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French Hostility to Immigration and Minorities: It’s the economy, stupid?

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Across Europe, governments in recent years have been increasingly hostile to immigration. British Prime Minister David Cameron was noted for a factually-questionable anti-immigration speech in March and German Chancellor Angela Merkel the same month vetoed Bulgaria and Romania’s accession of the Schengen Area of free movement of persons. As Corina Murafa argues, this kind of opposition to immigration within Europe represents a significant obstacle to European unification and to reaching the continent’s full economic potential.

The case of France is interesting as a founding member of the European Union, the home of Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority, and a country where anti-immigration has become a very large part of public debate and official policy. Indeed, under Nicolas Sarkozy the country has banned the wearing of the burqa in public spaces, held a contentious official “debate on national identity” and specifically targeted ethnic Roma immigrants for deportation. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding compared the latter to the deportation of Jews during the Second World War. In addition, the Front National is perhaps Western Europe’s most successful far-right nationalist and anti-immigration party, with its candidate Marine Le Pen finishing third in the 2012 presidential elections with 17.9% of the vote.

The French media have identified a, rather exaggerated, rise in conservative and “fascistic” opinion in France in recent polls. Last January a poll claimed that 87% of French said they wanted “a real leader in France to restore order.” The media were equally alarmed with a poll the same month which found that a majority of French thought there were too many immigrants, that Muslims had too many rights, that the police were not tough enough, and that “traditional values” were insufficiently defended. Most remarked upon was that 31% of people said they “completely or mostly agreed with the ideas” of France’s far-right party, the Front National.

What explains this? Are the French genuinely this intolerant and, even, tempted by “fascism”?

Let us first look at the vote for the Front National itself. The FN does particularly well among blue-collar workers and small businessmen, basically the white victims of the French postindustrial economy (as opposed to heavily-unemployed non-white victims, especially black and/or Muslim immigrants and French citizens of (North or Sub-Saharan) African or Turkish descent). An Internet poll found that 29% of blue-collar voters had voted for Marine Le Pen in 2012 (more than any other party, especially the Socialists and post-communists), 25% of craftsmen, shopkeepers and businessmen, and 21% of employees (salariés). Her electorate is disproportionately male (21% of men vs. 17.9% of total vote). Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, Le Pen’s electorate is not old. Only 13% of over 60s voted for her, aging conservatives prefering the predictable race-baiter Sarkozy to the unpredictable radical Le Pen. Support rises to 23% of 35-44 year-olds and a respectable 18% of 18-24 year-olds.

Interestingly, there is no longer any correlation in the départements (counties) between the Front National vote and the number of foreigners present. Here is the presence of foreigners from the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey in the various départements (left axis) over the vote for Marine Le Pen in the 2012 presidential elections:

French départements: presence of foreigners from Africa and Turkey over the 2012 Le Pen vote.

In contrast, here is the correlation between unemployment and the Le Pen 2012 vote in the départements:

French départements: unemployment rate over the 2012 Le Pen vote.

As one might expect, the maps of the Front National vote and of areas with severe unemployment, coincide almost perfectly (both are concentrated in the northeast and southeast).

FN supporters are typically far more nationalist and intolerant than French society as a whole. Nonetheless, in various polls a majority of French (often a big majority) has supported banning students from wearing headscarves in schools, banning the burqa in public places, and the expelling of Roma who have illegally immigrated. However, and this is a key point, the French generally do not rate these issues very high in their lists of concerns.

Consider the results of the January Ipsos-CEVIPOF poll, when French people were invited to say what the “three most pressing issues for France today” were:

1. Unemployment was cited by 56%

2. Purchasing power (pouvoir d’achat, e.g. wages) was cited by 41%

3. Taxes and pensions (tie) were cited by 27%

4. Healthcare was cited by 24%

5. Insecurity (e.g. violent and petty crime) was cited by 20%

6. Social inequality and public deficits (tie) were cited by 19%

7. Religious fundamentalism was cited by 17%

8. Immigration was cited by 16%

9. Housing was cited by 13%

10. The school system and the environment (tie) were cited by 9%

Issues of economic security absolutely dominate French concerns, with “immigration-integration” issues relegated fairly far down the list: 80% of French did not mention crime, religious fundamentalism or immigration as one of the top three issues they were concerned about.

Interestingly, Front National supporters, while they tend to live in areas plagued by high unemployment, were actually least likely to mention unemployment as a major issue, only 38%, as against 68% of leftists and 55% for the centrist Modem and the center-right UMP. One is tempted to see an example of displaced aggression of FN supporters, venting their economic frustrations on Muslims and immigrants.

An April 2013 Ifop-Ouest France poll found similar results. Here is what people said when they were asked whether various issues were “absolutely a priority” (tout à fait prioritaire):

1. 79% said the fight against unemployment

2. 58% said healthcare

3. 54% said crime (délinquance)

4. 53% said education

5. 52% said economic insecurity (précarité)

6. 51% said increasing of wages and buying power

7. 43% fighting against illegal immigration and limiting new taxes (tie)

8. 33% said improving the situation of the banlieues (suburban “ghettos”)

9. 30% said saving public services

10. 29% said protecting the environment

In fact, most polls since 2011 have found this rough hierarchy of priorities:

1. Unemployment (+70%)

2. Healthcare, education, crime, reducing deficits, purchasing power, income insecurity (+50%)

3. Immigration, excessive taxes (30-40%)

4. Improving the banlieues, the environment (25-30%)

While most French have “intolerant,” assimilationist attitudes towards Muslims and immigration, these do not typically rank among their most important concerns.

These polls suggest that the ever-increasing rhetoric and action (especially symbolic) of the French State against Muslims and immigrants, despite the relative low interest in this of the French, is a kind of compensation for its complete inability to address the more important economic concerns (the most fundamental economic powers, budget and currency, having been delegated to unelected EU officials).

Given that the European economic crisis is likely to persist for years, given the French State’s almost complete impotence in macroeconomic policy, and given the hostility of the European Central Bank and Germany towards a Keynesian approach (the kind endlessly promoted by Paul Krugman and others), a rise in economic frustrations and thereby anti-immigration sentiment in France appears very likely. However, it is also encouraging in that far-right and intolerant sentiment do not seem to be the result of immigration in-and-of-itself, but that these could be reduced by addressing economic concerns through a return to reasonable policies.

More information on the Front National can be found on my blog: “The Front National: A Rough Guide”.

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Craig James Willy Twitter: craigjameswillyCraig James

I am a Brussels-based European politics blogger and a journalist for the multinational EU news site EurActiv, covering a wide range of policy areas. I was born and raised in France but brought up by Anglo-American parents. I studied at Liverpool and the London School of Economics and have worked in both the US Congress and the European Parliament. I am currently involved in numerous online news and social media projects including Future Challenges, the EU blog aggregator bloggingportal.eu and my own personal European affairs blog Letters from Europe. My interests include reading, writing, history, politics, old and new media, European affairs, transatlantic relations, US and French politics, European Muslims, migration and minority rights, beer, traveling, dogs and dinosaurs. I speak English, French, Spanish and Italian (in that order) and love to meet people in person and across the net. Don't hesitate to contact me if you want to discuss projects, collaboration on blogs (guest posts, retakes..), writing for your publication or want advice on EU affairs, social media or life in Europe and Brussels!

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