Why Does France Think Migration Is Growing?

This is the fifth installment of Migrant Lives, Global Stories, a five-part series on the global migrant crisis presented in partnership with the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, which is dedicated to furthering the study of Jewish history in the broadest context. Read series editors Jeremy Adelman and Caitlin Zaloom’s introduction here.
Teach the history of colonization and decolonization—for this is the best antidote to the venom of exclusion and racism that threatens France.

Éric Zemmour wants to deport two million immigrants. On the back of this proposal, the former journalist, now a candidate for the French presidency, has been enjoying an average of 15 percent support since September 2020, when he launched his bid for the Élysée. Such popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise; more than two-thirds of French citizens fear “the great replacement” he predicts. When polls include Zemmour’s fellow candidate, Marine Le Pen, nearly one in three French people say they are ready to cast their ballot for the far right in April 2022’s first round of votes.

The construction of immigration and immigrants as an existential danger cannot be explained by the importance of the most recent immigration flows. Yes, between 2016 and 2019, the number of new legal immigrants rose from 230,000 to 277,000,1 a significant increase in cities and neighborhoods with high concentrations of these newcomers. Yes, the perception of an increase is reinforced by the way new permanent immigrants have been counted by the European Union since 2007: foreign students have been added to the categories of families, workers, and refugees, which for France has increased the annual figure by a third.2 But in recent years, France has welcomed considerably fewer immigrants than its European neighbors (such as Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom).

In fact, for Zemmour and many of his compatriots the word immigrant does not only designate those who are “foreign-born” and have come to live in France. It also applies—erroneously—to their compatriots of North African and African origin, who are every bit as French as they are. It is these French citizens he has decided to target, on the grounds that they aim to substitute Islamic for French identity via a reconquest carried out as revenge for France’s colonial dominion over the Maghreb.

To understand the angst on which Zemmour builds his widespread esteem, it is important to register an underlying narrative trend that took hold well before his rise as a political candidate. Since the 1980s, a false narrative of the history of immigration policy has gained ground in public opinion. According to this factually incorrect vision, in 1975, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing introduced a new family reunification program. Though the program predates Giscard by decades, many have taken this claim seriously: even the very serious public radio station, France Culture, at the time of his death in December 2020 ran the following headline on its evening news: “Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, father of family reunification”3—as if it were the most important decision of his seven-year presidency, believed to have provoked the massive influx of North African and African families.

For some influential French intellectuals this interpretation of Giscard metamorphosed into full-blown conspiracy theory. In a 1990 issue of the established center-left magazine Le Débat, the demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais could speak of “an unavowed policy of preference, of quasi-exclusivism in favor of Africa in the name of foreign policy imperatives, on which the political establishment gets along perfectly.”4 Paul Yonnet, writing about immigration and the presence of Muslims that same year for the same publication, ventured a rhetorical question:

What does Prime Minister Michel Rocard’s government propose [to the French]? To teach them, from school, to know these foreign cultures and ways of life. The moral order unceasingly given by the media to respect the right to difference has the objective of a great long-term enterprise of cultural deportation of the French identity. … Future historians will have to be interested in the relationship between this attempt at forced displacement led by the socialists of defrancization or francization elsewhere, depending on the point of view, and the secular program, never abandoned, of Protestant revenge: to drown Gallican Catholicism in a multiconfessional society (the Protestant influence is great in the socialist government, Rocard, Jospin, etc.).5

Six years later, in a 1996 article published in Le Monde, sociologist Bruno Latour reacted to Justice Minister Jacques Toubon’s plan to make “disseminating racist and xenophobic messages” illegal. Latour castigated a “new crime of opinion,” evoking the rejection by the French of “the obligation that one wants to impose on them to take the acceptance of foreigners as a given, as a definitive fact, as a natural fact, as an inescapable fact,” and decried “the antiracists who naturalize race, who substantialize it, by making a law so that we can no longer talk about it, so that we can no longer freely decide who we want to be and how many and what color of skin.”6 Today, to complete the circle, Marcel Gauchet, former editor-in-chief of Le Débat, salutes the candidacy of Eric Zemmour for “bring[ing] out the truth of the French situation”7 and tackling the taboo subject of French identity by putting it at the center of the campaign. For Gauchet, Zemmour “talks about what must be talked about and about which others do not talk.”8

To confront this narrative, the left and progressives generally defended the cause of immigrants’ rights and fought against racism and discrimination. However, in adopting a moral posture, they did not dismantle the falsification of the history of French immigration policy. Nor did they produce a compelling alternative narrative to the paranoid, conspiratorial discourse of the “great replacement.”

Did the French elite connive to favor immigration of Africans and North Africans? The answer is simply no.

Algeria’s independence from France was consecrated in the Évian Accords of March 18, 1962; rather than being imposed from above by elites, independence was decided by a national referendum. These same accords, approved by the French citizenry, provided for the free movement of people between France and an independent Algeria. Immediately the number of Algerian immigrants soared. The French government interrupted this flow of people and negotiated a quota, which led to new agreements signed in 1964 and 1968. At the same time, however, France opened its borders to unlimited Portuguese immigration.

Moreover, contrary to what is believed and repeated about Giscard above, family reunification dates not to 1975 but to far earlier. Even at the end of the 19th century, laborers migrating from Belgium, Italy, and Poland were accompanied by their families. The 1975 decree simply replaced the old administrative instructions while confirming the same rules.

Moreover, the new decree did not lead to an increase in family reunification, which has decreased since 1975.9 Only the composition of nationalities has changed. What the decree is really criticized for, consciously or unconsciously, is applying the same rules to immigrants from Africa as to those from Europe.

Did the French elite connive to favor immigration of Africans and North Africans? The answer is simply no.

Moreover, in 1978, Giscard wanted to expel, by force, a considerable number of North African immigrants, including 500,000 Algerians.10 These people had been legally present in France for decades. The initiative was rightly opposed by churches and the left, as well as many centrists and the Gaullist right, by invoking the values of the French republic.

France could no longer, and no longer wanted to, treat immigrants as merchandise like it did in the 1930s. Following the Socialist François Mitterrand’s victory in the 1981 presidential election, the residence permit was extended to 10 years in 1984. This stabilized the immigrant population that had previously been under threat. Since then, immigration has constituted an addition to the French population, not a replacement for it—as has always been the case.

These immigrants and their children did differ from their predecessors who migrated to France in the first half of the 20th century. The latter were foreigners; the former hailed from the former French Empire and were not foreigners. Regardless of their racial background, they were often already French citizens. This should have facilitated their integration. The opposite took place. Already by the late 1950s, French citizens from overseas who moved to metropolitan France for work discovered that their part in French history was neither known nor shared. Even though they were fully French, they and their children were often discriminated against. Their citizenship was no guarantee against misunderstanding, ignorance, and racism.

After the conclusion of the eight-year Algerian War in 1962, the problem worsened. Suddenly, having moved to the Hexagon, that is mainland France on the European continent, these were pieds noirs—settlers or descendants of settlers, Jews, Harkis (Muslims who had fought for France), as well as Algerians. During the war, they were on opposite sides. What meaning was given to their common presence in France? None.

From 1973 onward, the children of Muslim immigrants were taught their mother tongues in public schools with teachers brought from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, or Turkey. This was in the name of cultural diversity but also for another, cynical purpose: so that these “immigrants” could more easily return to and settle with their parents in their country of origin. Their presence in France proved to be long-lasting, however, and consequently, the history of religions was introduced in the school curricula.11 It is legitimate to teach about religion. But it is significant that this teaching was created in reaction to the presence of children of Muslim cultures in schools.

The priority should have been—and still is—to teach these children the history of colonization, decolonization, and immigration. This part of French political history makes them French and forms our common political history. This is the lesson to be drawn from Rogers Smith’s work: telling and making the history of a people—whose composition is diverse, both in reality and in representation—is necessary to constitute it as a political community, for its citizens as well as for its political leaders.12

The history of the different French colonizations in their European and world contexts is complicated to teach. It is foundational, a political history that created citizens and still creates them, even or especially at the cost of opposing or contradictory interpretations.

Such a history is also a history of progress. France created colonies for slaves, but it was also the first country to abolish slavery in 1794. And it was the first to include slavery in its law as a crime against humanity, punishable by loss of nationality, in 1848 (after the second abolition made necessary by Napoleon’s reestablishment of slavery).13

And after colonization came decolonization. Algeria’s colonization ended in war. But France did not have the same reaction to Algerian migration as it did after the Second World War, when De Gaulle rejected German immigration. It continued to welcome Algerians in a gesture of rupture with its colonial past. This past, it is true, can leave traces: nothing is more unacceptable than the stop-and-frisk policy that disproportionately targets people of color, who, in France, are checked most often on the pretext of an absurd strategy to combat cannabis use. It is a remnant of the Code de l’indigénat, a special administrative penalty that applied to the colonized, especially in Algeria. But today, at least this discrimination can be fought against in a legal environment; it has become illegal, whereas once it was at the heart of the legal regime of colonization.

Immigrants who came from the former French colonies have for the most part become fully French. They are part of the history of France; their children make up the France of today alongside all other French people. It is this history that must be taught and shared. This knowledge, possessing it and sharing it, is the best antidote to the venom of exclusion and racism that threatens the French Republic.


This article was commissioned by Jeremy Adelman and Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Immigration: les chiffres pour 2021, Vie publique.fr, January 30, 2022.
  2. Regulation (EC) No 862/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of July 11, 2007, on community statistics on migration and international protection and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No. 311/76 on the compilation of statistics on foreign workers (text with EEA relevance), art 2. See also Xavier Thierry, “Migrations: le défi statistique européen,” Futuribles, no. 343 (July 2008).
  3. https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/journal-de-18h/journal-de-18h-emission-du-jeudi-03-decembre-2020.
  4. Jean-Claude Chesnais, “Les Trois Revanches,” Le Débat, no. 3 (1990), p. 101.
  5. Paul Yonnet, “Le nouvel ordre moral,” Le Débat, no. 3 (1990), pp. 254-55.
  6. Bruno Latour, “Un nouveau délit d’opinion: faire de la politique,” Le Monde, October 4, 1996.
  7. “‘Emmanuel Macron a capitalisé sur les crises qui l’ont secoué,’ estime Marcel Gauchet,” Europe 1, January 12, 2022.
  8. L’Interview Politique du 29 octobre avec Marcel Gauchet, historien, philosophe,” October 29, 2021.
  9. In 1970, family reunification numbers were 84,075; in 1974, 73,000; in 1978, 45,000. See Patrick Weil, La France et ses étrangers (Calmann-Lévy, 1991), p. 386, table VIII.
  10. Cf. Patrick Weil, Liberté, égalité, discriminations (Folio-Gallimard, 2009), chap. 1.
  11. See Laurence De Cock, “Question identitaire et curricula d’histoire et éducation civique depuis les années 1908,” Carrefours de l’éducation, vol. 2, no. 38 (2014), pp. 33-49.
  12. Rogers M. Smith, Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  13. Victor Schoelcher, Esclavage et Colonisation (Quadrige PUF, 2007), p. 145.
Featured Image: Éric Zemmour, December 5 2021. Photo by IllianDerex / Wiki Images (CC BY-SA 4.0)