France Migration & Integration Interview

The French migration policy: a tragic lack of long-term vision

An expert interview with Marie-Laure Basilien-Gainche for #DialogueOnEurope


European Parliament


Marie-Laure Basilien-Gainche comments on the way France and Europe fail to deal with the so-called “refugee crisis”. If some improvement have been achieved, in particular regarding the relocation system, integration remains a major issue, even for second or third-generation immigrants.


What are the historical experiences of France with migration (migration-immigration-emigration)?

France is shaped by migration – we have had many waves of migration over the course of French history. We can go back to the 19th and 20th centuries when the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese people came to France for work. They were working in the coal and shipping industry. After the Second World War the nature of migration changed. In the military, soldiers were drafted from different colonies of France, for example from Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Indochina. They were part of the French army but they were not recognised as French. For instance, Algeria was considered as a French department but Algerian people were not recognised as French. After the Second World War, there was a wave of independence and the situation obviously changed. But one of the big question remains: how to recognise Algerians born in French Algeria? The French state, as well as its people, refused to integrate them. Meanwhile, immigration was triggered by a high demand on the labour market. It was important for France to attract people for work. Thus, France opened its borders to ensure the economic growth. In a next step, we called for the closing of our borders and wanted to make economic migration to France increasingly difficult. There were more and more restrictions on migration. The history of France is a history of mobility and an initially huge wave of immigration. The following chapter was one of closing the borders by increasing the restrictions.

What about the current migration policy? What impact has the European situation on France? What are the challenges?

There are mostly political challenges. The situation in France is not the same as in Greece or Italy. These countries mark the border due to their geographical position in the Mediterranean Sea. Migrants are for the biggest part coming from the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan), but also from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. There is an East-European Mediterranean migration path which is the most important at the moment. Greece and Italy are affected the most by the influx of migrants since spring 2015. Meanwhile, in France, we have some migrants coming from Italy but they are detained at the border of Italy. Today, most of the migrants come from Sudan, Afghanistan or Iraq, even though the passage of borders is quite restricted. Despite the Schengen Agreement, we have border controls . That’s why it is very difficult to enter France, wether by plane, by boat, or by land. Now is the time for immediate actions – namely the relocation programme which has been launched by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Initially, France was not very well prepared to receive refugees, but the structures have been improved. Today France is one of the countries most actively participating in the relocation programme.

How do you evaluate the EU’s handling of the situation? If you could give an advice for tackling the problem, what would it be?

It is difficult to give a note to the European Union because the European Union is only what the European Member States allow it to be. In the beginning of April 2016, there were some tensions on the European level. The trend of welcoming the refugees and migrants was very interesting. Considering the huge resistance the EU faced from its Member States, the support was relevant from a perspective of human rights’ protection and in the regard of international obligations. In fact, the so-called “refugee crisis” is not a crisis caused by migration waves. It’s a European crisis because Member States do not want to comply with their international, European and national obligations to grant the right of asylum to refugees. The EU is in a political crisis – we chose to violate our fundamental principles. The EU is based on universal fundamental rights. In fact, those rights are only universal and fundamental for European people. Thus, there is a differentiation which is really problematic.

What would you expect from the EU to change?

The EU cannot change anything if the Member States don’t want to. We do not have one federal State, but many Member States instead. Many of them refuse to grant common standards in the immigration and asylum policy. We must be aware that the Member States are part of the solution and that there are still sensible tensions between them: between the North and the South, between the East and the West, between the progressive and the conservative ones. Latter did not receive any refugees at the beginning of the crisis.

How is France currently dealing with the migration policy?

In France we pretend that we have a French way of integration but this is not true. We do not even have any model of integration. Before, people used to be integrated and it was quite amazing. Now people have to prove their integration. National authorities are not involved in this process. Thus, integration is everyone’s own duty. Both at the EU and at the French national level – it is solely the immigrant’s responsibility to integrate properly. Moreover, it’s not about not having integrated them – it’s a way of refusing them. We do not have an integration model. Let’s illustrate the case of people coming from Algeria. The second and third generations are French but they are still regarded as immigrants, even though they are French, even though they’ve never lived in another country than France. For instance, Patrick Simon from the INED (Institut national des études démographiques) did research on the denial of being French. There is a general refusal because even though the younger generations of immigrants are French, they are still regarded as foreigners. Thus, imagine the situation of migrants coming from Syria, Iraq, etc. They will be even less easily recognised and they will have an even smaller chance to be integrated. What is more, I think that Islam is highly disputed in France at the moment. Some believe that it is impossible to integrate Muslim people. In my opinion, this is wrong.

What are the divides in the political landscape? How are parties tackling the immigration issue? Is it used for political ends, as a tool in the political fight?

This may be an understatement, but I think there is no cleavage in France – nobody wants refugees or migrants, except for people who care about fundamental rights of migrants and that are aware of the situation in their countries of origin. That is a handful of associations, NGOs or volunteers. Most of the people seem to be against the arrival and integration of migrants. In fact, we have a huge problem in France – the political atmosphere has become very national. Traditional parties are shifting more and more towards conservative positions in the field of migration. For instance, I cannot say that there was a big difference between the Sarkozy presidency and the Hollande presidency. We have a general trend that did not change during the years, even though there was a change in leadership. However, there is a party that is more open and better aware of the situation of migrants – the Green party. However, they are incapable of having an impact on the current policy making.

Regarding the instrumentalisation of refugees and migrants, I am neither a sociologist or a political scientist – this is not a scientific statement for which I have any proof, but we have huge economic and social problems – unemployment, integration, education, universities, research – the situation has been too unstable to tackle those problems. We have a general climate of insecurity in France. It can be felt everywhere. This feeling of insecurity has additionally been triggered by the terrorist attacks (in Paris in January and November 2015, and in Nice in 2016). This insecurity, fueled by attacks, is linked to social and economic issues. But for certain politicians, instead of solving these issues, it is easier to depict immigrants as being responsible or a possible threat.

What about the relations between France and Germany in this context?

The relationship has changed along with Angela Merkel’s position. At the time the borders were open, there was some resistance in France. When Angela Merkel finally decided to close the borders because of the high influx of migrants, especially from the Balkans, and also because of the internal political pressure she was facing, the new position of Germany was welcomed in France. Nevertheless, the former President François Hollande was little-noticed in comparison to Angela Merkel. We are used to talk about the Franco-German tandem as the engine to make the EU stronger, but the French counterpart was for a certain time totally inexistent. There was nothing, no real relationship during that time. We don’t have any long-term vision for the European project, for the European immigration or economic policy. With regard to many countries, Europe can only succeed with other national leaders. For example, 25% of French people are unemployed, living under the national poverty line. It is particularly difficult for immigrants or French citizens with a migration background. What makes things even worse are people saying they are terrorists, that they are taking “our” jobs or not respecting “our” culture. There is no anger against passive leaders, but there is an anger against what represents threat: migrants and refugees. If the migrants are coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, it is because they are fighting the same enemy as we are. They are fighting terrorists. They could be recognised as our friends or partners. To sum up, all attitudes towards refugees are essentially irrational attitudes. We are on our way to transform this irregular migration into a problem for Europe.


Marie-Laure Basilien-Gainche is a Professor of Law and a member of the Centre of Constitutional Law at the University Jean Moulin Lyon 3; member of the Centre for the Study and Research on Fundamental Rights (CREDOF) of the University Paris 10 Nanterre; a member of editorial boards of main reviews on fundamental rights and migration law and academic associations (such as the European network of legal experts TransEuropeExperts, the immigration network of the Council for European Studies of Columbia University, the European University network on the Area of Freedom, of Security and Justice, or the Migration and Law Network). In her research on constitutional law and European law she evaluates the legitimacy of the political systems of the European Union and its Member States. At the French University Institute (IUF) she runs a project called “The finis and the limes – Thoughts about a constitutionalised EU from the asylum and immigration policy view”, researching tensions between the substantial (political) components and the formal (geographical) elements of European identity, especially in the context of immigration and asylum policy of the EU and its Member States.