French public opinion of immigration since 1945, continuity and change

Yvon Gastaut
Université de Nice


This research falls within the history of representations, which is to say, a cultural history of politics. Analysed from a historian's point of view, the context of public opinion has to be qualified by two developments. First, the period since 1945 has seen a globalisation of population flows. This is characterised by persistent European immigration (notably from Spain and Portugal from the 1950s on) which dries up at the beginning of the 1970s and an increase in the immigration from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and as a result, public opinion no longer conceives of immigration in a European context but in a planetary one. Second, immigration policy, inaugurated by the edicts of 1945, has continuously remained difficult to handle, tricky, and lacking in lucidity and coherence. It has depended simultaneously on economic developments, diplomatic relations and public opinion. The public authorities have only seen immigration in terms of labour and never envisioned permanent implantation. In addition to this first contradiction -that of a political management totally antithetical to reality- there is also the contradiction of a policy which is open in appearance but discriminatory in practice, insofar as a selection has constantly been carried out between "good" immigrants (i.e., culturally close) and "bad" ones (those coming from the other side of the Mediterranean). A second selection, developed afterwards, has also operated between official and clandestine immigrants.

1) The emergence of immigration in the public debate

France's immigration policy may be divided into two periods -from 1945 to 1965, total openness, and from 1965 to the present, closure. In such a context, the public authorities have shaped the behaviour of public opinion, which reacts directly to the way the political elites handle the question of immigration. The French population's changing state of mind after the Second World War calls for a first general remark. While public opinion had paid little attention before, when foreigners were seen strictly as a labour force, it began focusing on immigration at the time when integration was under way. In fact, the question of immigration emerged in public debate during the 1980s, and more precisely, between 1983 and 1985. Two phenomena attest to this :  the appearance of the Front National [translator's note :  the ultraconservative, xenophobic political party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen] on the public scene as confirmed by the municipal elections of spring and autumn 1983 (notably the changing vote in Dreux) and that of the second-generation North African immigrants [ beurs in the French slang of that time], whose public marches (October-December 1983) offer the clearest evidence. This change can be related to the larger evolution of French society which, until the 1970s, had remained "mono-cultural" (relatively closed to other cultures) and did not recognise its racism to the extent that it remained taboo. The consequences of the memory of the Second World War and, for different reasons, that of the Algerian War, had a major influence on the development of this kind of attitude. Thus, the subject of immigration only appeared in public debate when French society began to open up to other cultures, when the taboo of racism was lifted in public opinion (i.e., the French dared to accuse themselves of racism).

2) Openness and rejection

Three salient features characterise the evolution of public opinion concerning immigration. Since 1945 there has been a constant tension between the welcoming and the rejection of immigrants. Three forms of rejection may be singled out : 

a) Ordinary racism, a kind of historical constant, an unpredictable, irreducible racism of stupidity, as illustrated by the figure of Dupont Lajoie [the title character of a the 1974 film by Yves Boisset] or the "Beauf" [redneck] described by comedians or caricaturists (e.g., the political cartoonist Cabu);

b) Crisis racism, which develops with the rise of economic problems, when the immigrant worker is perceived as a competitor on the labour market :  the consequences of the 1929 crisis and those of the 1973-1974 oil crisis are comparable, with both provoking a rapid toughening of immigration laws;

c) Colonial or post-colonial racism, more specific to the recent period (Fifth Republic, 1959-), which makes the former colonial subject the scapegoat of public opinion, the first to be rejected.

Many sources, including the public-opinion polls, attest to a clear hierarchy in the rejection of foreigners. If we limit ourselves to the main continental groups, Europeans are the best accepted (with the Italians coming before the Spanish and Portuguese), ahead of Asians (only taken into account in the mid 1970s with the arrival of the "boat people" from Southeast Asia), ahead of the immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and lastly the North Africans, among whom the Algerians are the most stigmatised.

These three forms of rejection are expressed by the ultra-Right but not exclusively :  the other political movements and as a result, a portion of public opinion, also develop such behaviours. Racist violence seems to have been the most severe in France during the 1970s, when xenophobia was expressed through acts. In this respect, the year 1973 was particularly marked by anti-immigrant violence, especially in the south of France (assaults, notably in Grasse in June and in Marseilles throughout the summer, and terrorist attacks, especially that against the Algerian consulate in Marseilles), which stirred up fears of ethnic confrontations within the country. In the 1980s, although the racism seemed to be of a new and violent form, was more confined to verbal expressions, as a result of the visibility of the Front National. The groups calling for openness and tolerance were quite heterogeneous, including numerous watchdog associations, the anti-racist organisations (longstanding ones like the LICRA [League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism], the Human Rights League, the MRAP [Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples] and more recent ones like SOS-Racisme and France Plus), the far Left (PSU [Unified Socialist Party] in particular), progressive Christians, a certain number of intellectuals and the movements of second-generation immigrants (as of 1981-1985). A series of slogans also emerged at this time encouraging integration around ideas of "France in the plural" and "living together", which the French gradually came to recognise.

3) The association between immigration and national identity

Under the impetus of the Front National, the question of national identity was present in all currents of public opinion from 1983-1984 on. Two Frances were thus in opposition, that of openness and that of defensive identity. Three debates which tended to evolve in a restrictive way illustrate the passion surrounding the question of national identity :  the debate over the right of immigrants to vote (since the Socialists came to power in 1981), not yet resolved; the debate over the granting of French nationality to the children of immigrants (from 1985-1986 to the reform of 1993) and the debate over secularism (since the "affair" of the Islamic headscarf in 1989).

4) Fantasies of public opinion

The historian of public opinion has to bring out distortions of judgement, which are the result of numerous collective anxieties or fantasies. In the case of immigration, the study of several distortions turns out to be fruitful. Two fantasies are classic and recur continuously :  numbers (the fear of invasion, the "threshold of tolerance" [capacity for assimilation]) and insecurity (the image of the immigrant as delinquent). The fantasy of religions, essentially Islam, emerged only at the beginning of the 1980s when the course of the Iranian Revolution became clear, with the fear of Islam often leading to a confusion between immigrant and Muslim fundamentalist. The fantasy of harmful contact is more pernicious, the mixing of different communities would lead to racial confrontations, implying that inter-cultural contact can only fuel racism. Significantly, in the middle of the 1980s, the anti-racist argument of the "right to be different" was perverted by the ultraconservatives (influenced by the thinkers of the New Right) for purposes of exclusion. And the last fantasy, disseminated in popular circles but also among intellectuals, maintains that North African immigrant workers, unlike the Italians in the previous period, are impossible to integrate into French society. This argument was often used in the 1980s and 1990s to justify the exclusion of second-generation immigrants.

The relationship of the French to immigration has undergone important changes since the mid 1990s. There has been an undeniable decrease of tensions and a certain optimism has emerged around this issue (cf. the effect of France's champion World Soccer Cup team, the maturity of the media, considerable progress in integration, cultural activities, more measured political language). The changes in French public opinion on the question of foreigners can thus be broken down into periods where the immigrant is successively ignored (until the 1970s), stigmatised (1980s-early 1990s) and recognised (process underway since the mid 1990s).

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