Immigration in France

Worldwide migrations are transforming the face of Europe and changing the political, economic, and social complexion of all countries. Professor Arun Kapil of the Catholic University of Paris described how this movement of people is affecting France, and examining how the French response to newcomers may have parallels in the US. Professor Kapil, an expert on immigration, began work on the Immigration Reform Act implementation in 1986.

Professor Kapil noted that immigration has been in the top 3 concerns in public opinion polls for 3 decades across the EU, and immigration issues have fueled the rise of populist parties. He noted the correlation between unemployment, a poor economic outlook, and anti-immigrations sentiments: When unemployment exceeds 10%, anti-immigration movements arise.

When unemployment exceeds 10%, anti-immigration movements arise.

France has seen varying flows of immigrants since the 19th Century, which have shaped a liberal attitude toward them. From the 1890s to the 1920s, immigrants came from surrounding countries to work in France. In the 1950s, they came from former French colonies. In the 1970s, immigrant inflows were from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, as people fled the Vietnam War. Today’s immigrants are mostly from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of these migrations, today 1 of every 4 French people has a parent or grandparent who was born outside the country.

French liberalism toward immigration is expressed in the citizenship laws, which are unique in Europe. Anyone born and living in France at age 18 becomes a citizen, even if both parents were foreign-born. This is in contrast to the US, which requires immigrants to obtain a Green Card and reside in the US for 5 years while paying taxes and overcoming several hurdles before they can earn citizenship.

Other European countries have a more ethnic idea of citizenship: it is by blood, with both parents being blood citizens. You have to be born German (although this is now liberalizing, Professor Kapil noted), but you can become French.

France has a strong assimilationist ethic and strives to integrate immigrants into the fabric of French life. Assimilation requires that immigrants speak the French language, adopt French cultural codes, and subscribe to values of the French Republic, that is, “Liberté, egalité, fraternité.”

France does not endorse “multi-culturalism,” and fosters assimilation and integration rather than accommodation. This is in contrast to the US, which, in the 1970s, saw an affirmation of ethnic identity and the evolution of hyphenated identities such as “Italian-American” or “African-American”…. The US recognizes ethnicity, while France does not collect statistics on ethnicity or race. The French value is equality⎯“we are all equal citizens of the Republic.” Discrimination does occur in social life, Professor Kapil noted, but not in the espoused value system.

In the 1983-1984 elections, immigration became a political issue as more young people of Arab and African origin with low economic status taxed the job market. There were 3 million immigrants and 3 million unemployed people. Crime and security were concerns that propelled the extreme right populist National Front Party to capture 18% of the vote, and other parties subsequently started to take a more hardline approach to immigration issues.

In 1989, Islam became an issue with conflict over whether wearing a head scarf in public schools violated 1905 laws establishing the separation of religion and state. In 2004, the French Senate passed a law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols, including head scarves in public schools. In 2010, it passed a ban on the wearing of face-covering headgear and other veils covering the face in public places.

These laws are a key to “Laïcité,” the French term for balancing religious freedom and public order, which does not equate to secularism. On the contrary, it is a principle of religious neutrality that is intended to create the conditions for religious freedom. French public schools, in particular, have long been the places where a new civic identity could be nurtured, free of anti-democratic influences. This is why the French put so much emphasis on the neutrality of schools and why political activism and religious proselytizing are banned there. In fact, extremists on both the left and the right were in agreement that the bans should be enacted.


Sen. Troy Fraser (TX): Why do both the left and the right oppose the head scarf?

Dr. Kapil: About 5 million Muslims—or 8.3% of the population—live in France, a huge majority of whom are moderate. A large majority (78%) favor laïcité, which they view as supportive of religious freedom. However, a fringe of Islamist militants are “testing” the French Republic, demanding privileges that other religions do not have, and ignoring long-established rules of French society.

Conservatives oppose the head scarf due to fear of Islam, which they see as a threat to French national identity as well as a potential source of terrorism. Liberals see the head scarf as an overt manifestation of religiosity, which violates the separation of church and state.

Sen. Keith Faber (OH): Some Americans are offended by immigrants taking public assistance but remaining in their own communities and speaking their native languages, without learning English. Are there similar sentiments in France?

Dr. Kapil: Yes, some people in France would react with the same frustration, and this is becoming more significant. However, if you are not a legal immigrant you cannot get assistance.

Sen. Sandy Pappas (MN): What about freedom of speech and freedom of choice? Was there no discourse about these freedoms during the head scarf controversy?

Dr. Kapil: The 2004 law only affects younger students in public schools through high school, where French values and citizenship are being taught. In universities and in public places, head scarves are permitted. In the workplace, laws protect freedom of religion so scarves are accepted, but not for public employees such as teachers in public schools. The US focuses on “freedom of religion” while the French embrace “freedom of conscience.”

Sen. Troy Fraser (TX): We hear the criticism that the French have benefited from the contributions of immigrants, but now they will not support the countries immigrants came from. What is the reality?

Dr. Kapil: The challenge is what to do with economic immigrants and refugees from, for example, Syria. In 1962-1963, France, with a population of 45 million, absorbed 800,000 French Algerian settlers. Last year, more than 170,000 people came through Italy into the EU, which had no choice but to absorb the refugees. France could easily absorb 100,000 refugees from Syria. The Western world could absorb all the Syrian refugees. But today, the social and economic challenges of integration are of extraordinary proportions.

Speaker Biography

Arun Kapil

Arun Kapil teaches Politics and Modern History at the Institut Catholique de Paris (Catholic University of Paris) and the Paris Center of the Council on International Educational Exchange.

He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. His areas of specialization include the politics and history of North Africa and France, and immigration and international migration. A dual American/French citizen, he has been living in France since the early 1990’s.

Other Foreign Relations articles:

Dr. Arun Kapil

Institut Catholique de Paris
(Catholic University of Paris)

Paris Center of the Council on International Educational Exchange


When unemployment exceeds 10%, anti-immigration movements arise.


Assimilation requires that immigrants speak the French language, adopt French cultural codes, and subscribe to values of the French Republic ⎯ “Liberté, egalité, fraternité.”

Sen. Troy Fraser

Sen. Keith Faber

Sen. Sandy Pappas

Dr. Arun Kapil

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