Report from France: Immigration is the Issue

A protest rally in Paris, France.

A protest rally in Paris, France.

By Robert Israel
A law that some say discriminates against immigrants is the source of ongoing protests in France. Those opposed insist the law successfully will keep immigrants apart from the mainstream; those in favor insist it’s only a measure to protect the rights of everyone.

This acrimonious debate over immigration continues and no holds are barred. Those on the right claim the new law doesn’t go far enough in addressing the problems of illegal immigration in France. Those on the left contend that the immigrants are being wrongly labeled as scapegoats and are not responsible for creating a host of ills, or, for that matter, the oft cited curse that they are taking jobs away from the native French who struggle with high unemployment.

Versions of the law have been bandied about for years. The original draft of the law was named after Jean-Louis Debre, the former French interior minister. It essentially called for police to eject immigrants living illegally in France while providing a framework for “social integration,” or multiculturalism, for those who choose to legally remain.

The Debre law has been heralded by the conservative majority, which maintains that France can no longer afford to be so generous without correcting the rampant abuses caused by continually supporting an estimated 1 million immigrants from the sub-Saharan countries in Africa, as well as the throngs of migrants from Eastern Europe and those from France’s former colonies living in France illegally.

“The new law is apolitical,” insists Jean Paul Faugere, a colleague of Debre who worked as director of public liberties and judicial affairs at the Ministry of the Interior. “Two-thirds of the French have indicated they support the new law. Only a small fraction has made it a political debate.”

But it has hardly been a “small fraction” that has voiced disapproval. The right-wing group, the National Front, continues to make immigration its rallying cry and has attracted numerous supporters. “In a country where a thousand neighborhoods are on the edge of social explosion,” said Jean Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s right-wing leader while speaking at a May Day rally at Place d’Opera here, “the policy of immigrant family reunification still continues.”

Le Pen advocates cutting aid to immigrant groups, firing social workers, hiring more police and “imposing civil peace, not trying to buy it.”

His angry speeches have caught the ear of lawmakers such as Mme. Suzanne Sauviago of the National Assembly, who represents the south of France, where the National Front has made gains in municipal elections in three cities. “France can no longer accept all the misery of the world,” she said. “And why should we? The strain on life in our cities due to an uncontrolled immigration is already too much for us to bear. They [the African immigrants] and their large families with so many wives and a warren of children should go back to living that way in the jungle, not in France.”

Remarks like this provoke a response from the left who feel the Debre law is an example of French xenophobia gone haywire. “The larger issue of what is being challenged,” said Mme. Monique Ben Guiga, who is aligned with the Socialists in the Senate, “is whether France wants to be a state or a union, whether it wants to stand up for its principles, which is to defend the rights of all humankind. We must be known as a cradle for human rights, not as a place that negates human rights.”

She has lobbied with her colleagues to remove what she calls “racist language” in the new Debre law. “Most immigrants are not freeloaders,” she said. “In addition to enriching the cultural dimensions of our society, they are an economic benefit for all of France.”

Even though she and other left-wing groups have staged massive protests against the law, there is a feeling that the new law is a necessity, coming when economic belt tightening is a matter of course. A prevalent attitude among the French is widespread fear – preyed on by Le Pen and others – that their way of life is threatened by outsiders.

Former interior Minister Debre himself declared that the new law is “against illegal immigration and for social integration.” France has long struggled with this concept of the blending of multi-ethnic people into French society, and there are many tensions.

As the political rhetoric increases, only time will tell if continued global changes in immigration – and harsh economic realities – will further challenge this nation’s ideological and political core.

Robert Israel,, was awarded a journalism grant to report on immigration in France for a series of newspaper reports. An earlier version of this report appeared in The Providence Journal.


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