Electoral debates in France have always been drawn to the issue of immigration. But never has an electoral campaign so disproportionately dealt with migration and identity-related concerns as the current one.
With less than three months to go before the country votes for its next president, populist candidates are trying to connect two fears: Immigration and the fate of “French identity”. Seeking dividends by hyping alarm 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 by trying to upstage far right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen as the flag-bearer of the anti-migrant movement. In September, Zemmour, himself the son of Algerian migrants, described crime as a form of “Jihad”. (He has since been found guilty of hate speech for similar comments.)
Even the more traditional right-wing candidate, Valerie Pecresse, has joined the fray, asserting, “There is a link between delinquency and immigration.” This, despite the fact that one-fifth of her constituents in the Ile-de-France region are immigrants.
France’s secularist value-system
These themes are not the domain of aspiring populists alone. In the poor neighbourhoods of French cities, where many minorities live, President Emmanuel Macron saw an abhorrent form of “communitarianism” posing an existential challenge to France’s secularist value-system.
But outside the punditry, the link between immigration and identity remains tenuous. Opinion polls show that immigration ranks lower than concerns about the erosion of purchasing power and the rise in crime.
According to a recent IFOP poll, the electorate’s top-ranking concerns were the troubled economy, deindustrialisation, unemployment, and debt. The poll also showed the French language to be the top determinant of French identity, with other icons being its history and such figures as Charles de Gaulle, Voltaire, and the Algerian French soccer player Zinedine Zidane.
If populist campaigners have managed to turn immigration into a synonym for France’s major problems, it is in great part the result of endless political and media spin, which gives the impression that immigrants are overwhelming France — even if the data paints a much more measured picture.
But it is not all smoke and mirrors. The overwhelmingly modern and secular majority of French Muslims resent the ambient climate of anti-minority mongering.
These events reflected true problems of integration and transborder radicalisation. But once again, the propensity for denunciation exerted a stronger pull on politicians and commentators than the desire to deal with the underlying factors at play.
Politicking at home
Decision-makers could not resist playing tough with North African governments on repatriation of illegal migrants and extremists of Maghrebi origin. The drastic reduction of visas to Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians seemed to prioritise politicking at home over diplomatic considerations, while Maghreb governments felt repatriations were being shoved down their throats at the risk of ratcheting up pressures at home.
The French government’s moves were intended to show the electorate how serious it was about fighting illegal immigration and radicalisation, but to many in the Maghreb it made them wonder if they mattered to Paris.
Much of the posturing does not take into consideration the fact that French people of Maghrebi origin are themselves registered voters — even if poor political organisation has deprived the latter of any clout.
Nor does the anti-migrant rhetoric account for the thousands of medical doctors and engineers from North Africa and the rest of the region who help France function. Somehow, these people are expected to remain invisible as the electoral campaign runs its course, even if Maghrebi medics have been particularly conspicuous in France’s hospitals during the pandemic.
Anti-migrant populist discourse
The anti-migrant populist discourse is rebranding France far away from Voltaire’s “Legacy of Lights.” 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 the youth who see in France their destination of choice.
Once the election is over, the French will go about their business of promoting “La Francophonie” in the Maghreb and competing with the Americans, the Turks, and the Chinese for North African markets. The generally-francophone Maghreb audiences will continue watching French TV channels.
Politicians’ short-term calculations will not build resilient bonds between France and the Maghreb; and populism should not be the cornerstone of democracy across the sea, as it can only subvert politics on both shores.
Oussama Romdhani has served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.