PARIS - Crammed with Chinese restaurants, Turkish carryouts and Tunisian bakeries, Avenue de Flandre in northern Paris is, in many ways, the face of today’s France. Sub-Saharan African and East Asian workers staff the markets lining the grimy artery, a haphazard match of needs and chance.
But for some sectors, that may soon change.
Earlier this week, French authorities announced the country’s first foreign worker quotas for non-European Union immigrants to fill key labor gaps in areas such as construction — a road few other European counterparts have gone down. But the message wrapped in a broader immigration package is a familiar one in a region grappling with populist claims of runaway migration and a surging far right.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, in announcing the quota system, said France needed to “take back control” of its immigration policy.
“Taking back control of our migration policy means fighting back against abuses of the right of asylum, against irregular migration,” Philippe said, as he outlined a raft of measures Wednesday that included delaying access to health care for new asylum-seekers and dismantling Paris-area squatter camps.
Support for quotas
A newly released Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll found most French support the new measures, even as they give the centrist government’s overall immigration policy a thumbs-down. Far-left parties slam them as overly harsh; those to the right say they're not tough enough.
And with France’s far-right National Rally party polling strongly, many see the bigger aim as political.
“They’re trying to appeal to right-wing voters” ahead of next year’s local elections and 2022 presidential ones, said Olivia Sundberg, a migration policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. But, she added, “it’s very hard to beat the far right at their own game. If you try, you are setting yourself up for criticism on both sides.”
French authorities moved quickly to make good on one of the announced measures, dismantling a northern Paris squatter camp hours after Philippe spoke, and busing migrants to temporary shelters.
Not easy to implement
The quotas might be trickier to implement. The government’s plan remains sketchy, with little regional precedence. Only a few European countries, including Germany, Britain and Hungary, have adopted quota initiatives, or used EU “blue cards” — the region’s answer to the U.S. green card.
“Quotas have advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is it’s a clear signal that migration is under control,” said Jean-Christophe Dumont, Immigration Division head for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He said the government was right in trying to reform the labor migration system.
But, Dumont added, “it’s extremely difficult, based on economic indicators or theory, to estimate what will be the needs in specific occupations for the next 12 months.”
The quotas are aimed to supplement roughly 33,000 higher-skilled workers who come to France annually. But employers today are struggling to fill a raft of lower-level jobs, including those in construction, bakeries and health care. Done right, analyst Sundberg said, setting migration targets rather than ceilings can be useful to fill jobs in an increasingly aging Europe.
But she said the labor quotas would affect only a small slice of France’s overall migrant population, while raising key questions, including what will happen to the migrants when their contracts are over.
“Whether it will actually happen and what impact it will have is very unclear,” she said.
The government’s announcement comes as France has seen a steady increase in asylum-seekers, up 22% in 2018, to reach nearly 123,000. While the numbers are modest compared with the country’s population of 67 million, the message of out-of-control migration resonates, particularly in the wake of Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis.
Indeed, recent polls put the far-right National Rally neck and neck with French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La Republique en Marche party in the next local and presidential elections, with a significantly higher score than the 2017 presidential race, when National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen placed second.
But French charity Secours Catholique is seeing another phenomenon; illegal immigrants now account for more than 40 percent of the destitute people it receives. It blames the uptick on increasingly tougher migration policies by recent governments.
Secours Catholique President Veronique Fayet dismissed the newly announced government measures, including the delay in accessing health care, as “a publicity stunt.”
“With the motive that some people are defrauding and profiting from the system,” she said of French authorities, “they’re stigmatizing and fragilizing an entire population.”
Anti-immigrant attitudes are sharpening in Europe, experts say, seen not only with gains by far-right parties in Germany and elsewhere, but also the controversial naming in Brussels of a new “European way of life” commissioner.
“For the moment, it looks like the name is there to stay,” Sundberg, of the European Policy Center, said. “Which I think is an unfortunate signaling of the direction European migration policy will take.”