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Immigration: A French Paradox

France has a long history of welcoming immigrants, who have greatly contributed to the development of its economy. Contrary to popular belief, Ekrame Boubtane demonstrates that the work provided by immigrants responds to the permanent needs of the labour market, which explains the failure of policies aimed at discouraging immigration or encouraging return.

France is a country of immigration that has long welcomed people looking for work and/or fleeing persecution. The growth of its economy is partly based on immigrants who have long since replaced the French, especially in the tasks that the latter did not want to fulfill. Contrary to the idea that has long been anchored in public debate in France, the work provided by immigrants is complementary and not substitutable for that provided by non-immigrants. It responds to the permanent needs of the labour market, which explains why immigrants settle permanently in France, despite an immigration policy that has tended to keep them in a temporary status. Rather than encouraging immigrants to return to their countries of origin, the hardening of immigration policy has contributed to their decision to settle in France on a long-term basis and with their families.

Immigration that responds to sustainable labour market needs

Until the end of the Thirty Glorious Years, the needs of the labour market in France motivated the massive recruitment of immigrant workers, particularly abroad by employers or their representatives and administrative services. They can be explained by the economic boom in France, which has resulted in an increase in the average standard of living and the stabilization of natural population growth. The French, who are increasingly better trained and few in number in relation to the labour needs of industry and agriculture, have been able to occupy the least arduous and best-paid jobs and have gradually turned to more sustainable jobs, particularly in the service sector.

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    Cf. Tightness in the labour market. Dares Results n°59, November 2023.

While these needs were particularly important before the first oil shock, they did not disappear following the economic downturn of the 1980s and 1990s. Tensions in the labour market, which are less visible at the macroeconomic level, are of a different nature depending on the occupation. Over the past decade, they have increased in the majority of trades and are now at their highest level 1 . It is thus the potential jobs that the economy would be able to create that make France attractive for a long-term settlement of immigrants.

Immigration policy in France facing the challenge of realities

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    e.g. Law of 8 August 1893 on the residence of foreigners in France and the protection of national labour; Act of 11 August 1926 introducing the obligation for foreigners to hold an identity card bearing the words “worker”.

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    e.g. Law of 10 August 1932 on quotas for foreign labour; Decree-Law of 9 August 1935 which requires foreign craftsmen to hold a special identity card.

The significant use of immigrant workers to recruit has been the subject of political debates in France since the late nineteenth century. Several measures have been taken to control the entry and stay of foreigners in France 2 . It was in a context of crisis that the first texts restricting foreigners’ access to the labour market were adopted in the 1930s 3 .

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    Despite migration restrictions after the crises of the 1930s and 1970s, France welcomed more than 500,000 Spanish women who fled the Spanish Civil War, as well as nationals of the former Indochina, the “boat people”, mainly Vietnamese from 1975.

In addition to measures to reduce the introduction of foreign workers, which can be explained by the sharp decline in the demand for labour from firms, several measures were aimed at encouraging existing immigrants to return to their countries of origin and/or discouraging the entry of immigrants for reasons other than work. However, most immigrants did not consider returning to their countries of origin, where the prevailing situation was even more unfavourable. They also feared that they would no longer be allowed to return to France if they returned. Moreover, increasingly restrictive measures have not discouraged people seeking protection and a better life fleeing conflict or persecution from seeking international protection from France 4 .

  • 5

    Marchand, O. (1991) “As many foreign assets in 1990 as in 1980” Economie et statistique 242, pp31-38.

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    Gross, D. M. (2002) “Three million foreigners, three million unemployed? Immigration flows and the labour market in France”, Applied Economics, 34(16), pp.1969-83.

The situation may seem paradoxical. The immigrants that companies brought in for industrial jobs did not return to their home countries during the recession. The tightening of immigration policy has contributed to settling them rather than encouraging them to return to their countries of origin. Immigrants have shifted to jobs in other sectors or have become self-employed. They settled permanently in France with their families. Thus, foreign employment was almost unchanged between 1980 and 1990 despite massive redundancies in industryand construction. The presence of foreigners in market services has increased, the share of self-employment has increased and the working population, which was overwhelmingly male at the end of the 1970s, has gradually become more feminine with the development of women who have arrived as part of family reunification. Despite the difficulties of integration, the macroeconomic impact of immigration between 1975 and 1994, particularly that of nationals from countries outside the European Economic Community,was positive. In addition, regional conflicts and political changes have led to significant population displacement and an increase in asylum applications. Thus, the immigrant population in France has not stopped increasing since the end of the Thirty Glorious Years, despite the multiplication of laws relating to the “control of immigration” or to “control” it.

Perhaps it is time to face the reality that the goal of reducing immigration is unrealistic in a globalised world. Immigration will increase, whether to meet the needs of the French labour market for skilled and unskilled jobs, or with the reception of some of the forcibly displaced people, estimated at 108.4 million by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 75% of whom are currently hosted in developing countries.

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