Today the French vote in the first round of presidential elections, which could have a very profound impact on my future. I’ve been watching with growing alarm as immigration has become the hot-button issue, to distract increasingly agitated voters from the dismal state of the economy. The anti-immigrant rhetoric in France is nothing new – previously lax immigration policies have long since been tightening – but, as Al Jazeera aptly puts it, immigration is the “bread and butter” of the right. Serving as a convenient scapegoat, immigrants are an easy target in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité, where in many cases, sadly, these rules only apply to French or EU citizens.
To get a better idea of how the political landscape on immigration can change in these upcoming months, I turn to an interactive article furnished by Al Jazeera English in which they evaluate the top four candidates on such issues: Where do France’s Election Candidates Stand?
Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent president has drawn the ire of both French and immigrant alike with his handling of his first-term as president as well as his progressively vitriolic campaign rhetoric. Ironically, he himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant, and his personal style of politics and first-term as president go against the established norm on how a French president should behave and on what policies the center-right UMP (Union du Mouvement Populaire) should enact.
His suave demeanor and break with convention served him well as the most energetic and inspiring candidate in 2007, but he’s taken a decidedly harsh approach to immigration as well as antagonized the large Muslim population in France, turning seemingly innocuous and well-established traditions such as ritual slaughter, halal, into battlegrounds for France’s fierce secularism. Under Sarkozy, the center right has veered farther right than under Jacques Chirac, following a growing pan-European trend.
According to Al Jazeera, “Sarkozy promises to crackdown on immigration in his second term, and has hardened his tone as the presidential election draws closer. He would reduce immigration by nearly 50 per cent, he says. More migrants would be deported to their countries of origins. Development assistance for the countries where migrants are coming from would be conditional on those countries’ willingness to accept deportees.”
Immigration policies have already hardened on all fronts, epitomized by the much-loathed and illogical “Circulaire du 31 Mai” 2011. Once a country in need of large amounts of unskilled workers, France has limited access to a mere fourteen highly-specialized trades declared “en tension,” that is, having any likelihood of leading to a work visa or a change of status. As many engaged couples or newlyweds can attest, the notorious French bureaucracy greatly belabors the process of accompanying your non-French (non-European) citizen spouse to France. With the “doors-open” EU and Schengen accords, this belt-tightening has mostly affected third-party countries, in particular North African countries, China, India, and countries of South America, where competitive students still look to France as a model of higher education (with good reason!)
Most controversial, however, is the recent bout of laws (or less-binding but easily implemented circulaires) trying to diminish the number of the 200,000 or so of these foreign students who arrive annually – a mere trickle of the actual immigration figures, which consist primarily of refugee repatriation, especially of former colonies, and family reunification – who pass from a student visa to work visa. This group of highly qualified students earn bachelors and masters in France at some of the top French schools (École Normale Supérieure, Sciences Po) and are already hired by some of the top companies and firms when their change of status is denied. To protest this reverse-braindrain – and to prevent losing some of the best and the brightest who choose to study at France over top international destinations such as the US, the UK, and Australia – a group of students, international and French alike have joined together in a Collectif du 31 Mai, a protest movement akin to the famous French grève. The May 31st circular was effectively repealed by the 12 January 2012 amendment, which specified that this harsh policy would not affect those with an M2 or higher. Granted, the correlation between reducing legal immigration of those with degrees in higher education from France’s own institutions and the near 10% rate of unemployment was a tenuous one – unemployment hit harshest the sectors such as industry and populations without college or high school degrees (let alone a Master’s), and there is little likelihood that an immigrant would be replaced by a similarly qualified French person when there are Master’s programs where foreigners outnumber the French 10 to 1. Certain sectors of skilled, information-based employment are practically begging foreigners to fill in the gap left by the French. This new wave of highly-skilled, hardworking expats could easily turn to more inviting countries such as Canada or Australia, where they will transform their expertise in information technology, medical treatments, and innovative sciences into real futures. Finally, the rejection of work permits happens only after French companies have gone to the great expense and trouble of proving that not only was there no equally or better qualified French person to fill this job application, there was also no equally or better qualified European in the field of applicants.
François Hollande is currently, according to the polls anyway, in the lead, and his election – cutting Sarkozy’s presidential career to one term – would finally put the Socialist Party in power for the first time since 1994. He represents for me an apt example of the “anti-Sarkozy” – not for his dramatically different views on politics or policies but because many individuals (myself included, if I had a vote) are voting for him in order to ensure that Sarkozy isn’t reelected.
Nevertheless, this candidate does offer a different face to the immigration debate, one distinctly less hostile: he thinks his opponents are “exaggerating the problem of immigration.” This sobering perspective is summarized by Al Jazeera, “Hollande has called for immigration to be discussed in rational terms, arguing that Sarkozy and Le Pen are exaggerating the issue. He promises to fight unauthorised immigration and illegal employment. Residency should be granted on a case-by-case basis. Foreigners who have lived in France for more than five years should be granted the right to vote.”
To contrast that with the surprise-candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left Front de Gauche candidate who has increasingly consolidated a more and more vocal left:
“In Mélenchon’s view, France’s immigrant population contributes culturally and economically to the country. He would respect the right of refugees to seek asylum in France and shut down detention centres. French nationality would become a right after five years of residency. The series of amendments to immigration law that have been introduced since 2002 would be repealed under Mélenchon” (Al Jazeera, see above link).
The real fear-rousing hasn’t been conducted by Nicolas Sarkozy but rather masterfully executed by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National. Behind her French débutante appearance, she remains the first to point fingers at immigrants and minority communities alike, such as vilifying the entire French Muslim community after the recent Toulouse shooting by French-born Mohammed Merah, who is of Algerian-descent.
Her campaign champions and is bolstered by a rising anti-immigrant sentiment that is insidiously infiltrating Western Europe, as the EU financial crisis continues to rage on. Quoting Al Jazeera, “Opposition to immigration and multiculturalism is the National Front’s bread and butter. Le Pen promises to reduce the number of immigrants arriving in France by a dramatic 95 per cent. She would abolish family reunification and drastically reduce the number of asylum seekers accepted every year. France would “take back” the policing of its borders, throwing out the EU policy of freedom of movement between member states.”
A chilling prospect for someone who fell in love with the diverse, vibrant, multicultural France of today… I will have to stay tuned for today’s results and the second round of elections come May.
What are your thoughts on the current Presidential Elections in France?
For Nicolas Sarkozy’s “scorecard,” take a peek here.