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For a debate of ideas on immigration

Debates of ideas on immigration do not exist in the field of social foresight. The main reason is that there would be no intellectual space available. Only the political field has invested in this subject, with an inaudible left-wing positioning and a right-wing positioning that ignites every attempt at discussion. This terrible observation is the starting point for Philippe Lemoine to analyze the why and how of migration issues in France.

Drawing on history, the author demonstrates that humans have always migrated. If, over time, these migrations have often been the cause of violence between peoples, the conditions in which the question of immigration arises today date back to the French Revolution. The immigrant status was developed in opposition to the creation of the status of citizens, and the notion of nationhood.

We must lay down the new conditions for a calmer debate, based in particular on the three contributions that immigration could make to France. First of all, it would be a factor of wealth for the social sciences as a whole. Secondly, we would have a lot to learn from armed populations from a survival experience. Finally, the mixing of cultures can strengthen a planetary consciousness.

Through this contribution, Philippe Lemoine draws up proposals for action to take the floor again on the issue of immigration.

For a debate of ideas on immigration

Immigration is the blind spot of social prospects. If we talk about the risk of artificial intelligence or robots replacing humans, we are opening up a field of debate on which sociologists, economists, technologists, futurists, everyone has something to say. Despite the temptations of technological determinism, we manage to make room for constructed reflections. On the other hand, if we were to dare to talk about immigration in forward-looking terms, we would be igniting a conflict so violent that we prefer to leave the devil in our box and act as if we could question the horizon of societies without addressing this issue. On immigration, there is no space for intellectual debate.

The same cannot be said of the space of political debate. In the coming months, the issue of immigration will once again become in France this red rag that exacerbates tensions all the more as it manages to crystallize the confrontations, while widening the gap between the political system and what the population is experiencing. The far right is thriving on this theme, which it has appropriated for so long that Marine Le Pen’s National Rally would be ready to relativize it if it were not challenged by the more offensive discourse of Reconquest and Éric Zemmour. Deprived of a parliamentary majority, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, is planning a major triangulation operation, by debating a new law that would force Les Républicains to get closer to him to avoid their electorate reproaching them for their inertia and moving even more towards the RN. But, anticipating the trap, the right has already taken the lead, tabling a text that raises the stakes so that the center comes to the right, rather than the right to the center.

As for the left, it is unflappably pursuing the path it has been following for years: saying nothing on this divisive subject or saying so little that it remains inaudible. Its managers are crossing their fingers that the theme does not emerge, while knowing perfectly well that it is a waste of time and that it will have to be done. Some pretend to believe that it is enough to appeal to the experts and make known the real figures to deflate the fantasy issue of immigration. Others travel to Denmark, believing they can draw innovative lessons from what a Social Democratic government converted to a populist doctrine of strict immigration control is doing. Without any real perspectives, the two sides manage to divide on the cultural themes of universalism and multiculturalism, which are indirectly linked to the issue of immigration.

In fact, the intellectual scene seems to have been frozen since the mid-1980s, when Laurent Fabius, Prime Minister, declared that the National Front asked good questions but gave wrong answers. Good questions, really? Experience shows, however, that these are the questions that need to be re-examined because, formulated in a certain way, they close the field of questions and the spectrum of political responses. We believe that there is an urgent need to open up a space for the debate of ideas on this theme and, to do so, to re-examine the questions, to formulate new problems and to outline proposals for action.

Re-examine the questions

For thousands of years, humans have not stopped migrating. Even before Homo sapiens, human species migrated 1 or 2 million years ago, “out of Africa”, to Eurasia. 300,000 years ago, the appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa resulted in several waves of migration, the largest of which took place 50 or 70,000 years ago via the Levant corridor, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Gibraltar. The peopling of the different continents has continued for millennia and the debate is still ongoing among scientists about the exact time when humans arrived in America via the Bering Strait, more than 20,000 years ago. We wonder about the importance of the various causes that have presided over this dispersion on the surface of the globe: curiosity, climate change, search for food, distance from certain diseases… We do not know the various conflicts to which these migrations gave rise and, in particular, we do not know the reasons for the disappearance of Neanderthals, after a long cohabitation with Homo sapiens.

The great mythologies, the Bible, the history of Antiquity and then the Middle Ages attest to the often violent conditions of population displacement and the enslavement of certain peoples during wars, Odysseys and Exoduses. Everywhere, we find traces of the rejection of the other, of the foreigner, of the barbarian. The end of the Roman Empire allowed the surge of great invasions, Vikings, Goths, Visigoths. During the Renaissance, the revival of humanism, the aspiration to universalism and the discovery of the New World were accompanied by a hierarchy between races, a new cycle of slavery and the establishment of the triangular trade. But it was with the French Revolution that the notions of nationality and citizenship crystallized, incidentally leading to the need to define immigrant status and the modern problem of immigration.

Three main registers structure this contemporary immigration law in France. The first is that of values and human rights. The Revolution itself aimed to establish an open definition of citizenship. The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 did not explicitly address the issue but affirmed a vision of equality and non-persecution. In April 1790, a decree stipulated that “all foreigners will automatically be deemed French, as long as they have been present in the country for 5 years, have married a French woman, acquired real estate or “formed a commercial establishment”. In addition, they will be able to exercise all the “rights of an active citizen”, as long as they take a “civic oath” of loyalty to the Nation and respect for the Constitution. Access to citizenship is largely open, but it presupposes being part of a battle of values that is that of the French Revolution. In 1791, 1793 and 1795, the system changed and automaticity was abolished, then re-established, then reduced to one year’s residence. With Napoleon and the Civil Code, this open definition of nationality was closed since the basic principle was that of the right of soil and birth on French territory. But the universalist notion of France’s openness to those who share its values remains a strong message. In 1793, the Constitution restored an old law from Antiquity and the Ancien Régime: the right of asylum. It states that the French people “give asylum to foreigners banished from their homeland for the cause of liberty. He denies it to tyrants.” Subsequently, France did not always distinguish itself in the effective exercise of this right of asylum. In the 1930s, republicans fleeing Spain or Jews fleeing Nazism were grouped together in camps. It was the Universal Declaration of 1948 and the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 that revived the right to asylum. In the collective unconscious, however, remains the idea of a particular vocation of France, the homeland of Human Rights.

If the first register is that of values, the second is that of labour power and cannon fodder. Chateaubriand did not see Napoleon as a great strategist but as a butcher who sent thousands of young people to the front and who benefited from the numerical advantage of a France more populous than other European countries around 1800. In fact, everything changed in the nineteenth century, with the demographic revolution that our neighbors experienced: while the population stagnated in France, it exploded in Great Britain, Germany, Italy… Each defeat is analysed through the prism of our low birth rate, and foreigners must be brought in, not only to strengthen our army, but to compensate for the bleeding of manpower caused by the wars, while the different waves of the Industrial Revolution follow one another. After the defeat of 1870, the law of 26 June 1889 imposed French nationality on anyone born in France, as long as one of his parents was himself born in France, even if he was a foreigner; Germany protested and instituted a procedure allowing German descendants to retain their nationality. After the First World War and its haemorrhage of young men, France adopted the law of 10 August 1927 which relaxed the conditions of naturalization and aimed to amplify the call for air of Polish, Czech, Italian or North African workers and miners. After the Second World War, a liberal nationality code was adopted in 1945, at the same time as the National Immigration Office was created. But immigration stagnated and it was after decolonization that proactive measures were taken, at the request of major employment sectors such as steel, automobiles, construction: set up by Michel Debré of the BUMIDOM in 1963 (Bureau for the Development of Migration in Overseas Departments); intensified, between 1966 and 1972, the construction of hostels by SONACOTRA (Société Nationale de Habitat de les Travailleurs Algériens et leurs Familles), etc. In the early 70s, France had 2.6 million foreigners on its soil for 50 million inhabitants.

Third register, without which we cannot understand the nature of the questions as they are formulated in France: colonization and the colonial practice of order and pacification. Already present in America and the West Indies, France had constituted a colonial empire in the nineteenth century, with the conquest of Algeria (1830), the expansion of the Second Empire in West Africa, Madagascar, Cambodia, Cochinchina and New Caledonia (1860-70), the continuation of colonization by the Third Republic, extending the Empire in AOF, AEF, in the Maghreb, in Oceania, in the Middle East with the mandates on Syria and Lebanon. In the territories attached to the Empire, France declined a “Code de l’Indigénat” which combined subjection (fines, taxes, forced labor), limited civil rights (certain local elections), access to French nationality in dribs and drabs (with inequalities such as the Crémieux Decree in favor of the Jews of Algeria), administrative and judicial control by the colonial administration and the Army. All this disappeared with decolonization but, as we can see in the debate on identity checks, many traces of it remain in people’s minds. To cite just one, the army’s psychological services in Algeria had placed a great deal of emphasis on the relative emancipation of women as a means of integrating populations and breaking down cultural resistance. Quite naturally, when the question of the integration of Maghreb workers arose in the 1950s and 1960s, family reunification was the obvious solution. This cause of immigration has become a major one and, given a high birth rate in immigrant families, this has contributed to the tone of the national birth rate, while blurring the lines between what is immigration and what is the miscegenation of French society.

Formulating new problems

The National Front was born in 1972, at a time when the wave of immigration sought ten years earlier by Michel Debré was developing, amplified by the family reunification movement that the Council of State had refused to regulate. The FN’s first electoral breakthroughs took place 10 years later, in reaction to the regularizations and mass naturalizations decided by François Mitterrand in 1981. From 1984 and the appearance of SOS Racisme, immigration became a major issue in the political debate. In 1997, the FN was present in the second round of the legislative elections in 197 constituencies. On 21 April 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election.

More than twenty years later, it feels like we’re still here. Worse, many polls and observers predict that Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front renamed the National Rally, could win the presidential election in 2027. Isn’t it time to think seriously about the issue of immigration, which remains central to the RN’s ability to persuade and drive? In fact, all the issues that have structured the French approach to immigration have shifted and the political confrontation is no longer organized around a well-defined issue. The question of values and human rights obviously remains a major one, but it cannot be limited to the subject of the right of asylum, understood as the somewhat elitist protection of “freedom fighters”; it is also noted that France is rarely the first choice of destination for refugees.

The question of manpower and cannon fodder seems largely outdated: there is still a Foreign Legion but there is no longer conscription and, as we see today in Ukraine, the number of soldiers is no longer the decisive asset; as for the need for a workforce, it is no longer driven by large industrial sectors that have deserted France and, if there remains a demand from companies like Uber or Deliveroo, it is probably transitory, these companies already working on automated driving or delivery devices. As for the question of the colonial legacy, the urgency is obviously to turn the page! Civil peace presupposes forces of law and order that are respectful, close and without prejudice. Family reunification, for its part, deserves to be evaluated and reformed, as it would be illusory to expect the integration and integration of a family structure that often turns out, in fact, to be largely disintegrated.

What are the issues of today and tomorrow? It would be irrelevant to think only in terms of what we can imagine as forces pushing people from the South to take to the road and want to emigrate. Certainly, climate change will make some parts of the world unlivable! Of course, television and the Internet put before everyone’s eyes unbelievable differences in living standards and comforts! Of course, we are already witnessing the unacceptable ordeal of thousands of refugees who are crammed together and die in circuits run by smuggling mafias, taking them from their African country to an unstable boat in the Mediterranean, via virtual slavery in Libya! We do not have the right to look the other way and it is clear that these humanitarian emergencies go far beyond the French theme of the right to asylum. Given the scale of foreseeable disasters and their hybrid nature – both natural and political-economic – it is imperative that Europe rapidly equips itself with a powerful capacity for action that would be implemented according to rules that are more flexible than unanimity.

But what would be the point of thinking only like that? Immigration is not a tsunami. A book like Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints wanted us to believe so, feeding racist fantasies on the basis of which ideologues such as Renaud Camus have built the theory of the great replacement. The truth is that, apart from major disasters, we don’t know what drives humanity to migrate since the dawn of time. What the researchers detect is that the individuals who migrate are not simply representatives of great determinisms; They often have unique stories, come from very specific villages and intend to join relatives or friends in well-defined neighbourhoods. As for the overall phenomenon, it stems from a complex balance between the forces that drive migration and the questions and expectations that arise in the countries of immigration. The real priority of a debate that would like to escape fantasies would be to characterize these questions and these issues, for a country like France in thetwenty-first century.

The current context is that of a Great Metamorphosis, punctuated simultaneously by ecological disruption and by the digital transformation of the economy and society. Some deduce from this that priority should be given to selective immigration, favouring professions in short supply and professions with high added value: doctors, engineers, ecologists, artificial intelligence specialists. The danger, however, is to deprive the countries of origin of precious resources and to perpetuate a predatory approach: after extracting the material resources, the former colonial powers would get their hands on the most critical human resources. It would be better to consolidate the current flow of young people coming to study in French universities and Grandes Ecoles, not to seek to monetize it at all costs and to offer super-learning formulas allowing foreign students to stay in France for a few years to complete their training by practicing their profession, while helping to absorb pockets of shortage. There is thus room for temporary economic immigration, downstream of university immigration.

In the context of the changes underway, it seems to us that a redesigned immigration could make three other contributions to our country.


In health, in education, in policing, colossal resources are spent every year to deal with disorders that we do not understand. Think, for example, of urban riots or the downgrading of France in international training rankings! To pierce the fog, the social sciences would need a renewal and this will come, according to the great sociologist Ulrich Beck, from the transition from nationalism to methodological cosmopolitanism. We must stop obsessing over national controversies and the data provided by our statistical administration. According to Beck, the social sciences should shift their perspective and align themselves with the cosmopolitan gaze of migrants because they participate in the social life of their host countries but, with the Internet and smartphones, they keep in touch with their country of origin and, also, with all the countries where their diaspora is deployed. In France, for example, it would be less and less relevant to approach an issue such as equality from the sole source of statistics, laws and collective agreements. It would be much more relevant, according to Beck, to take, for example, the point of view of a nanny, who came from Mauritius to take care of the children of a small family. What she earns and the social benefits she receives, she can evaluate in relation to the national salary scales but also in relation to the resources of her parents who remained on the Island and also in relation to what happens in other countries: Canada where one of her brothers lives, England where she exchanges with one of her cousins…


Droughts, fires, water shortages, storms, floods, unknown viruses, epidemics, each year sees the pressure mount, embodying the spiral in which the ecological and climate crisis has placed us. How will our people react tomorrow? There are many examples of dedication and good citizenship, but we cannot forget the precedent of 1940 when, faced with the enemy’s breakthrough, the French rushed on the roads of exodus in indescribable chaos… Collapsology aims precisely to anticipate disasters in order to better know how to overcome them. From this perspective, much can be expected from the presence on our soil of migrants armed with a culture and experience capable of organizing survival. The UN is now developing the idea that indigenous peoples are repositories of knowledge and representations that could enable humanity to rethink its relationship with nature. In June 2023, four children aged between 1 and 13 were found in Colombia, after surviving alone for 40 days in the Amazon rainforest after a plane crash; they belonged to the indigenous group Uitoto.


The transformations of the world have been preceded and heralded by profound transformations in the order of knowledge. Before ecological disruptions, there had been the Club of Rome and the reformulation of ecological science by systems theory. Before the computer, the Internet and digital technology, there had been the Macy’s conferences and advances in cybernetics. Between 1977 and 2004, Edgar Morin published the six volumes of The Method, an encyclopedia attempting to synthesize the metamorphoses of a way of thinking that opens up to complexity. For a long time, however, this new epistemology remained distant and abstract. As Bruno Latour wrote, it was necessary to “land”. We have thus shown that the growing use of the notion of “planet” aims to build a bridge between the sky of a changing thought and the feet in the mud of a world in crisis (cf. Philippe Lemoine, Qu’est-ce que la planète?, Esprit, December 2022). Extending this hypothesis, we believe that migrations, the growing mixing of cultures and miscegenation can strengthen a planetary consciousness that is not only an acceptance of a common destiny but an elevation of spirits as a lever for metamorphosis.

Outline proposals for action

In conclusion, we can only emphasize the limitations of this essay. Many questions are left unresolved and many of the avenues mentioned are probably immature and insufficiently worked on. But the aim is to open a debate and turn the page on a period that was too long when immigration was a highly reactive issue in the political debate, in part because it was no longer a living issue in the debate of ideas.

In order to encourage us to take up the questions posed and the attempts to formulate new problems, we can summarize the main proposals outlined in the article:

  • Complement the national right of asylum with a powerful European humanitarian reception system, to deal with ecological and political emergencies without being hampered by rules heavy on unanimity;
  • Develop university immigration and accompany it with temporary employment schemes, making it possible to absorb skills shortages and to perfect the training of specialists before returning to their country;
  • Lucidly evaluate the mechanisms of family reunification and supervise their development in situations that promote effective integration and cultural mixing;
  • To absorb the costly dysfunctions of society, by focusing on a renewal of the social sciences through the development of methodological cosmopolitanism and interaction with the point of view of migrants;
  • Promote collective resilience, by promoting the knowledge and knowledge of populations who have had the experience of a different relationship with nature and collective survival in the face of major disasters;
  • To raise minds towards a planetary consciousness, conceived as a lever for mastering metamorphosis.

Beyond these proposals, we are convinced that we must speak again, in a non-fantastical way, on the issue of immigration. It is an essential point of passage to open up a positive horizon for the future of our societies.

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