences that warrant imprisonment for more than six months, after serving the necessary prison sentence -- would be amended. The amendment would prevent the deportation of French-born foreigners or people who had resided in France for more than 15 years. This would mark an unprecedented move on an issue that for many years has been a bone of contention between the left government and non-governmental organizations supporting immigrants.
As the second aspect of the new approach, the government has moved strongly to counter discrimination by enforcing equal rights for immigrants and French citizens of immigrant origin. Launched in 1999, the fight against discrimination is now well established. The government is also moving to create the national "independent authority" required by the anti-discrimination European directives of 2000. The directives should be implemented before July 2003.
The new government policy will focus primarily on enforcing the anti-discrimination law. For the moment, there is no plan to implement affirmative action policies or to monitor ethnic and immigrant groups to provide data to evaluate the adverse effects of discrimination prior to any legal sanctions.
The government's approach to the third aspect of the new integration program -- immigration policy -- indicates a growing openness toward skilled workers. For many years, the republican right, a broad conservative coalition, has been lobbying for a relaxation of entry requirements into France to meet labor needs. Policy makers have come to realize the need for selective immigration, given the anticipated significant reduction of the workforce starting in 2010 when the post-war "baby boom" generation begins to retire.
The adoption of customized quotas or "green cards," like those of the United States, Canada, and some European countries, is being considered. This could help facilitate labor mobility. Such moves, however, still fail to meet the demand for even more openness requested by several immigrant advocacy organizations.