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 1914-1918.1234

Immigration Flows

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


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

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).

Irregular Immigration


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 1997.1415 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


Current Developments

Immigration policy
Since a conservative government under Jean-Pierre  Raffarin (UMP)1718

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.2021 However, this was withdrawn after weeks of protest.

Dealings with Islam
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,2324

Future Challenges


  1. In the First World War alone, 1.4 million French people were killed or disabled.
  2. European Commission (2006): Eurobarometer 65. Brussels.
  3. In particular from the Maghreb (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria).
  4. The Maghreb region includes Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
  5. After the failed referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in June 2005, Raffarin was replaced by Dominique de Villepin.
  6. 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.

Abourt the author:
Marcus Engler

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.