Background information Capital: Paris
Official language: French
Area: 543,965 km2, with overseas territories 672,352 km2 (for comparison, Germany: 357,027 km2)
Population (01/2006): 61 million  (62.9 million including overseas territories)
Population density: 112 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (1996-2005): +0.55% per year
Labour force participation rate (2004): 69.5%
Foreign population as a percentage of total (2005): 5.6%
Immigrant population as a percentage of total (2005): 8.1%
Percentage of foreign employees  amongst gainfully employed (2004): 5.6%
Unemployment rate: 9.9% (2005); 10% (2004);  9.9% (2003)
Religions (2003): Catholics (62%), Muslims (6%),  Protestants (2%), Jews (1%), no religioius affiliation (26%)


The immigration situation in France has been strongly influenced to the present day by the legacy of colonialism of earlier centuries as well as the long tradition of recruiting foreign workers. Overall, there has been a steady increase in immigration over the last century, and this has had a strong impact on the nature of French society. Although immigration has been regarded as a success story in economic terms, in the past three decades it has increasingly been perceived as the root of social problems. The success of extreme right-wing parties in elections makes this as readily apparent as the unrest that flares up time and again in the suburbs. As a result, integration policy in recent years has moved towards the centre of public attention.

Moreover, immigration policy has simultaneously taken an increasingly restrictive course in France. As in other European countries, there is an effort to manage immigration with a view to maximising benefits to the economy. Consequently, increased control of admissions and the integration of second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants represent the most important challenges for immigration policy-making in France in the near future.

Immigration History

France has a long history of immigration. Immigrants were brought in as early as the 18th and 19th century because the process of industrialisation in conjunction with the fall in the  birth rate had resulted in a labour shortage. In this sense, France was an exception in Western Europe during this period. Most other industrialised states, including Germany, had higher birth rates and were primarily countries of emigration. The shortages on the French labour market were aggravated still further as a result of the decline in population brought about by the wars of 1870-71 and 1914-1918.1 In order to alleviate this, France concluded labour recruitment agreements with Italy (1904, 1906, 1919), Belgium (1906), Poland (1906) and Czechoslovakia (1920). At the beginning of the 1930s, France was the second most important country in the world for immigration after the USA by absolute numbers. At that time there were about 2.7 million immigrants living in France (6.6% of the total population). After the Second World War and during the economic upturn of the 1950s and 1960s, France once again recruited (predominantly male) workers from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Russia. At the same time, immigration from the former colonies increased due to wars of liberation and the process of decolonisation. As a result of the Algerian War (1954–62) and the subsequent independence of Algeria in 1962, a large number of French settlers and pro-French Algerians moved to France.2

During the economic crisis of the early 1970s, France followed the example of other European countries and in 1974 stopped all recruitment programmes for foreign workers. This, however, lead neither to immigrants returning to their own countries, nor to a decrease in immigration. On the contrary, many immigrants remained in France and fetched their families to join them. In terms of numbers, family reunification has since become the most important channel for immigration.

In the early 1990s, the conservative Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, (Rassemblement Pour la République)3 pursued the aim of a zero immigration policy (immigration zéro). Numerous regulations were tightened upas a result. For example, the waiting time for family reunification was extended from one year to two, and foreign graduates from French universities were forbidden to take up employment in France. The introduction of the so-called “Pasqua laws” was, however, a source of considerable dispute. The protests reached their high point in 1996 in the occupation of a church in Paris by Africans and Chinese who had lived for many years in France without a residence permit and who wanted to draw attention to their precarious situation. Thousands of people supported the protest campaigns of the sans papiers.4

Under the centre-left government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (Parti Socialiste, PS), many of the restrictive Pasqua regulations were withdrawn or toned down from 1997 onwards. For example, a special immigration status was created for highly qualified employees, scientists and artists. In 1997 a legalisation programme was drawn up for foreigners who were residing in the country without authorisation (see “Irregular  Immigration”). Since the change of government in 2002, a return to a more restrictive immigration policy can be observed (see “Current Developments”).

The perception of immigration as a problem, however, is tempered by a growing awareness that it represents an enrichment of French society. This became especially clear during the 1998 Football World Cup when the “tricolour team” (équipe tricolore) won the title in its own country, the majority of the team having been composed of players with an immigrant background. The opening of a museum of the history of immigration (Cité nationale de l‘histoire de l‘immigration, CNHI), which is scheduled for April 2007 in Paris, also points in this direction. One of the museum’s aims is to represent the history of immigration to France. Over and above this, it is intended to help bring about a change in the perception of immigration: Migration is to be regarded more generally as the norm and its positive aspects emphasised.

Immigration Flows

Despite its restrictive immigration policy, immigration to France has risen constantly in recent years, as shown in Figure 1.

The predominant form of immigration is family reunification (2003: 100,590 family members), followed by migration for reasons of education (2003: 52,786 students) and labour migration (2003: 24,876 workers).

The migration balance (net immigration) has been positive and relatively stable at about +100,000 people per year in recent years. Migration has thus contributed to the growth of the French population. Unlike Germany, however, France also has a higher number of births than deaths. According to the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED), contrary to the widespread stereotype, the birth rate among immigrants is not significantly higher than that of the French-born population.5

According to figures available to date, there has been no significant increase in legal and permanent immigration to France from Eastern Europe resulting from the expansion of the EU. In 2004, jointly with the majority of EU states, France had initially restricted the free movement of workers from Eastern Europe.6 Since the 1st May 2006, citizens of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary have been given easier access to the labour market in France if they work in certain economic sectors. In total, this concerns 61 professions in the hotel and catering industry, the food industry, the building trade, in agriculture and in commerce. The same applies to Bulgaria and Romania, which acceded to the EU in January 2007. Malta and Cyprus, whose citizens have had free access to the French labour market since May 2004, are not affected by the transitional arrangement.

Despite an absence of large inflows form Eastern Europe, fears of wage and social dumping due to the presence of workers from that region are widespread in France.7 This became particularly apparent during the campaign for the failed referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in the spring of 2005, when the figure of the “Polish plumber” (plombier polonais) symbolised in the media the supposed threat of competition from the east.

The Immigrant Population

In French statistics, immigrants (immigrés) and foreigners (étrangers) are recorded separately. Immigrants are defined as people who were born abroad as foreign citizens, and they continue to be recorded as such even if they acquire French citizenship. In 2005 there were 4.93 million immigrants living in France, corresponding to 8.1% of the total population.8 Of this total, 1.97 million – or 40% – have assumed French citizenship.

In contrast to immigrants, foreigners are defined as people who do not have French citizenship. There are 3.51 million foreigners living in France, which corresponds in percentage terms to 5.7% of the total population.

A total of 550,000 foreigners were born in France. Figure 2 shows how the foreign and immigrant populations can overlap. The focus of this section, however, will be on the immigrant population.

Since the Second World War, both the absolute number and the percentage of immigrants in the population of France have increased continually. Between the mid 1970s and the turn of the millennium, the immigrant and total population grew at the same rate. The proportion of immigrants during this period remained constant at 7.4%. In the last five years, 960,000 people have immigrated, which has led to the immigrant population growing significantly faster than the total population. As a result, the proportion of immigrants within the total population has risen for the first time in 30 years and is now 8.1%.

Concurrent to the relative and absolute increases in the immigrant population is the change to its composition according to country of origin. After the Second World War the majority of immigrants came from Europe (1962: 79%). This proportion has fallen steadily since then to the current figure of 40%. At the same time, the regions of origin are ever more remote from France. In 2005, for the first time there were more immigrants from Africa9 living in France (1962: 15.3%; 2005: 42.2 %) than from Europe. Immigration from Asia, too, has increased significantly (1962: 2.4%; 2005: 13.9%).

Measured in absolute numbers, in 2005 about 1.7 million immigrants living in France originated from the European Union (EU25), and 250,000 came from non-EU European countries. In total, 1.5 million immigrants were from the Maghreb10 region. A further 570,000 came from sub-Saharan Africa, while about 690,000 immigrants had roots in Asia.

The most important individual countries of origin as of 2005 were Algeria (677,000), Morocco (619,000), Portugal (565,000), Italy (342,000), Spain (280,000) and Turkey (225,000). However, immigration from Asia (China, Pakistan and India), as well as from sub-Saharan Africa (Senegal, Mali) is gaining in importance (see Figure 5).

The gender distribution among the immigrants has also changed in the course of the years. After the Second World War it was at first predominantly men who came to work in France. From 1974, with family reunification, female immigration dominated. Since the turn of the millennium, however, the proportion of male and female immigrants has evened out.

The level of immigrant education has risen significantly, but on average it is still slightly lower than that of non-immigrants. Overall the level of education among immigrants is gradually approaching that of the majority of the French population.

Regionally, immigrants to France are concentrated within the major urban areas. The region with the largest proportion of immigrants is the Île-de-France (Greater Paris), where 40% of immigrants live. Other important regions are Rhône-Alpes (Lyon) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (Marseille).

Irregular Immigration

According to the government, some 200,000 to 400,000 people without legal residence status – sans-papiers – are present on French territory. The majority are believed to originate from West Africa and the Maghreb states. In response to this phenomenon, an initial legalisation programme was carried out in 1982, with 132,000 people being given legal residence status as a result. The sans-papiers came to public notice in particular with their protests in 1996. In that year they occupied two churches in Paris demanding the granting of residence permits. Since that time both the term sans-papiers  and their cause have been firmly anchored in French public consciousness. A few weeks after coming into power in June 1997, the government of Lionel Jospin (PS) drew up a second legalisation programme. This time about 87,000 out of a total of 150,000 applicants were given a residence permit.

In 2006 a limited number of families without papers whose children were attending school in France were legalised. Of the more than 30,000 applicants, 6,924 were ultimately granted a residence permit. Migrant aid organisations such as the RESF network (Education without Borders) are calling for further legalisation for families living in France without authorisation.11

The Immigration Act of 2006 abolished the automatic legalisation of immigrants living without authorisation for at least ten years in France.12 It thus represents a move away from legalisation as a means of dealing with the issue of unauthorised residents.

The Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP), has announced on numerous occasions his intention to significantly increase the number of deportees, something he has also succeeded in doing. In 2006, according to the Interior Ministry, 23,831 people were deported from France (2005: 19,841; 2002: 10,067). A further 23,885 immigrants were expelled from French overseas territories in the same year (2005: 15.532; 2002: 9.227). For 2007, Sarkozy has announced that he aims to carry out 25,000 deportations.

Refuge and Asylum

At the end of the 1980s, the number of applications for asylum in France rose significantly (1982: 22,500; 1989: 61,400). This can be explained in part by the fact that immigrants resorted increasingly to the right of asylum in the absence of other legal channels of migration.  Bureaucratic obstacles and a trend towards lower recognition rates led to a decrease in the number of applicants in the 1990s. However, contrary to the European trend, the number of applications for asylum rose again at the end of the 1990s. The highest number in recent years, with 59,770 applications, was seen in 2003. In 2005 this number was indeed significantly lower again (50,050), yet in this year France was the country with the most applications for asylum worldwide.13 In 2006 the number sank dramatically to about 35,000 applications. This decline of late has been attributed above all to improved border control measures in line with European border control policy.

A growing number of asylum applicants now come from China and Turkey. By contrast, applications for asylum from Africans are decreasing. Among asylum applicants of African origin in France, the largest number comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In addition to conventional asylum as per the Geneva Refugee Convention, France has had a second asylum status, the So-called territorial asylum (asile territorial) since 1997.14 This status, which conveys significantly fewer rights, was originally only created for refugees from the Algerian civil war, but had to be offered to all nationalities after a successful court action was brought before the Conseil d’Etat15 by organisations defending the rights of foreigners.

The conservative government under Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (UMP) reformed the asylum law once again in 2003. Essentially, processing times for asylum applications were shortened, a new definition of the term refugee was introduced, and the structure of the authorities involved was reorganised.16


Children born in France to foreign parents are automatically granted French citizenship upon reaching the age of 18.  People born abroad and living in France can acquire French citizenship if they satisfy certain conditions. They must be able to prove a minimum stay of five years and have an adequate knowledge of the language. Moreover, they must not be dependent on social security benefits. Towards the end of the 1990s, the number of naturalisations increased significantly, with a new record of 150,025 naturalisations being reached in the year 2000. In 2004 and 2005 the number of naturalised persons again exceeded 150,000.

The proportion of naturalisations differs significantly according to the immigrants’ country of origin. Immigrants from Vietnam (78%), Poland (66%), Spain (56%) and Italy (56%) are especially likely to seek naturalisation (figures as of 2005).

Current Developments

Immigration policy
Since a conservative government under Jean-Pierre  Raffarin (UMP)17 took over in 2002, a trend towards a more restrictive immigration policy has become apparent. On the 30th June 2006 a new immigration law (loi relative à l‘immigration et à l‘intégration) was adopted in France by the Senate after representatives of Parliament and the Senate had agreed a compromise version in a joint mediation committee. The law amounts to a wide-ranging reform of the country’s immigration and integration policies. It contains tougher conditions for family reunification, a newly created residence permit for specially qualified workers, plus an obligatory integration contract called the “contract for reception and integration” (contrat d‘accueil et d‘intégration, CAI) for foreigners who wish to take up permanent residence in the country. The contract requires participation in lessons on civil society and language courses. Finally, as previously mentioned, the new law abolishes the automatic legalisation of immigrants who have lived in France without authorisation for at least ten years.18

Under the new law, it will be easier for foreign workers to enter the country and take up employment in response to labour shortages. This applies both to unskilled jobs and to positions requiring highly-skilled workers. The new three-year residence permit for persons with “skills and talents” is intended to make it easier for highly-qualified people who are deemed to be “an enrichment for the development and image of France” to stay in the country. It will also be made easier for students to remain in France, providing they have graduated from an institution of higher education in France and are among the best in their year.

This approach to immigration has become known as “selective immigration” (immigration choisie). France’s Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), said in this regard that he wanted to bring “the best” into the country and “not those who are not wanted anywhere else”.

In matters of family reunification, the new law is oriented more strongly towards the European Convention on Human Rights. The minimum period of stay before an immigrant can apply for family reunification has, however, been increased from one year to 18 months. Beyond that, in future the applicant must be able to prove a regular earned income on par with the general statutory minimum wage (salaire minimum de croissance, SMIC).

The law also attempts to avoid marriages of convenience. For that reason, marriages between French and non-French people must now have been in existence for three years before a 10 year residence permit can be granted. The foreign spouse must, moreover, demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the language and a real will to integrate. In addition, the foreign spouse must now wait four years, instead of the previous two, before applying for French citizenship.

In a country in which hitherto the majority of immigration has taken place for the purpose of family reunification, the law can be regarded, on the one hand, as an approach towards a controlled, demand-oriented immigration policy. On the other hand, the law has been severely criticised by human rights organisations and parties on the left. They have described the concept of immigration choisie as immigration jetable (“disposable immigration”), since in their opinion only economic benefits – and not the people themselves – take priority. Several opposition parties brought a legal action protesting against the law; however, the onstitutional court (Conseil Constitutionnel) dismissed the action on the 20th July 2006.

Integration policy
Since the mid 1980s, there has been debate about the integration of immigrants, in particular as regards those from the Maghreb states, as well as about the limits of the republican integration model.19 Time and again, most recently in the autumn of 2005, there has been violent conflict involving predominantly young people with an immigrant background.20 At the same time, since the 1980s the extreme right has been enjoying increasing success on the political stage. These two symptoms of crisis are, however, only the most visible phenomena. In addition, the tension between the secular republican values  (laïcite-) of the republic and the right to the free practice of religion, in particular among the growing Muslim community, has intensified since the 1990s and has become a central issue.

Against this background, the law of equal opportunities (loi pour l‘égalité des chances) of the 31st March 2006 represents an important development in the area of integration policy. Although it had been planned for some time, it was presented by the government as a response to the unrest in the suburbs in autumn 2005. It contains a large number of measures to prevent discrimination and is therefore intended to improve the chances of integration for young people with an immigrant background, especially on the labour market. Central measures include programmes to promote education and to open up the labour market for young people from disadvantaged social backgrounds, particularly in the suburbs where families with an immigrant background are concentrated. The law also requires companies with more than 50 employees to use anonymous CVs when recruiting new staff: Application documents may no longer contain a photograph or personal information on the applicant, such as his/her name, origins, gender and address. The legal measures provide further for the establishment of an office for social cohesion and equality of opportunity (Agence nationale pour la cohésion sociale et l‘égalité des chances, ANCSEC). In addition, the law in its original form contained the much disputed „first job contract“ (contrat première embauche, CPE).21 However, this was withdrawn after weeks of protest.

Dealings with Islam
France is the home of the EU’s largest Islamic community, consisting of about five million Muslims. For some years, and increasingly since the terrorist attacks in the USA on the 11th September 2001, the French government has tried to encourage a moderate Islam compatible with the French constitution. In 2003, the first French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman, CFCM) was elected. This is intended to provide united representation before the government of all Muslims living in France and also to be responsible for the training of imams (Muslim religious leaders).22 At the same time there has been a stronger attempt to defend the secular values of the republic as laid down by law in 1905. To this end a law was passed forbidding religious symbols in schools,23 which came into force on the 2nd September 2004 at the start of the new school year. The law was preceded by a long discussion about secularity, in other words about the form of division between the state and the church/religion. According to the law “conspicuous” signs of religious expression are banned in schools, including the wearing of the headscarf by Muslim schoolgirls that had triggered the discussions. For the most part, however, the introduction of the new regulation went through virtually without conflict. Another law has been introduced to combat religious fundamentalism. It regulates the treatment of persons “inciting violence against any individual,” and allows in such cases for the possibility of deportation.24

Future Challenges

The outcome of the presidential election in April 2007 will decisively influence the future direction of immigration and integration policy. If the present Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), succeeds in winning the election, then it can be assumed that the restrictive course pursued during recent years will continue or be intensified. If the socialist candidate, Ségolène Royale, wins, then a more moderate course is likely. Either way, the subject of immigration will likely play a central role in the election campaign. The terms in which immigration matters are debated in the course of the election will affect both public opinion on the subject and the level of success enjoyed by right-wing political elements: The two major parties should be careful not to a repeat of the events in the 2002 presidential election, in which the extreme right-wing candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front National), made it to the last round of the elections.

Overcoming the social and economic marginalisation of migrants in the suburbs poses the central challenge for French politics and society. The disturbances in these residential areas in autumn 2005, which have since flared up repeatedly, albeit with less intensity, are only the most visible manifestation of this challenge. This marginalisation is a result of extremely high youth unemployment and a poorly functioning education system that is not suited to the special needs of these young people. Political responses, which have scarcely gone beyond symbolic politics, need to focus on the root causes of marginalisation in the future.

Compared with the European average, demographic ageing in France is less pronounced due to the relatively high birth rate and the influx of immigrants. Nonetheless, long-term immigration will be necessary in order to guarantee the continued existence of the social system. The topic of immigration will therefore gain further importance in coming years, making the need for adequate policies all the more urgent.


  1. In the First World War alone, 1.4 million French people were killed or disabled.
  2. In total, this concerned about two million people, who were mostly described as pieds-noirs (“black feet”).  Among them there were also about 100,000 so-called Harkis, i.e. Muslim Algerians who had fought on the side of the French army during the Algerian War of Independence. While the majority of the Harkis were killed after the French withdrawal, a small number managed to immigrate to France. Their legal position was long a matter of dispute.
  3. Rassemblement pour la Republique existed from 1976 to 2002 when it merged with the Union pour la Majorité Présidentielle, later renamed the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).
  4. In English: “without papers.” This is a term often applied to irregular migrants in France.
  5. Libération 21st January 2004
  6. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 3/04.
  7. European Commission (2006): Eurobarometer 65. Brussels.
  8. Refers to France métropolitaine, i.e. France without overseas territories.
  9. In particular from the Maghreb (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria).
  10. The Maghreb region includes Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
  11. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 5/06, 6/06, 7/06.
  12. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 4/06.
  13. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 3/06.
  14. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 9/98.
  15. The Conseil d‘État is firstly a supreme administrative court and secondly an advisory body to the government in legal matters.
  16. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 8/02.
  17. After the failed referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in June 2005, Raffarin was replaced by Dominique de Villepin.
  18. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 4/06.
  19. In this model, integration of immigrants takes place as part of a total social integration strategy committed to the model of cultural homogeneity. It is predicated on a political concept of the nation in which all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law regardless of their different ethnic identities.
  20. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 10/05.
  21. The contrat première embauche (CPE) (“first job contract”) would have been applicable to employees below the age of 26 in companies with more than 20 employees. During the first two years of employment the employee could have been dismissed without reason and without warning.
  22. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 4/03.
  23. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 1/04.
  24. See newsletter “Migration und Bevölkerung” 5-7/04.

Abourt the author:
Marcus Engler is a doctoral student at the Berlin Graduate School for Social Sciences and the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin. He previously studied social sciences and economics at the HU Berlin and IEP Paris. Since 2001 he has been a member of the editorial staff of the newsletter „Migration und Bevölkerung.“

Sources and Further Reading

Electronic Sources

Additional Information

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.
bpb - Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung