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EU: France Paying Political Cost Of Failure To Integrate (Immigration Series Part 2)

  • Joel Blocker

France, a country of some 60 million people, has a community of immigrants estimated at between 5 and 8 million. Analysts believe French governments have repeatedly failed in their efforts to integrate recent immigrants, particularly those from North Africa. That failure explains at least in part the recent electoral successes of the far right. In this second in a four-part series on immigration in Europe, RFE/RL explores the problem with French immigration analysts.

Paris, 24 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say France has not succeeded over the past quarter of a century in fully integrating large-scale immigration from three former North African colonies: Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.

The analysts agree that failure has fed the fires of extreme-right xenophobia and racism in France, and has substantially contributed to the rise of Jean-Marie le Pen and his National Front Party. Two months ago, le Pen reached the apogee of his popularity, so far, when he made a sensational breakthrough into the runoff of France's presidential election.

Since then, his party's electoral fortunes have declined. But recent polls show more than one in four French citizens continue to agree with the National Front's views on immigration. This substantial minority feels that there is too much immigration, that it is not sufficiently controlled by the government, and that there are too many Muslim immigrants, most of them from the North Africa.

With such views, the French far right has sought to align itself with the late Pim Fortuyn's anti-Muslim immigration policies in the Netherlands, which made his party the second-largest in the country in last month's elections, as well as with the Danish far right, which espouses similar views. But both the Dutch and the Danish far right have publicly dissociated themselves from le Pen's extremist discourse.

One rarely acknowledged reason for the success of le Pen's anti-immigrant rhetoric is that no one, official or otherwise, knows precisely how many immigrants, open or clandestine, there are in France today. France's official National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) generally cites a total figure of 5 million. But others, including many foreign observers (including John Vinocur of the "International Herald Tribune"), consistently speak of "from 5 to 8 million" immigrants.

How can one account for this substantial disparity in estimates of France's true immigrant population? Catherine Borrel, an INSEE analyst, told RFE/RL that the problem is estimating the number of clandestine immigrants. "I personally think that some of [the clandestine immigrants] were recorded in [the most recent] census [in 1999] and were included in the overall tally, but how many [we just don't know]," Borrel said.

Unlike other European Union countries like Spain, which publicly admits to more than 80,000 clandestine immigrants within its borders, France does not make public any such statistics. By definition, Borrel explained, clandestine immigrants -- people who are in hiding -- are not usually countable. INSEE says, therefore, that it is unable to estimate whether the number of clandestine immigrants in France is in the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, or even the millions.

Another official incapacity that adds to uncertainty about the true number of immigrants in France is the country's lack of what is known as a "register." Most EU countries, but not Britain or France, register the comings and goings of immigrants in their countries.

But in France, Borrel noted, even the existence of a register would not necessarily reveal the existence of clandestine immigrants.

Borrel also underlined another important element in evaluating recent trends in immigration to France. "Since the previous census of 1990, the national origins of the immigrant population have changed. The number of Europeans is in continual decline. At the same time, the number of immigrants from Maghreb, that is, Algeria, Tunisia, [and] Morocco, has also declined. But immigrants from the rest of the world, particularly West Africa [and] Asia -- Vietnam and Cambodia, plus Turkey -- have grown both in absolute terms and in proportion [to the overall immigration figure by 20 percent]," Borrel said.

INSEE's figures attest to important changes in the nature of immigration to France between 1990 and 1999, the years of the country's two most recent censuses. They belie commonly held French prejudices, particularly on the country's extreme right. Le Pen and other far-right leaders have consistently warned of the dangers of the "Maghrebization" or "Islamization" of France. But INSEE's statistics suggest the problem lies not in the number of recent immigrants from North Africa, but rather in the country's failure to fully integrate them, and their predecessors, into French society.

Our correspondent spoke with Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, an analyst at the Paris-based Center for Studies and International Research who specializes in problems of cross-border migration. She said that except for one crucial area, young people of most immigrant families are entirely integrated into France's consumer society and have adopted French cultural values. That one exception is finding employment, where these youngsters have, she said, far greater difficulty than their counterparts of entirely French origin. "There are several factors at work here. First, these young people of immigrant families are all victims of discrimination in access to jobs. [In addition,] in school they are often oriented toward studies [technical and other] that are considered less important [than strictly academic studies]. So there is really, if I can say so, a vicious circle of exclusion," Wihtol de Wenden said.

The analyst went on to say that such exclusion itself creates a sense of rejection among those known as "beurs," the first generation born in France of North African immigrant parents. They feel excluded, she noted, and that often leads to violent behavior and to the formation of criminal or quasi-criminal gangs.

Wihtol de Wenden added that the commonly held image of immigrant youngsters who spend their time in the streets, committing small-time crimes, including dealing in drugs, has what she called a "snowball" effect. The young, she said, themselves feel rejected, and at the same time, they sense others reject them because of their inability to integrate into the job market.

According to Wihtol de Wenden, many of France's partners in the European Union believe that, when it comes to integration, Paris practices a policy far too "assimilationist" in character. By this, she means that France is seen as following its historic approach of assimilating new immigrants into the country's traditional values and institutions, such as schools and public service, rather than holding open the possibility of changing those values and institutions to meet the new immigrants' needs.

Wihtol de Wenden said most of the EU takes what she calls a more "pragmatic" approach to integration. She cited Britain, where she said the principal obstacle to the integration of immigrants is seen as discrimination against them and what she calls their "victimization," not their failure to assimilate.

The analyst noted that the French work from a preconstructed model based on, among other things, "republican" values, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "social contract" and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. All of these three bases of the model are now more than 200 years old and often seem irrelevant, or at least secondary to the chief concerns of immigrants in France. She suggested that France may simply be invoking what she calls too many old models in its efforts to integrate immigrants. "We have far too many models in respect [to integration]. We have a model of citizenship [and] a social-contract model. And it's true that, unlike the United States, we are reluctant to admit that every day immigrants, including new arrivals, contribute to defining what, in the end, we can call 'integration in the French manner,'" Wihtol de Wenden said.

What is the relevance, the analyst implicitly asked, of models like the social contract to present-day immigrants who suffer from discrimination in France? And why shouldn't France move away from its historic reliance on the past and build a new culture incorporating values and traditions brought to France by recent immigrants?

Like other analysts, Wihtol de Wenden worries about her country's rigidity when it comes to integrating immigrants. She said the French have great difficulty in realizing that immigration is also an integral part of the country's conception of citizenship, of living together with values defined in common with others.

(This is the second of a four-part series on immigration.)

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