There has never been a period of French history where migration has not been a factor. Likewise, there has there never been a time without political and ideological clashes over that migration. This has, in particular, been the case since the end of 19th century when the Dreyfus affair, in which French society was divided over the case of a Jewish military officer falsely accused of treason. At the heart of the affair was the unfortunate but unavoidable notion of “national identity.” Was being truly French determined by “the earth and the dead,” a concept by which nationalists denied Jews a French identity on the basis of their “foreign” ancestry? Or as Dreyfus’ defenders argued, was it instead a matter of the universal values ascribed to the French Revolution? Ever since, who is on, and who is off “le bus,” has been a constant question in French politics.
A controversy over immigration has again exploded in France, which is hardly surprising. It’s far from the only one in recent years. More surprising, though, is that President Emmanuel Macron deliberately lit the fuse. On Monday, he met with the elected deputies of his party, La République en Marche, which holds a majority in the National Assembly. Looking toward the second half of his presidency, Macron warned them that they needed “to prepare the French for those challenges which frighten them.” He ticked off the environment and economy as two of the usual suspects, but then veered toward what he called a “régalien” subject, or a matter of sovereign importance. We must, Macron intoned, “look in the face” the question of immigration and that his party needed to speak frankly about the social and cultural baggage that immigrants bring with them into French society. To conservatives, this statement revealed a welcome candor on the president’s part; to the left, it reflected the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the extreme rightwing.
This was not the first time Macron had touched on what has become a third rail on the French left and center. Last December, while scrambling to respond to the persistent and increasingly violent gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests, Macron announced the launching of a “national debate” in France. This would be the opportunity, among other tasks, “to align the nation with its true identity.” For this reason, he concluded, we “must confront the question of immigration.”
Then, as now, Macron’s claim unsettled many on the left, including members of his own party. In effect, it is a stress test for a party that was created just three years ago to serve as Macron’s campaign vehicle—an often uneasy coalition of former Socialists, centrists, and conservatives. More than a dozen left-leaning LREM deputies, known as the “Social Democratic Collective,” have distanced themselves from Macron’s declaration. One of the leaders, Jean-François Césarini, announced that his group “does not identify itself with this discourse,” while another member, Sonia Krimi, dismissed Macron and his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, as “two white males who intend to explain life to us.” Krim might have exaggerated the number of white males: The conservative Philippe, who has long argued for an inclusive and liberal understanding of national identity, also warned Macron against taking this tack.
Just as he has dismissed both Philippe and his party’s left wing, Macron seems to have dismissed the findings of political scientists and sociologists. Many of them find worrisome Macron’s assertion, made on Monday, that the urban and suburban bourgeoisie “don’t have a problem with immigrants because they never see them. The popular classes, however, live with it.” For Macron, the indifference of the urban and cosmopolitan middle class toward what is called “France périphérique”—workers who live in suburban and exurban areas and are threatened by globalization and automation—helped power the gilets jaunes protests as well the persistence of the populist and extreme right-wing Rassemblement National. Of course, the principal suspect for this bourgeois indifference was Macron himself, a pure product of France’s elite institutions.
Yet social demographers like Patrick Simon argue that this calculus ignores the complex character of immigration. The brute demographic fact is that for more than a century, immigrants have represented a significant swath of France’s working class. Moreover, while racist and xenophobic language and attitudes are found in “peripheral” France, so too are countless examples of successful integration. In fact, Simon’s work reveals that inhabitants who live in these areas have more ethnically diverse circles of friends and colleagues than the urban bourgeoisie. This explains why immigration was rarely cited as a concern by yellow-vest protesters and why it does not rank at the top of popular concerns in current polls and surveys.
Researchers like Simon do not deny that popular fears and everyday frictions, cultural incomprehension, and insecurity exist among these classes. Instead, they argue that while these problems are unfortunate, they only become fateful when populist leaders weaponize them. The fears of most French over the issues of unemployment or underemployment, social mobility and social security persist because a succession of governments on the left and right have failed to resolve them. Given this collective failure, it is not surprising that those seeking power and those holding on to power point to immigration as the source of social and economic ills. “All of this is completely constructed,” Simon insists. “What is astonishing is that while politicians have not stopped banging on about immigration, it still is not among the most prominent concerns of most French.”
This has not been for lack of trying. As a series of elections, from the municipal through the regional to the national loom over the French horizon between now and 2022, Macron seems to be taking a page out of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s playbook. Just as the latter posed as the defender of the “France of real life,” the former now wonders whether his party is seen as caring only for the urban bobos who are “sheltered” from this very same France. Similarly, Macron’s ostensible concern over the French identity echoes Sarkozy’s woeful and ultimately aborted attempt to create a Ministry of National Identity in 2008.
Both the former and current presidents have used this language less because they believe it reflects hard social truths than because it reflects hard political calculations. How could it be otherwise when their notions of “real life” and “real Frenchmen and women” are no less a fiction than is their notion of “real immigrants”? As Sarkozy did a decade ago with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, so too is Macron doing today. He is seeking to parry the electoral threat of the renamed Rassemblement National—now led by Marine Le Pen—by parroting its dog whistles. Should Macron pursue this strategy, it might win him a second term. Whether real Frenchmen and women will also win is more doubtful.