Electoral debates in France have always been drawn to the question of immigration. But never has an election campaign addressed issues of migration and identity so disproportionately as the current one.
With less than three months to go until the country votes for its next president, populist candidates are trying to connect two fears: immigration and the fate of “French identity” amid what French journalists George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot lament as an erosion of France’s global position. . Seeking dividends by alarming about the impact of immigration on jobs and crime rates, the far right has taken its phobic spasms on the campaign trail.
Polemicist Eric Zemmour has borrowed a page from the Spanish Reconquista as the theme of his campaign in an attempt to dethrone far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen as the standard-bearer of the anti-migrant movement. In September, Zemmour, himself the son of Jewish Algerian migrants, described the crime as a form of “jihad” by Muslim communities, which he sees as a challenge to state control. (He has since been convicted of hate speech for similar comments.)
Even the most traditional right-wing candidate, Valérie Pécresse, joined the fray, saying that “there is a link between delinquency and immigration”. And this, despite the fact that a fifth of its voters in Ile-de-France are immigrants.
These themes are not the prerogative of populist aspirants alone. In the poor neighborhoods of French cities, where many Muslims live, President Emmanuel Macron saw an odious form of “communitarianism” (later renamed “Islamist separatism”) posing an existential challenge to France’s secular value system. Vigorous denunciation has eclipsed any attempt to explore the socio-economic roots of urban marginalization.
But outside of the experts, the link between immigration and identity remains tenuous. Opinion polls show that immigration ranks lower than concerns about the erosion of purchasing power and rising crime. According to a recent IFOP poll, voters’ top concerns were the struggling economy, deindustrialization, unemployment and debt. The poll also showed the French language to be the main determinant of French identity, with other icons being its history and figures such as Charles de Gaulle, Voltaire and French Algerian footballer Zinedine Zidane.
If populist activists have succeeded in making immigration synonymous with France’s major problems, it is largely the result of endless political and media pirouettes, which give the impression that immigrants are invading France, even though the data paints a much more measured picture.
But it’s not all smoke and mirrors. The overwhelming modern, secular majority of French Muslims have been intimidated by two extremes. They feel, on the one hand, the ambient climate of anti-Muslim bargaining, where Islam and Islamic extremism are confused. But on the other hand, there have also been blatant manifestations of extremism associated with their own communities. These include bloody terrorist attacks by radicalized Muslims, whose crimes have provided ammunition to the far right and put the French government on the defensive.
There was also the defiant attitude of Muslim individuals who flaunted their intolerant speech on social media or prayed in the middle of city streets amid disputes with local authorities over places of worship.
These events reflected real issues of cross-border integration and radicalization. But again, the propensity for whistleblowing has exerted a stronger pull on politicians and commentators than the desire to address the underlying factors at play.
Policymakers couldn’t help but play hardball with North African governments over the repatriation of illegal migrants and extremists of North African origin. The drastic reduction in visas for Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians seemed to prioritize domestic politics over diplomatic considerations, while Maghreb governments felt that repatriations were being imposed on them at the risk of increasing the internal pressures.
The French government’s measures were intended to show the electorate how serious it was about fighting illegal immigration and radicalization, but for many in the Maghreb it left them wondering if they mattered to Paris.
Much of the posture ignores the fact that French Muslims and French people of North African origin are themselves registered voters, even if the poor political organization has deprived the latter of any weight.
Nor does the anti-migrant rhetoric explain the thousands of doctors and engineers from North Africa and the rest of the region who help France function. One way or another, these people should remain invisible during the election campaign, even if Maghrebi doctors have been particularly visible in French hospitals during the pandemic.
The populist anti-migrant discourse is renaming France far from Voltaire’s “The Heritage of Enlightenment”. It also carries unsuspected political implications for the Maghreb, where it can only fuel anti-French demagoguery and temptations to revive unresolved disputes from the history books.
For now, anti-French narratives in the Maghreb ring hollow, especially among young people who see France as their favorite destination.
Once the election is over, the French will go about their business of promoting “Francophonie” in the Maghreb and in competition with the Americans, the Turks and the Chinese for the North African markets. The predominantly French-speaking North African public will continue to watch French television channels.
The short-term calculations of politicians will not build resilient ties between France and the Maghreb and populism must not be the cornerstone of democracy overseas, as it can only subvert the politics of the two shores.