French Voters Rebuff Immigration's Resurgent Foes
To the amazement of observers and other political leaders, extreme right candidates made a powerful showing in the first round of the French presidential elections. Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front and Bruno Mégret of the Mouvement National Républicain (MNR) claimed almost 20 percent of the votes in what was widely viewed as a political upset. This particularly large share (almost 5 percent more than in the previous election in 1995) permitted Le Pen, who won nearly 17 percent of the vote, to compete against Jacques Chirac in the second round of voting.
Despite the challenge from the far right, Chirac, candidate of the Rassemblement Pour la République, was re-elected with 82 percent of the vote on May 5, 2002. This showing clearly reflected the voters' rejection of populist, xenophobic, racist, and authoritarian political parties. Further, the June 16 legislative elections to fill France's National Assembly were also revealing. Chirac's center-right coalition, Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP), and its supporters claimed 399 of the 577 seats. The National Front did not win a place at the table. Yet, the long-term implications of the events leading up to the election season are less clear. It is widely believed that the electoral weight of the National Front and, further, the influence of its ideas will have a significant impact on immigration and integration policies in the future.
Most analyses examining the reasons for the success of the extreme right highlight, beyond the parameters of the social and political crisis, 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. Others, such as Claude-Valentin Marie, director of the Group to Study and Combat Discrimination (GELD), view the advance of the far right as "evidence of a cultural bedrock of racism in France which is aggravated by the difference between political and symbolic representation and the composition of the population." Many immigrant groups and advocates have critiqued the lack of ethnically diverse political representation in positions ranging from the National Assembly to local mayoral posts.
Yet, immigration per se was not, at least at first glance, on the political agenda, making the success of the right appear somewhat paradoxical against an immigration backdrop. While the themes of immigration and integration had been at the heart of the 1988 and 1995 election campaigns, that of 2002 touched on them very little and focused instead on "crime and insecurity." Crime has been on the rise across Europe, but linking immigrants with crime has given a new twist to this enduring challenge. Sylvia Zappi, journalist with the daily Le Monde and specialist on immigration issues, suggests that the discourse on insecurity became another way of criminalizing immigration by blaming "young people of immigrant origin" whose population in France continues to grow.
The meeting of the European ministers of the interior in Rome on May 31, 2002 revealed a more profound impact of French and other elections across Europe. In reaction to the populist wave hitting several European countries governed by social democrats (France, the Netherlands, and Denmark), various countries are considering a hardening of the conditions for examining applications for asylum and a reinforcement of checks at European Union borders.
Transformations are already evident on the street level in France. Associations backing immigrants such as the Immigrant Information and Support Group (GISTI) have observed a change in attitudes. The police have stepped up their checks and the immigration departments have tightened their procedures.
Meanwhile, France continues to witness a sharp difference between the number of asylum applicants and the actual number of people accepted. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), although the volume of applications for asylum has increased by 272 percent since 1996 and by 22 percent compared to 2000, the rate of admission remained relatively low at roughly 12.4 percent in 2001.
In the short term, France's immigration and integration policies are likely to be characterized by a two-pronged approach. The most probable scenario remains the reinforcement of efforts to prevent illegal immigration on the one hand, and continued attention to battling discrimination on the other. One of Chirac's first political gestures has been to appoint a young woman of North African descent as minister for sustainable development, making her the first cabinet member ever of North African origin. At the same time, however, the minister of interior will retain the task of maintaining domestic order at a time when immigrants and their descendents continue to experience heightened social stigmatization, fostered in part by the success of the right.
The challenge ahead will be to promote the social integration of legal immigrants -- thereby legitimizing their role in French society -- at a time when some, bolstered by the spirit of the election, are inclined to criminalize all immigrants and deny them social, economic, and political space. This will clearly be France's dilemma, as well as Europe's, for the next few years.