Immigration Quotas Gaining Ground in France

I’ve been away for a little while, lacking access to a reliable computer, and while I wasn’t looking it looks like the debate on immigration in France has taken an interesting new turn with the injection of the heavily-loaded word “quotas.” That happened last week Thursday, in a statement from the prominent French politician (and presumed future presidential candidate of the Right) Nicolas Sarkozy. But for all his presence in the current French political scene, these days Sarkozy has no policy-making role (he is instead president of the governing right-wing party, the UMP). When someone who does have such a role takes up the same chant, that’s when you know things are starting to get serious – especially when that someone is none other than the Interior Minister, and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin let a meeting of legislators from the UMP party know earlier this week that his ministry has started work on a legislative proposal along the lines that Sarkozy had previously discussed, as reported in Le Monde (Dominique de Villepin Comes to Terms With the Idea of Quotas). The next element in this time-line looks to be a report his ministry will submit at the end of next month “containing its propositions on how to determine France’s needs for foreign workers.”

De Villepin’s seeming acceptance that “France’s needs” in this area require looking-into is significant for at least two reasons. Firstly, though they may be of the same party, that doesn’t mean that Sarkozy and De Villepin automatically see eye-to-eye on public policy issues. Quite the opposite, in fact, for the great current divide within the UMP is between those like De Villepin in the faction of French President Jacques Chirac (who might well like to run for re-election as the Right’s candidate for president himself) and those around Sarkozy. This makes it hard to admit – whether explicitly or implicitly – that an idea put forth by the other faction is a good one, since that then enhances that faction’s candidate in voters’ eyes. (And in fact reporters Philippe Ridet and Jean-Louis Saux mention that De Villepin initially rejected Sarkozy’s proposition last week.) Beyond this somewhat petty reason is the rather grander one that restrictions on immigration have traditionally not gone down well in a France that prides itself in its openness and inclusiveness, especially to those coming to it from former colonial territories.

But that’s an attitude which was long ago jettisoned by one segment of France’s Right, namely the far-right of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National and its various off-shoots. Indeed, hostility to immigrants is easily these parties’ signature issue, and unfortunately that’s the same segment of the political spectrum which succeeded in the last presidential election in getting its candidate through to be the sole opponent to Chirac in that election’s second-round run-off. The mainstream right, in contrast, for a long time remained true to those traditions of openness, and Ridet and Saux give a good account of how the “tough guy” Interior Minister of the Right in the 1990s, Charles Pasqua, talked a hard line about how immigration quotas were necessary when his party was out of power but then didn’t see any need for them when it was in.


But attitudes have of course changed since then, and this idea of l’immigration choisie (selected immigration) has long been one advanced by Sarkozy, and could conceivably help account in part for his popularity as a politician. Now it seems that resistance from the rest of the Right might slowly be crumbling, but of course we’ll have a better idea about the extent with the issuing of next month’s report. According to the article, its three main subject-areas are already known: 1) The fight against illegal immigration; 2) Determining France’s needs for foreign labor by profession; and 3) Establishing a new agency under the Interior Ministry to run any new immigration regime.

Point #2 provides an important clue to a remaining difference between the two men’s positions, in that it says “by profession,” so that quotas by profession would be established but not by nationality, whereas Sarkozy has also called for the latter. In any case, though, crossing the philosophical line to accepting quotas, of almost any sort, is the important development here and is common to both positions. Rather more important is to see how (or whether) President Chirac’s own position evolves along these lines; the last that was heard from him, according to Ridet and Saux, was that “the position of France . . . is a priori hostile to any quota system.”


By the way, this growing friendliness in France to immigration quotas is also spreading to the last place you would expect to see it, namely the Left (specifically the Parti Socialiste or PS, currently the French Left’s electoral standard-bearer). An accompanying Le Monde article (In the Socialist Party Malek Boutih Advocates This System) discloses the existence of an unpublished report advocating immigration quotas, “For a New Immigration Policy,” from Malek Boutih, national secretary of the PS for societal questions, former president of the anti-racism organization “SOS-Racisme,” and – you can tell by his name – from a family of North African origin, which makes his discussion of quotas all the more significant. He’s for them, for in his report he claims that French immigration policy is simply broken at present, and such quotas are needed as a means to fit immigration to “the welcoming capacities of our society.” He notably also calls explicitly for acceptance of the French “republican pact” – and particularly acceptance of the principle of laicité, or secularisation – to be required of any future prospective immigrants to France.

First the quotas idea was merely the province of the FN, with flirtation from Nicolas Sarkozy. But now it seems the current government is starting to take steps to make it reality, while on the Left the traditional defenders of French all-inclusiveness are now suffering defections. It does seem that a sea-change is gathering momentum here, although the contents of that February Interior Ministry report – and the reactions to it – will more definitively show how far France has travelled down this philosophical road.

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