Immigration as Crisis

Over the last 200 years, France has received more immigrants than any other European nation. In the 1930’s, the percentage of foreign born in France eclipsed even that of the United States. The French government encouraged this pre-World War I immigration rate- primarily because the incredible human toll of the Great War, coupled with the nation’s historically low birthrate, had left the nation with a labor shortage and a crippled economy. Recruiting workers from neighboring European nations including Spain, Portugal, and Poland, the French built a significant foreign born population that the French viewed as economically advantageous and culturally innocuous.Between 1946 and 1975, France's foreign population doubled, rising from 1.7 million to 3.4 million. In this post World War II era, the national stance towards immigration shifted. Instead of viewing immigration as a solution to a problem, French policy makers began to approach immigration as a problem in itself. Public opinion altered largely in response to the changing demographics of the immigrant population; rather than the expected and encouraged continuation of primarily European immigrants, these millions included an unprecedented number of immigrants from the Third World, including Central and Southern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean. A large, visible group of Maghreb from France’s former colonies and protectorates Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were also included amongst those newly migrating to France.

This variety of unanticipated immigrant groups can be attributed to a number of factors, not the least of which was France’s own immigration policy. Unlike the United States, France had no national quota system in place after World War II, giving immigrants from all over the world a relatively equal opportunity to enter France. Initially, this immigration surprise was not considered a problem, as the perception was that the immigrants (predominantly young single men) would be temporary guest workers who would send wages back to their home countries and eventually leave France. However, as was the case in the United States at the time, large numbers of these foreign born men not only chose to stay in France, but helped their families immigrate.

The growing number of permanent working class peoples inevitably led to the question of the immigrants’ impact on the economy. Changes in public opinion regarding immigrants seem to have followed economic complications of an oil crisis on 1973; perhaps it is not a coincidence that in 1974, the French government temporarily banned immigration, only to make the ban permanent in 1977. The law makers also passed an action denying immigrants family reunification rights in 1974, only to have the law overturned in 1978. Interestingly enough, these bans did not apply to European immigrants, refugees, or certain professions. These restrictive measures were aimed quite directly at working class non-whites, and specifically Africans immigrants.

This bias leads to the real issue at play in French immigration over the last forty years: Will the immigrants acculturate? While economics can be seen perhaps as a catalyst to the negative public opinions regarding immigrants, the larger crisis is one of French identity. As African immigrants arrive in greater numbers, France’s heterogeneous population becomes increasingly visible: racially, religiously, economically, and geographically. Not only does much of France doubt the African, specifically the Magrheb, immigrants’ willingness to acculturate and “become French,” but some believe that extreme cultural diversity is a threat to cultural and political stability. The sociologist Rene Giraud became famous for this argument in the 1970’s. He wrote that social cohesion is lost when a minority or minorities becomes too numerous, and that this destabilization sets off a catastrophic series of social consequences. Today, this fear of losing the French identity is more heated than ever, with immigration lying at the heart of every presidential campaign. Forty years after Giraud’s predictions, and the French government and people have not yet found an answer to the question of whether they will defend or redefine their traditional French identity.