“No matter how much I try to imagine my grandfathers and great-grandfathers setting fire to other workers’ cars, it just doesn’t work. #why”
So tweeted, during a wave of riots in France back in 2017, Christopher Szczurek, the then 32-year-old Front National deputy mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in northern France.
The grandson and great-grandson of Polish miners who migrated to France in the 1920s, Szczurek was elected a Senator on Sunday, one of three National Rally (as it now is called) members in France’s Upper House, and a representative of the country’s new generation of politicians.
The point Szczurek makes — there are immigrants and immigrants — also applies to the Rally’s 28-year-old leader, Jordan Bardella (son and grandson of mostly Italian immigrants and one Berber Algerian great-grandfather.) Or to Gérald Darmanin, Emmanuel Macron’s hard-line Interior Minister (Maltese and Algerian).
In fact, Darmanin and Bardella recently made the trek to Lampedusa island, in the footsteps of Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen, calling for tough policies against illegal arrivals.
Emmanuel Macron’s party is finally tabling its long-expected new Immigration Bill, which after a year of false starts will be debated in Parliament this autumn.
It is entitled “Bill to control immigration and improve integration”, and with the latest news reports from Lampedusa has become a political hot potato. There is no sign of a slowdown in the numbers of small boats carrying so far over 10,000 migrants mostly from Africa — overwhelming the 6400 local residents.
The French Senate will vote on the Bill in November, the National Assembly in early in 2024. But the title of the Bill already gives away the nature of the problem: “controlling” immigration means it is uncontrolled; “improving” integration means it’s not going well.
France always was a country of immigration, and until recently, it had good cause to feel that it was managing it better than most. The notion of citizenship dates from the French Revolution: before, Celts and Teutonic tribes in Antiquity and Vikings in the early Middle Ages, settled, changed and were changed by the nature of the country.
Foreigners were always attracted to France, a vast agricultural country in need of labourers, with governments and aristocracy that welcomed craftsmen, artists, soldiers and politicians: in no particular order, we can quote Leonardo, Lulli, Glück, Cardinal Mazarin, the Marshall of Sachsen and the Prince de Ligne, Rossini, Donizetti, Kosciusko, later Picasso or Charles Aznavour, on and on.
But the first modern wave of immigration dates from the Industrial Revolution, in the second half of the 19th century. Labourers came from Piedmont and Belgium, Spain and the German States; then the Russian Empire: Jews, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians.
On the eve of the First World War, the largest immigrant group were the Italians, over one third of the total migrant population and one per cent of the total population of France. New waves then included Chinese and Vietnamese workers (famously, Deng Xiaoping who worked at Renault, and Ho Chi Minh); Poles, Czechs and Armenians.
By the Thirties there were almost 3 million foreigners in France, about 6 per cent of the population. Many of them obtained French naturalisation, and since 1889, their children born in France, by law, could become French when they reached their majority.
Further migration from France’s African and Maghreb colonies continued in the 1950s and 1960s, during the country’s reconstruction and mid-century industrial development known as the post-war Trente Glorieuses.
Until then, the history of immigration to France is largely a history of success. This is not to say there were no hostile reactions, especially in times of economic slump; for instance the 1881 “Marseillais Vespers”, an anti-Italian pogrom in Marseilles that left 3 dead and 21 seriously injured. Much later, François Cavanna, the founder-editor of Charlie-Hebdo, born of Italian parents, called his best-selling autobiographies Les Ritals, a familiar derogatory name for Italian workers.
All the same, the same Cavanna integrated so well that he created one of the institutions of modern France, an irreverent weekly that was targeted in 2015 by Islamists in a bloody massacre of 11 of its cartoonists and journalists.
Astérix the Gaul is known the world over, translated into 40 languages: a perceptive, funny and fond portrait of the typical French soul of the 1960s and 1970s, he is the brainchild of two sons of immigrants, René Goscinny (Polish-Argentine Jews) and Albert Uderzo (Italians).
As long as you want to become French, speak French, adopt French culture, whether you are the Polish Marie Curie, the American Josephine Baker or the Lebanese Amin Maalouf (the coming Secrétaire Perpétuel of the Académie Française after the recent death of Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, another immigrant from Georgia), France welcomes you. Ours is not so different from the Galician Jew Joseph Roth’s view of his beloved Austro-Hungarian Empire, supported and strengthened by its multiple nationalities in his Habsburg dynasty masterpiece, The Radetzky March.
This successful model got broken in the 1980s-1990s. The French have many explanations for it; but if one steps back, we are talking of an international phenomenon.
In America, the notion of “melting pot” is now an insult. In Western Europe from Belgium to Britain, entire areas of cities have become ethnic enclaves where the everyday mode of life belongs to other places and other continents.
As immigrants make fewer efforts to assimilate, they become less and less teachable or employable, and more of a weight to the host societies.
It has taken a long time for mainstream institutions in France to accept this. Miraculously, teachers in banlieue schools where 90 per cent of the children’s mother tongue is not French were expected to integrate them the same way three foreign-speaking kids out of a thirty-strong class were supposed to “absorb” French. It does not work. Bad school results correlate with petty and not so benign crime levels.
The result has been a dumbing down of the national curriculum: even then, exam results (and discipline) are so poor that responsible parents, foreign- and French-born alike, pull their children out to send them to private institutions. The French state school system, for decades one of the best in the world, has slipped to the bottom of the PISA league tables.
Most public services have been impacted in the same way: hospitals, crèches, welfare offices. The police is finding it hard to hire, so much that it has had to lower the duration of training from one year to 8 months; it has one of the highest rates of suicide of all professions in France. Many resign in sheer exhaustion as their badly-paid and increasingly low status job becomes more dangerous.
Recent waves of migration to France mean that registered foreign nationals numbered 8,651,109 at the beginning of 2023. That already represents about 12 per cent of the French population.
But it is far from the whole story. Illegals are by definition not counted. So are French people of foreign origin, because France, since 1945 and for perfectly noble reasons, forbids ethnic or religious statistics. (The “Fichier des Juifs”, the official figures on French Jewish citizens and residents, were turned by the Nazis into a practical tool for deportations; at the Libération, that thermometer was broken.)
Beyond the many unregistered foreigners in France, there are also quite a few of their French children and grand children who, unlike their parents, have not integrated. Those are the ones France saw on the news rioting and looting back in July.
The French hard Right has been denouncing the problems with immigration for years. What has changed is that for the first time mainstream voices are asking for an end to the ban on ethnic and religious statistics.
One of them is Dominique Reynié, a political scientist. His career in the bastions of the French Establishment, at Sciences Po, and now at the Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique, means many of the current decision-makers in government and opposition have been his schoolmates or his students.
Reynié has conducted assessments of the cost of unchecked immigration to the country, in terms of welfare and social services. He once was a political candidate for the Républicains party (the party of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy), running against a National Front candidate. He is difficult to dismiss.
So far, the coming Immigration Bill does not break the taboo on statistics.
One of the expected fights will take place between the Home Secretary recently seen in Lampedusa, Gérald Darmanin — who wants the text to provide the possibility of legalising the French residency of migrants active in trades in need of workers, like catering or construction — and the current Républicain leader, Eric Ciotti, who calls this “a red line” because it would “reward illegality”.
France’s national mood has changed. Marine Le Pen, the National Rally parliamentary leader, and her associate Jordan Bardella have made the Rally the most popular party in France. Emmanuel Macron will remain at the Elysée until 2027, but no longer enjoys a parliamentary majority. French voters are looking at more inflation and harder times ahead.
It is still considered uncouth to admit to vote primarily “against immigration”. But the issue predominates in voters’ concerns. If Emmanuel Macron’s final text doesn’t look like a real departure from the failed solutions of the past four decades, the electorate will show him little forgiveness.