Migration policy in France: Colonial legacy and wall building

Although France has a long history of immigration, the country is increasingly looking to curb the number of people crossing its borders. Actively negotiating with migrants’ home nations is its strategy.

The „Jungle“ in Calais being forcefully evacuated Foto: reuters

Compared to its European neighbours, France has a long tradition of being a land of inward migration. Eighteen million French citizens (almost one third of the population) are purported to have at least one grandparent who originates from another country.

Since the 1980s and the early 1990s, a series of conservative, economic-liberal right-wing governments have embraced a 'zero immigration’ policy. In theory, the aim was to restrict any form of new immigration that would add to existing numbers. However, in practice this approach quickly turned out to be untenable as certain minimum legal safeguards – family reunification, the right of spouses married to French nationals to enter the country – needed to be guaranteed and national as well as international obligations upheld.

Whilst left-wing parties and some sections of civil society protested against the official policy, claiming it went against political and social principles, many ruling governments also came under fire from members of the right: the right-wing Front National wasted no time criticising the country’s leaders for their broken promises and calling out their lack of consistency.

When a new social democrat government was elected in June 1997, its key figures and experts tried to relieve some of the internal political pressure and to reach what they saw as a “sensible compromise“ with sections of the conservative camp. On 31 July 1997, university professor Patrick Weil presented an expert report, which was frequently cited at the time, to President Lionel Jospin’s government, putting forward a policy designed on a utilitarian basis, i.e. focusing on the benefits to society.

Explicit demands

Despite a considerably restrictive discourse on the issue of immigration, the next incoming president, Nicolas Sarkozy, retained the core of this utilitarian idea despite being a right-wing politician. The fundamental change that came about under his presidency was in France’s economic relations to its former colonies and to third countries: it was decided that these partnerships would now be explicitly and unashamedly linked to the willingness of these countries’ governments to assist in controlling migration.

During this time a series of readmission agreements concerning unwanted migrants from a whole host of countries were negotiated. Between 2008 and 2009, these agreements were at the core of a new generation of bilateral deals concerning migration that comprised more comprehensive formal documents.

Prior to this, France had signed a series of agreements that concerned only readmission for foreign nationals who were undesired or who had committed a criminal offence. These were mainly with other European states, such as the Benelux countries (16 May 1964), Croatia (27 January 1995) and Bulgaria (29 May 1996) as well as Switzerland and Liechtenstein (28 October 1998). Deals were also signed with Latin American countries, e.g. Argentina (1 February 1995), Brazil (28 May 1996) and Venezuela (25 January 1999). However, agreements up until this point still did not include countries on the African continent, nor did they factor in other principal countries of origin for migrants.

From the mid-2000s, some new readmission agreements were issued, which affected those countries who had high numbers of citizens migrating to France (agreements were signed with the former Union of Serbia and Montenegro on 25 April 2006 and with Kosovo on 2 December 2009). The island of Mauritius became the first African country to sign an agreement with France, which it did on 15 November 2007.

Bilateral agreements with African states

During the same period, however, negotiations were taking place on a new generation of general migration agreements containing regulations on the “concerted management of migration flows“. These agreements were usually based on the premise that countries of origin – in exchange for visas for students and some qualified professionals – would commit to better regulate outward flows of their nationals and, crucially, to readmit citizens who had been removed from France. The latter obligation also applied to third-country nationals who had demonstrably entered France via the territory in question. Similar agreements were signed with certain African states: Senegal (23 September 2006), Gabon (5 July 2007), Republic of the Congo (25 October 2007), Benin (28 November 2007), Tunisia (28 April 2008), the Cape Verde islands (24 November 2008) as well as Burkina Faso (10 January 2009) and Cameroon (21 May 2009).

Subsequent governments did not challenge these institutional frameworks but chose to keep existing bilateral agreements. The incumbent social democrat administration (as of the end of 2016) is trying to call as little attention to the issue of immigration as possible in an attempt to avoid domestic controversy and conflict. Instead, the aim has been to maintain some form of technocratic consensus between the parties of the centre right and centre left.

On 7 March 2016, what was to be the final reform of France’s immigration law came into force. Despite being met with criticism from civil society groups and anti-racism NGOs, the legislation was barely mentioned in public debate. The reform introduced multiannual residence cards – ranging from the previously used (limited) 'one-year card’ and the (essentially unlimited) ‚ten-year card’ – for qualified professionals who fall under certain categories. This applies to researchers and scientists, for example, as well as artists and those employed in the cultural sector. However, the legislation now allows the state to withdraw a residency permit even if it is still valid. The state is also able to declare a permit invalid if the authorities judge that the prerequisites for the granting of the permit are no longer met. This had previously only been relevant when applying for an extension.

Approval rate rising

The failures of the French asylum system have often been highlighted in recent years, one of the most obvious examples being the substantial shortfalls of housing schemes for individuals awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim. This is in spite of the fact that the number of asylum seekers in the country is significantly lower than those applying for refugee status in Germany. In 2014, a total of 68,811 applications for asylum were submitted in France. The success rate for applications processed by the two main national bodies (the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People, OFPRA, and the National Court of Asylum, CNDA) across the year stood at 28 percent; in 2014 it was 24.5 percent.

In 2015, a total of 80,075 applications for asylum were submitted in France. In this year the percentage of applications accepted rose to 33.7 percent, but this increase is almost exclusively due to the growing numbers of asylum applications from Syrian nationals, who are, in most cases, granted asylum status automatically. Leading members of the French government have criticised Angela Merkel’s decision to open Europe’s borders to refugees in the summer of 2015. Perhaps the loudest and most notable critic has been former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a member on the right wing of the Socialist Party (see interview in the Süddeutschen Zeitung from 25 November 2015).

In 2015/16, France took on a leading role as the EU drew up plans for the ‘distribution’ of migrants, who had entered EU territory in Greece and Italy, across the union’s 28 member states. The task was to initially find places for 120,000 refugees within two years. This was then changed to 66,000 by the end of 2017. Due to strong opposition from a number of central eastern European states – Slovakia was strongly opposed to the plan, and the Polish government started a campaign against it – most parts of the agreement were blocked. In August 2016, a mere 2,845 migrants had been moved from Greece and resettled in another EU state. In the months that followed, the French government took a back seat when it came to political initiatives at EU level; at home, the issue all but vanished from the agenda.

For a brief period in the autumn of 2016, the clearance of the so-called 'jungle’, an informal makeshift camp that had been built on the outskirts of Calais, became a major domestic issue. The Treaty of Le Touquet (signed in 2003) meant France had made a pledge to the United Kingdom to keep migrants on the French side of the Channel and to prevent immigrants crossing illegally to the British Isles. However, the camp, which had swelled to around 10,000 people, was rapidly becoming a highly contentious issue at home with various commentators often referring to it as an “eyesore“. Between 24 and 26 October 2016 the camp was cleared and destroyed, but some of the previous occupants managed to evade the authorities.

Around 5,500 adults and 1,900 unaccompanied minors were taken by bus to one of 450 temporary accommodation sites in other parts of the country. Once there, they were only guaranteed refuge for three months. Furthermore, and contrary to what was originally promised, deportations to other EU countries (Italy in particular) immediately resumed under the Dublin III Regulation.

Essentially, the aim was to simply move the perceived problem elsewhere. At the beginning of 2017, many of those affected who weren’t able to successfully claim asylum in France once again found themselves with nothing. In many cases, they also wound up back on the road.

In addition, large parts of the port of Calais are now off limits to migrants, who might be looking to use the site as a transit point. As of 1 December 2016, a law currently used to enforce the state of emergency (which is set to be in place at least until 15 July 2017) was applied to declare the RN 216 access road a specific hazard zone for pedestrians. Trespassers (in de facto terms, migrants) can be punished with up to six months’ imprisonment.

In addition to the barriers and fences already in place around the port of Calais, on 20 September 2016 work began on the construction of a four-metre-high and one-kilometre-long wall. This will be fitted with CCTV cameras and searchlights. The aim is to prevent trespassers setting foot on the road that leads to the port area, a spot where migrants have repeatedly attempted to smuggle themselves on board lorries and ferries. The bill for construction (€2.7 million) is being footed by the British government. Construction on the wall was officially completed on 12 December 2016.

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