The French presidential election has highlighted once more the country’s deeply entrenched traditional left-right political cleavages – and their increasing tension between globalism and the national interest.
In the first round of voting in late April, the French people were almost equally split between Emmanuel Macron, with his centre-left rhetoric about openness and a proactive take on the challenges of globalisation, and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has focused on “returning” to a national security framework.
In a divided nation, migration and asylum issues have come to epitomise France’s political tensions and to reflect the critical decisions that will face its next president.
Should France stay faithful to its integrative civic spirit, to its jus soli principle, to generously upholding the right to asylum?
Or should French citizens protect themselves from both newcomers (labour migrants, asylum seekers, and the like) and marginalised insiders (second-generation youth drawn to radicalisation)?
This is the choice voters will face in the May 7 run-off.
No easy way
There is no-one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma, though in coming days both Macron and Le Pen will likely try to convince their constituents that there is.
France has embarked on a bumpy road that’s fraught with uncertainty. But there is no going back to some frame of national cultural, territorial and political security: such surety has never existed, in France or anywhere else.
France has a strong concept of voluntary citizenship, meaning that those who abide by French civic culture can become legal citizens through a relatively smooth and transparent naturalisation path. Nationhood there is a “daily plebiscite”, as the French historian Ernest Renan put it in 1882. As a result, the assimilation paradigm is strong.
French Republican principles have come into question on a few occasions over the past 30 years. In 1989, the affaire du foulard first challenged the Republican tradition of laïcité, with a protracted and bitter debate and negotiation over whether French Muslim girls could attend public school wearing headscarves (foulards).
That polemic ended with a 2004 law banning ostentatious religious symbols from schools. The foulard and the hijab were thus established as violating the principle of secular education.
A fierce controversy also arose in late 2015 when President François Hollande brought to the National Assembly the Déchéance de Nationalité bill), suggesting that French nationals who are found guilty of terrorism and also hold citizenship in another country could lose their French citizenship, even if they were born in France. The bill was not passed.
In both of these cases, French Republican traditions won out over fear, uncertainty and a desire to close borders.
Today, the debate is more complex. Any disagreement about border control, asylum management and French citizenship are intertwined with European policies on asylum and the Schengen Treaty.
They challenge France’s overall commitment to a united, pluralistic Europe.
Integration versus isolation
The two presidential contenders have very different ideas about how to address these issues.
Emmanuel Macron believes in controlling France’s border in cooperation with the EU bloc by reinforcing the role of the newly created European Border and Coast Guard.
He has also avowed respect for international legal obligations on the rights of migrants, including family reunification and asylum, while pointing to the need to digitise management of the asylum system that would speed up interviews, processing, verification and communication.
Macron plays down the question of citizenship, which he feels does not need to change.
Le Pen, in contrast, opts for “taking back control” over the national economy, citizenship and over the country’s borders, much as the pro-Brexit and Trump campaigns did in 2016.
Le Pen has promised to scrap jus soli citizenship and decrease the annual quota for net migration into France from 210,000 to 10,000. This number would include permits for migrants in France to reunite with a spouse or children who are not EU citizens.
She also proposes to allow asylum applications only at French consulates abroad instead of those located in the country (though it is unclear how French consulates could cope with such a task) and would opt for abandoning the Schengen Treaty, thus re-establishing full French control over national borders.
The cost of exclusion
For Le Pen, “taking back control” includes abolishing the national health program, which provides emergency medical coverage for undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers.
This is a very dangerous idea.
The experience of the Calais refugee camp in the north of France shows that a lack of national solidarity and support has a very high human, social and, ultimately, material cost.
Until it was destroyed in 2016, the “Calais Jungle” temporarily housed several thousand undocumented migrants and asylum seekers waiting to cross the English Channel and enter the United Kingdom. The living conditions there, right in the middle of Europe, were inhumane, with women and boys often suffering abuse.
The situation was so bad that most migrants could not benefit from France’s emergency health care; they only had access to health services provided by volunteers. Just living in the camp engendered significant mental and physical hazards.
Banksy’s interpretation of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819) on a wall in downtown Calais.
There are good reasons to believe that trust will prevail over fear at the second round of the French presidential election.
Brexit is teaching the British voters the hard way that integration with Europe and the world – in trade as in migration – is more efficient and more realistic than isolationism.
That lesson is also true for French values.