Religion, Secularism and the French presidential elections

France is proud of its secularism. But religion also influences voters.

In an election that has frustrated that traditional split, religion could end up being a confounding, rather than clarifying, force, according to an article in the Washington Post. Dr Sarah Wolff comments that with debates over the integration of Muslims playing out over matters of public dress and activity, a “typical liberal view of laïcité” [secularism] may leave vulnerable citizens unprotected. She argues that Macron may have to take a more controversial stand. “What is needed is a critical approach to adapt laïcité to current times. Laïcité as equal conditions for all citizens to practice their religion,” she adds.

The full article by Isaac Stanley-Becker is available here

Immigration, a consensual issue in the French presidential campaign?

Since the end of the 1970s, when labour migration was halted, immigration has been the hot potato of French politics. Ever since its electoral breakthrough in 1982, the Front National has capitalized on the anxieties of the French society towards globalization, the economic and financial crisis as well as the disappointment with the current European project, seen by many as a big liberal market where social safety nets are being dismantled. The French political elite as a whole has been complicit of Front National’s strategy. Identity, citizenship, French suburbs and laïcité are seen by right-wing politicians as republican symbols under threat by immigrants, and this view is increasingly shared by left-wing politicians like ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Immigration is therefore mostly considered as a security issue by French politicians. In the current campaign, the right-wing is copying Marine Le Pen’s programme on immigration, in the hope to attract its electorate. The far-left presents the most humanistic ideas, although outside of EU treaties, while Emmanuel Macron stresses that asylum is a right and migrants are a strength for the economy.

Source Ouest France, 2017

With 74,468 asylum applicants in 2015, France is far from the 722,000 applications received by Germany in 2016. The dismantlement of the Calais camp in October 2016 and the increasing presence of homeless refugees in the streets of Paris have nonetheless led to a renewed debate regarding the oft-cited phrase of belated Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard that “France cannot welcome all the misery of the world.” The 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks have stressed the fracture between French society and the children of foreign-born immigrants, often in rupture with their families.

Although employment remains the first preoccupation of French people, the 2017 presidential elections polls show restrictive trends towards immigration. Accordingly, 61% of the French people are in favour of suspending immigration from Muslim countries, that is above the average of 55% of Europeans. In 2016, 57% of the French thought there were too many immigrants in France and 63% were of the opinion that the majority of refugees will not be able to integrate. While Front National and the right-wing parties follow these public opinion trends, Emmanuel Macron, the leader of En Marche!, offers a more liberal approach, in line with European commitments. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, offers the most human policy, but outside of the European Treaties. Overall, in the French presidential campaign immigration is no longer debated as a societal project but rather as a security and identity issue.

The legacy of the Hollande Presidency

Traditionally known for its humanist approach to immigration, the left-wing government of President Hollande has in fact continued the security approach initiated by his predecessor Sarkozy. Hollande’s mandate started with the Leonarda affair, regarding an irregular immigrant Roma schoolgirl arrested during her school trip and returned back to Kosovo where her family had been expulsed to earlier. Later, he dropped his promise to grant foreigners the right to vote in local elections. In spite of a multi-annual residence permit, the 2014 immigration law facilitates the expulsion of irregular migrants and has been denounced by several NGOs. The 2015 asylum law reduces the delays in the treatment of asylum applications, thus aligning it with EU law. According to the OFPRA, the agency that processes asylum-seeker applications, this delay amounted to 205 days in 2014. Furthermore, asylum seekers whose request for asylum has been refused but cannot be returned to their home countries have not being given any status (see here).

Restrictive (extreme)right-wing programmes

François Fillon, ex-Prime Minister of France under President Sarkozy, and now running for president while under formal investigation for misuse of public funds and fake employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant, offers a restrictive immigration programme, close to the propositions of Front National. With Fillon as president, the French Constitution would be modified to adopt a quota principle, to be defined by law, on how many residency permits could be delivered. Family reunification would be made harder and, borrowing from the extreme-right lexicon, France’s ‘migratory sovereignty’ would be restored through the renegotiation of European directives. Laws granting French citizenship to French ascendants of more than 65 years old would be repealed.

In Fillon’s vision, immigration should no longer be a burden to French society and he plans to provide family and accommodation allowances only to those residing in France for 2 years or more. State medical help for foreigners will be reviewed, and foreigners will be exempted from paying healthcare costs only in the cases of minors, emergencies and infectious disease, and only in some selected hospitals and clinics. Like Macron, Fillon wants to limit the delays in processing asylum requests to 4 months. Administrative detention of irregular migration will be extended from 45 days to 6 months, the maximum authorized by the EU return directive. The Schengen Treaty will be renegotiated to authorize increased controls at internal borders. Citizenship rules will be tightened up with additional conditions such as a minimum 8 years of residency in France and a minimum 5 years of marriage.

Stopping ‘uncontrolled’ immigration is the selling slogan of the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Like Fillon Le Pen is under investigation; in Le Pen’s case regarding misuse of European Parliament funds to pay her parliamentary assistants. In her programme, the Front National leader will give ‘national preference’ to French people over what she sees as two evils: globalization and Islam. First, legal migration will be reduced from 200,000 to 10,000 entries per year. In the short term, because she wants to renegotiate the EU treaties, this should not apply to European citizens. Family reunification will also stop. Third, she will suppress the jus soli, the right of place of birth. This right grants French citizenship to anyone born on French territory with at least one French parent. Children born from foreign parents on French territory can also choose for French citizenship when they are 18 years old. State medical help would be suppressed. Fourth, internal borders will be re-established, as France will withdraw from ‘Schengen’. The regularization or naturalization of irregular migrants will no longer be possible.

Pro-immigration programmes

Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate supported by Europe Environment Les Verts, the Green party, takes a more liberal stance on immigration. He wants foreigners to have a right to vote in local elections and will accelerate the integration of asylum seekers. They will have the right to work after three months on French territory and will gain more opportunities to learn French. At the EU level, Hamon wants to stop the Dublin system that he considers unfair to Italy and Greece, two countries under important budgetary restrictions. Instead, he proposes a fairer sharing of asylum seekers among EU member states based on their hosting capacities.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader, proposes to regularize irregular migrants and to de-criminalize irregular migration. At EU level, Mélenchon wants to replace the European Border and Coast Guard Agency by an agency that will mainly rescue migrants at sea, revise databases on foreigners and biometrics used on the external EU borders. He wants to pursue Euro-Mediterranean cooperation and co-development with Southern and African neighbours. The OFPRA would be attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and no longer to the Interior Ministry, while asylum seekers would be able to work when awaiting their case to be examined. Access to French citizenship would be facilitated.

Emmanuel Macron, the election frontrunner with 26% of voting intentions according to a BVA poll of 25 March 2017, has praised German Chancellor Merkel for her open-door policy. Defending a liberal immigration policy, he considers the welcoming of refugees as a moral duty for France and Europe and has therefore criticized the EU-Turkey deal. His programme develops the following main propositions. First, foreigners’ integration will be improved through offering better facilities for learning the French language and the development of local integration programmes. Second, as Macron considers immigrants as formidable assets for the French and European economies, he wants to speed up the asylum-request process and reduce it to less than 6 months, appeal included.[1] He will introduce ‘talent visas’ to attract the best professionals to France and wants to simplify access to the labour market for all students who have obtained a master’s degree in France. However, Macron does propose an immediate return to the country of origin for those who will not be granted asylum status. At the European level, he proposes to strengthen the European Border Guards Corps, to improve border control in countries of origin and to combat human smuggling, in line with existing commitments.

Looking forward
This campaign has defied any standards about French presidential elections. Notwithstanding the investigations of Marine Le Pen and François Fillon, and the fact that this election takes place under a state of emergency, the two frontrunners include a candidate who claims to be neither left-wing nor right-wing and who until a year ago did not have a party, and an extreme-right candidate whose accession to power no longer shocks anyone. Even if Front National were not to win this election, its presence in the second round would be a strong signal that Marine Le Pen’s propositions are seducing at least one third of the French citizens, and that the threat of the extreme-right is still hanging over France. Given that France is a multicultural society, built on migration, it is disappointing that migration is not regarded as a societal project. Measures to integrate migrants are minimal and it is only very rarely that candidates recall that asylum is a human right. This national disillusionment is also reflected at the European level, where migration is rarely presented as a positive force for European economies in light of the inevitable ageing of populations. This is no good news for immigrants, nor for French and European citizens.

Sarah Wolff @drsarahwolff) is Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations and. She is an expert on EU immigration policy. Dr. Wolff can be followed on her blog

 This blog was originally posted on EU-forum Clingendael and appeared also on LSE EUROPP Blog

[1] For reference, today the deadline to examine an asylum appeal can run up to a maximum of five months in France according to the European Council on Refugees and Exile (ECRE). See their 2016 report here.

 

The Migration Trail- Dossier

Dear blog followers,

The Broker just published a very interesting dossier on Migration ‘The Migration Trail’. You will find a summary of my research on the role of International Organizations here but also lots of other excellent contributions.

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Tunisia terror attack threatens fledgling democracy

My latest article published on 18th March in The Conversation

At least 19 people – including 17 tourists – are reported to be dead in Tunisia after armed men attacked the Bardo National Museum in the country’s capital.

Beyond the immediate horror, this incident is a litmus test for the country’s democratic transition and the political consensus that has made it a success so far. The obvious aim is to instill fear and to distract Tunisians from their ultimate goal of democracy and pluralism. But they must not fall into the trap

Sadly, these tactics will not come as a surprise for many Tunisians. They have learnt to live with the regular threat of destabilisation on the Libyan and Algerian borders.

Since the 2012 attack on the US embassy and the assassinations of politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, police officers and military personnel have been the targets of regular attacks in the region of Mont Chaambi. Throughout 2013 and 2014, several terrorist cells in Tunis were dismantled – in Oued Ellil and Ouardia.

This attack, though, is something new, staged as it was in the centre of Tunis, targeting civilians and, in particular, tourists.

Targeting economic stability

Stability is at the heart of Tunisia’s democratic process and its economic future. The bullets fired in this attack could be heardfrom inside the Tunisian National Assembly, where members were meeting with the minister of justice, judges and several army generals to debate a draft counter-terrorism bill.

This is a hard blow for Nidaa Tounes, the governing party led by the Tunisian president, Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, and his bet on increased safety and stability to attract tourism and stimulate the economy. Tourism represents 8% of the GDP and 400.000 jobs, and has been seriously halted in the last couple of years.

Security is also crucial for maintaining foreign investments. Given the rise of youth unemployment to almost 40% and the immediate fall of the Tunidex stock exchange index after the Bardo attacks, this is a serious setback for the Tunisian economy.

Tunisian policemen take up positions during the standoff. EPA/Mohamed Messara

Beyond counter-terrorism action though, support from international partners for the economy and the democratisation process is now more needed than ever.

This is something that the US president, Barack Obama, has well understood by announcing US$1 billion of investment in young Tunisian entrepreneurs. And in the light of the huge challenge that attacks of this kind pose for the Tunisian economy, the US and the EU need to commit to speeding up their free trade agreements.

Building democracy

Winning the war against terrorism involves security in the short term but also in the longer term. That includes both economic and social security. Building a new social contract in Tunisia will take both security sector reform and meaningful outreach to young Tunisians.

Tunisia’s leaders will need to prove that they are not “regressively patrimonial” by taking security reform seriously. The government will need to do better than the recent incident in which a Tunisian blogger was jailed by a military court for three years on charges of defaming the army and insulting the military high command. Security should not come at the cost of fundamental rights.

In spite of the efforts of the Tunisian authorities, the judiciary system is still lagging behind. It has yet to bring to justice those responsible for the killing of 132 protesters and injury of many others in the month that preceded the fall of Ben Ali.

Meanwhile, the 2014 elections, although a democratic success, were also marked by low turn-out among young voters, highlighting a serious generation gap in Tunisian politics.

Citizen power

In order to bounce back from this attack, Nidaa Tounes’ leaders need to show they can unite beyond the coastal upper middle-class. The party’s interests in the business sector could impede reform and further alienate young Tunisians, who still have to contend with serious unemployment and poverty. That alienation cannot be dismissed out of hand, especially given that more than 3,000 young Tunisians have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria.

Those actions, next to consolidating democratic institutions and the rule of law, will nurture sustainable security, stability and prosperity in the long term.

Tunisia has made so much exemplary progress towards democracy and its citizens must not be discouraged by this attack. They must continue now, more than ever, to remind their government and the international community of their responsibilities to achieve those goals.

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