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Breaking the Status Quo: Sarkozy’s France, the European Union, and Immigration Reform

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France once mused, “We no longer want an immigration that is inflicted (on us), but an immigration that is chosen. This is the founding principle of the new immigration policy I advocate.”  In this case, at least, the president’s actions have closely matched his rhetoric. However, the sphere within which his statement was made extends far beyond a national scope and rather encompasses the entire European continent. It is not merely Sarkozy – and, by extension, the nation of France – that has embraced this more stringent vision of immigration policy: if such discussions are rarely devoid of controversy, then the recent European Union Return Directive was practically begging for attention. This directive has garnered international controversy from critics alleging that its provisions discard minimal human rights standards and promote often-xenophobic national interests. Simultaneously, on the national level, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s deportation quotas since his election have resulted in an 80% jump in deportations in the past year alone (pro-rated) and an 8% drop in illegal immigration to France. 

What is the impact of these policies on the illegal immigrant population in France? What are the potential repercussions for future immigrants? Although definitive data on the results of the EU directive will not be available for some time, the history of French and EU immigration policy as well as implementations in recent years provide a valuable insight into the complexities intrinsic to these issues.

A Brief History of French Immigration Policy

France has enjoyed a notable immigration history since the second half of the 19th century. Until 1945, there was no specific, overarching immigration policy, rather each scenario was evaluated separately. The first significant regulatory policy was the ordinance of November 2, 1945, which created the National Office of Immigration and established residence permits with durations of one, five, and ten years. After a period in the 1960s during the “Trente Glorieuses,” - the thirty years following World War II during which the French economy boomed - during which the public authorities supported immigration in order to boost the French economy, the economic crisis of the 1970s spawned calls for a cutback on immigration. This resulted in the installation of a restrictive immigration policy. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, then-President of the Republic, halted new immigration, except for family gatherings (which would then become the most common form of legal immigration).  

In 1980, the Bonnet law, which hardened the conditions of entry into France and facilitated the expulsion of illegal immigrants, provoked hunger strikes and had to be partially suspended. In 1981, the French socialist party in power proceeded to implement a massive naturalization of illegal immigrants, softened the conditions of residency by cancelling the Bonnet law, and stopped offering monetary compensation to “voluntary” emigrants leaving France. Simultaneously, the government also proposed to assist with the reintegration of foreign workers upon their return to their country of origin.  

In 1986, changes in the political landscape made it possible for the Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, to push Law n° 86-1025 through the Parliament on September 9, which restricted access to the resident's card and facilitated evictions of illegal immigrants. In 1989, however, the Pasqua law was partly neutralized. The prime minister, Michel Rocard, declared the year following that “la France ne peut accueillir toute la misère du monde, mais il faut qu’elle y prenne sa part” (“France cannot accommodate all the poverty of the world, but it is necessary that it takes its share”). France created the High Council for Integration, an advisory structure.  

During the summer of 1996, demonstrations in favour of the naturalization of “sans-papiers” (those illegal immigrants without French identification or documentation) led to the occupation of several public buildings. In April of the following year, the Debré law was repealed on the heels of a movement staunchly supported by film producers. Later on, the new left-wing government of Lionel Jospin launched a new process of naturalization of illegal immigrants.

On November 26, 2003, the ability for foreigners to stay in France was made significantly more complicated as the acquirement of a resident's card became subject to a criterion of integration. The fight against illegal immigration was bolstered and many NGOs viewed this tougher legislation as gravely detrimental to the basic rights of foreigners (rough treatment, death, deplorable state of detention centers and waiting areas, etc.). Illegal immigrants were handled similarly to criminals by the administration; ironically, in many cases, the "immigrés" only became illegal after refusals of this same administration to renew their residence permits.

During this period, immigration policy was gradually shifting from the national level to the European Union, which in 2003 adopted a directive on family gathering and attempted to harmonize the immigration policies of its member states. In July 2006, at the behest of Nicolas Sarkozy, then-Minister of the Interior, the deadline for legal immigrants to request reunification with immediate family was increased from twelve to nineteen months.  This same law also authorized the use of foreign labour, suspended since 1974. This measure was limited to specific jobs, such as tourism, construction and public works, seasonal employment, and the commercial professions. The term “chosen immigration,” however, which was used at the time of the bill’s presentation, was criticized by many NGOs.

In 2004, according to the INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, or National Institute for Statistics and Economics Studies), the number of immigrants in France was 4.9 million, representing 8.1% of France’s total population. 

In the past, the majority of the immigrants came from Italy, Portugal and Spain. Today, the flow of immigrants from these nations has slowed; but this decrease has been counterbalanced by immigrants coming from extra-community European countries. In addition, French immigrants originate in the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Asia. The majority of current immigrants to France are of African origin (the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa). In 2007, 4,297 detainees in France originated in Algeria and 3,742 in Morocco. 
The origin of the migrants has evolved over time: today, nearly two-thirds are from Africa, in particular Algeria and Morocco. Several years ago, less than half of the immigrant population originated there. The principal countries of immigration towards France remain the old French colonies of Africa. 

French Immigration Statistics and Policy in the Present

Obtaining a precise tally of illegal immigrants is impossible. In May 2005, Dominique de Villepin, then-Minister of the Interior, estimated the number of illegal immigrants in France as between 200,000 and 400,000.  Between 1998 and 2002, 90% of the foreigners currently residing illegally in France (“sans-papiers”) had entered the country legally; the illegality of their situation only became a reality after the expiration date of their residence permits, often after a refusal of the Préfecture to renew this title to them. 23,000 people in ‘irregular situations’ were deported in 2007.
In large part, the high numbers of deportations recently have resulted from increasingly stringent immigration policy. Jean-Eric Malabre, an attorney for Groupe d'Information et de SouTien des Immigrés (GISTI), noted that immigration laws in France and the European Union change regularly, averaging twice annually.  However, the overarching trend in French politics recently has been towards a notably hard-line stance on immigration. Following Sarkozy’s election in May 2007, immigration restrictions became a headlining staple of his political platform. And now, having just attained the EU presidency for six months, France appears poised to pressure its co-members to move towards its own near-isolationist immigration philosophy. Sarkozy plans to unveil his “immigration pact” in early July, a manifesto in which naturalization of illegal immigrants en masse would be prohibited and borders would be strengthened.  
However, it is the policies that France has already enacted domestically that have created such a dilemma for immigration dialogue. Detention centers, especially, have become a focal point for sharp criticism of France’s conservative stance on immigration. And given the riot in Vincennes at France’s largest retention center on June 23, it has become quite clear that the French model of immigration control has sprung some substantial leaks.
Nevertheless, criticism seems not to faze President Sarkozy. The former interior minister set a quota of 25,000 deportations for 2007, 10,000 more than in 2004. His campaign mantra of “chosen immigration” – that is, immigration based upon marketable skills beneficial to the French economy – has served as the foundation for his tough policies. By deporting illegal immigrant students in 2006 and using forceful methods in quelling banlieue riots in 2005, the French president, himself a second-generation Hungarian immigrant, has showcased an unbending rigidity in regards to immigrant concerns. In fact, the general public appears to support at least the philosophy, if not the methodology, of Sarkozy as well; a September 2007 poll found that 74% of French citizens are in favor of immigration quotas. 
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the deportation crisis, however, is the process itself. France’s notorious detention centers – or centres de rétention administrative (CRA) – have received increased attention from humanitarian organizations and advocacy groups. Réseau Éducation Sans Frontières (RESF) is one example of a prominent nongovernmental organization that defends the rights of the sans-papiers. Cathy Lenihan of RESF, who spoke to Humanity in Action on June 16th, reserved some particularly harsh words for the retention centers in a later interview. At times labeling them “concentration camps,” Lenihan railed against a system that she described as roughly equivalent to French prisons, a “criminal” model in which “too many people [are crammed] into a very small space – people that haven’t really committed any crime.”

The insanity of indiscriminate deportation, Lenihan argues, is that often those who are held in these retention centers have resided in France for many years. Such immigrants have showcased perseverance, resourcefulness in surviving in a foreign culture and learning a foreign language and a problem-solving aptitude in pioneering a path out of their original countries. By virtue of self-selection alone it is quite likely that these immigrants are generally not the ones draining France’s welfare budget. Moreover, once trapped inside the overcrowded retention centers, organized hunger strikes and other collective protests further demonstrate the absurdity of systematic deportation of those who could be most valuable to the French economy. Additionally, the haphazard assortment of varying ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds creates a breeding ground for unrest and violence. Meanwhile, the efficacy of the hunger strikes themselves paints a bleak picture of the conditions of these centers, an atmosphere in which those detained within would rather die than remain suspended in the status quo.

France and the European Union: The Interconnectivity of Immigration Policy

The EU Return Directive, which allows illegal immigrants to be held in a detention center for a maximum of eighteen months and banned for five years from the EU, serves as a sort of umbrella guideline in an ongoing initiative to cement a uniform immigration and asylum policy across Europe by 2010. Virginie Guiraudon, a permanent research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, states that this directive had been a part of EU planning since 2005. In fact, this particular directive is being co-sponsored by the European Commission and the Parliament. The directive represents a shift in European immigration policy; where past implementations emphasized tight border control, today’s policies are designed to remove immigrants already in EU member states. This, Guiraudon argues, is partially the result of the European Parliament’s right-wing tendencies, which in turn are merely indicative of the similarly inclined regimes of the member states.

Of course, the directive, while designed to harmonize member states’ deportation policies, has the potential for negative implications in France. While the directive will force states such as Greece to improve their laws that currently permit indefinite holding times of illegal detainees, it also has the effect of allowing France to broadly expand its current holding policies. Lenihan noted that, in the past, illegal immigrants could only be held for a maximum of two weeks in France; now, the cap is thirty-two days. Although France’s 32-day maximum detainment policy is subject to change, Guiraudon finds such prospects unlikely, noting that the directive specifically warns against its use as a pretext for lengthening detention periods.  However, at the same time this leaves the door open for future consideration of an even more inhumane policy.

Given the frequently appalling conditions of French detention centers, the Return Directive and its potential for lengthening detainment periods has some French human rights activists gravely concerned. In the case of the Vincennes uprising, the controversial death of a Tunisian detainee sparked riots of protest, both within and outside the walls of the center, over allegations that he had been neglected while in dire need of medical attention. (RESF and the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme have both played instrumental roles in organizing external protests in the grounds of these facilities.)  Yet the ironfisted grip that the authorities maintain over the facilities prohibits the public from gaining access to objective information on the incident. Only Comité Inter-Mouvements Auprès Des Évacués (CIMADE), an NGO working closely with sans-papiers immigrants in France, is allowed access to the centers. The absence of the International Red Cross and other humanitarian aid organizations is troubling, as much for the wellbeing of those trapped inside as for the cloak of secrecy that such restrictions display.

Anthony Jahn, also of RESF, dissected the incident at Vincennes with an air of resignation. He cited as motivation for the riot the “level of hopelessness with which people in Vincennes stay,” dismissing the EU directive as a stimulus for the uprising. The police force remained tight-lipped as to the cause of death of the Tunisian detainee, fueling speculation that he had been neglected. The day following his death, detainees attempted to arrange a sit-in in the main courtyard of the Vincennes retention center but were summarily removed by the brusque police contingent. In general, Jahn explained, the inmates and police have a history of deep-set hostility, which resulted in very little confidence in officials’ public statements after the detainee’s death.

On a macro scale, Jahn holds that, in any situation in which detainees are held in such primitive conditions, there will inevitably exist an atmosphere of violence. (Detention center detainees have been known to swallow razor blades, commit acts of self-mutilation, participate in hunger strikes, etc.) Outside the realm of the centers, the immigration policies themselves (specifically the deportation quotas) are placing “the whole system…under great strain.” Courts dealing with undocumented immigrants are in operation seven days per week, and some hearings last until 6 AM, creating an astronomical stress on the judicial system. Daniele Lochak, a scholar at University Paris X, concurs, stating that the increased pressure on judges and the police is creating an administrative and judicial overload. One silver lining of this process is that it tends to decrease the holding times for detainees simply out of necessity as the number of detainments increases. However, with “not enough people within the centers to help the people who are being retained [to] exercise their legal rights,” it is all too easy for human rights violations to evade detection by concerned third parties.

In December 2007, the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs released a report detailing the conditions inside the reclusive retention centers of the EU member states. The portion dedicated to France contained some pointed criticism. “The general improvements in physical conditions seen in new detention centres are counterbalanced by the increased size of these detention centres, and the extension of the maximum duration of detention…The presence of children in these places where they are deprived of their freedom, even if these are ‘family zones’ and they are kept here in order to keep families together, was particularly shocking for the study team…Despite everyone’s best efforts, the individual processing of cases is insufficient, and the general intentions of the law and the basic principles of respect for human beings are flouted.” 
However, if current immigration policy is a disease, the detention centers are more of a symptom than a cause. The shift in social policy from preventing immigration in the past to deporting current residents today is for the most part responsible for the detainee crisis now troubling France. With deportation quotas of 25,000 in 2007 (a goal that was not reached) and 26,000 this year, the strain on the system is being disseminated throughout police precincts, as officers are expected to step up the pace of arrests and deportations. Meanwhile, Lenihan claims that plans are underway to construct new detention centers to house the influx of detainees that are constructed eerily similarly to prisons and designed for maximum crowd control and the prevention of organized activity by those held inside. Describing these plans as “more and more repressive,” she warns that it is possible that even CIMADE, currently the only voluntary humanitarian group allowed in the centers, will be prohibited access from the new facilities. “We [the outside world],” she laments, “don’t really know what’s going on.”
Perhaps even more infuriatingly, what the outside world is able to observe is not encouraging either. It is not merely the fact of the deportations, but also how they are processed, that has immigrant advocates concerned. For example, it was once possible to deport Roma to Romania; however, this is no longer possible as the definition of deportation requires expulsion from the European Union. Instead, Roma are paid a mere one hundred fifty euros to leave; they often return within weeks. In a political atmosphere in which numbers are king, money is being wasted and lives disrupted for the sake of reaching a contrived objective. The December 2007 European Parliament report corroborates Jahn’s conjectures on France’s political posturing, stating: “Pressure to meet quotas set for the number of removals, has, over the last few years led to an ‘industrialisation’ of the process for arresting illegal foreign nationals and depriving them of their freedom. Stakeholders responsible for regulating these procedures, legal authorities and in particular medical and social workers, find it increasingly difficult to do so.”

Similarly, laws protecting individuals from arbitrary identity checks are fraught with loopholes. Although it is prohibited to “arrest people for the way they look,” Jahn says, identity checks are permissible within a certain distance of any major train station. A federal attorney gives the go-ahead to check identities, which can extend beyond a mere identity check to include searching possessions for drugs and weapons. Although on the surface this law does not target any specific demographic, in practice it is used almost solely to uproot illegal immigrants. Daniele Lochak speaks of similar trends in which identity controls are increasingly designed to target potential illegal immigrants without appearing on the surface to be discriminatory.
Tragically, what little assistance is available to detainees at retention centers is extraordinarily overworked. CIMADE works with immigrants to formulate asylum demands, offer legal advice, unite families, and provide information; but the organization is overloaded with requests and cannot assist everyone. Besides providing direct support to immigrants, CIMADE is also a watchdog of sorts, acting as a third-party witness to retention center conditions.
Of course, with President Sarkozy’s appointment to the EU presidency, questions abound as to the possibility of his new position creating an impact on current French policy. Opinions differ, however, as to the extent of the EU presidency’s influence. Lenihan, for example, suggested that Sarkozy may allow freer rein to French police in the deportation process. Emphasizing the “neo-liberal” nature of many of the European Union’s member states, she fears “more totalitarian control” and that Sarkozy may attempt to pressure other European heads of state to adopt the French model of immigration policy. However, she admitted that it was a bit far fetched to assume he could effect much change in the six months that he holds the EU presidency for. Anthony Jahn concurred. However, he warned that while extending the maximum detainment period to eighteen months is a virtual impossibility for France for practical reasons, the potential for France to adopt the portion of the directive enacting a five-year ban from the EU is considerably higher and would face few financial obstacles. Daniele Lochak notes that Sarkozy has had little luck imposing his ideas on his European counterparts in the past. Virginie Guiraudon similarly dismisses the possibility of Sarkozy accomplishing anything relevant while heading the EU, viewing the Union’s presidency as a platform for promoting national politics and not much else. Indeed, most relevant items on the agenda for Sarkozy’s EU presidency deal with procedures for legal immigration.

Regardless of President Sarkozy’s ability to effect meaningful reform as head of the EU, the long-term issues currently confronting France remain unsolved. We believe it is vital to comprehend the intricacies of France’s national illegal immigration policy in order to properly address the need for change; closely linked to this is the necessity for an understanding of the desperate conditions in the retention centers. Immigration policy is rapidly becoming a mainstay at the European Union level as well, especially in light of the recent Return Directive and the overarching goals of normalizing EU immigration policy in the near future. While the numbers of illegal immigrants in France – and on a broader scale, the continent of Europe – indicate a sizable immigration problem, it is quite clear that, to date, French approaches designed to combat the dilemma have fallen far short of effectively settling what has become a humanitarian crisis.

We feel that the measures suggested by the December 2007 European Parliament study for the improvement of conditions in French detention centers would mark significant steps in the right direction. First, compiling a frequently-updated database listing all the detention facilities would help ensure that legal standards are upheld. Centers failing to reach benchmark qualifications of effectiveness, short detainment periods, and human rights standards should be closed. Also, the presence of humanitarian organizations such as CIMADE must be allowed freely; and installing qualified on-site medical staff is an imperative. Policy must be formulated to prohibit unaccompanied minors from being returned to countries of origin that do not take responsibility for their safety. The Préfectures should provide alternative courses of actions for specific cases in which detention is untenable. It is also essential to organise meetings among those involved in the retention process, from the administrative side to medical and legal assistance. The need for psychological assistance for detainees is of the utmost importance. Finally, strict guidelines governing the use/operation of handcuffs, isolation cells, and hospital transfers are needed as well.

With France leading the European Union throughout the remainder of the year, it will be fascinating to observe what policy changes President Sarkozy will attempt to institute in fighting clandestine immigration on the broader European front. If the past is any guide and his current rhetoric a barometer of sorts, it appears that the French president will stop at nothing to implement tougher laws across the board on illegal immigration. And yet it is his own domestic policy on the same issue that has led to rioting at the largest detention center in Paris, intrusive and arbitrary identity checks on the streets of the city, and a numbers-based deportation that victimizes the worthy as the ‘worthless.’ It is our hope that tomorrow’s French policymakers showcase a deeper insight than today’s leaders do, by coupling a fair and reasonable immigration policy with a rapid and humanitarian processing of all cases.


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