Home News As the nation revives, so too does the border

As the nation revives, so too does the border

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Many French people increasingly seem to feel they no longer feel at home in their own country, as a result of the rapid rise of the nationalist right, which sees immigration as a direct threat to the very essence of France.

The feeling is a vague but powerful malaise that encompasses many factors. These include a sense of dispossession, changes in community dress and habits due to the arrival of Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and a sense of losing identity in a rapidly changing world. The National Alliance, whose anti-immigration stance is at the heart of its burgeoning popularity, has benefited greatly from all of these factors.

“No French citizen would tolerate living in a house without doors or windows.” Jordan Badella, the 28-year-old epitome of eloquence Last week, he told France 3 television that the National Rally was on the verge of taking power. “Well, it’s the same with a country.”

In other words, countries need borders that are effective and can be tightly sealed.

That message, echoed by rising nationalist parties across Europe and a central theme of Donald J. Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign, has proved powerful. In France, it propelled Marine Le Pen’s National Rally to victory over President Emmanuel Macron’s party in this month’s European Parliament elections.

Macron, upset by his electoral defeat, has taken a risky gamble on France’s political future. He has called for legislative elections, with the first round to be held on June 30. By the time the Paris Olympics open on July 26, France could have a nationalist far-right government with Bardella as prime minister.

The unthinkable is now thinkable. Nearly a decade ago, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel etched the words “We can do it” into history. or “We can do She took great delight in allowing more than a million Syrian refugees into Germany, and her embrace of immigration now seems otherworldly as attitudes in Europe and the United States have so radically shifted.

Today, a similar gesture of “Wilkommenskultur” (welcoming culture) would sound the death knell for most Western politicians.

Controlling or stopping immigration, once a core theme of the xenophobic right, has moved to the center of the political spectrum. The view that immigrants undermine national identity, drain social safety nets and import violence has become widespread, often fueled by thinly veiled prejudice. Gone is the absolute ban on speech by the National Front (now the National Rally) in France.

Centrist leaders, including President Biden and Emmanuel Macron, have been forced to shift from openness to a harder line on immigration in an attempt to steal the spotlight from nationalist movements. They have had to acknowledge that many conservatives, while not “far-right” in character, agree with what Trump said during his 2017 visit to Poland: “Do we respect our citizens enough to protect our borders?”

Earlier this year, Macron’s government passed an immigration bill that removes deportation protection for certain foreigners who live in France and “seriously violate republican principles.” The bill provides that rejected asylum seekers will be immediately deported. The bill seeks to remove automatic citizenship for children born in France to foreign parents. Before the Constitutional Council overturned the bill.

If the aim of these and other measures was to blunt the rise of the National Rally, the legislation has done just the opposite. For the left, it is a betrayal of France’s humanist values; for the right, it is too little, too late.

Likewise, Biden this month temporarily closed the southern border to most asylum seekers, citing a “global immigration crisis.” For Biden, the United States is a nation of immigrants, a statement he has always made. It was a dramatic reversal, and many Democrats accused him of embracing Trump’s politics of fear. But Biden’s decision reflects the fact that many Americans, like many French, want tougher policies in the face of record numbers of immigrants.

Why the shift? Rising inequality in Western societies is fueling anger at many people being left behind. In France, frustration is compounded by a failure of the social model that has long worked to address the loss of hope in suburban projects and poor schools where many immigrants live. Tensions are often high between Muslims and the police.

“The government always protects the police; it’s a state within a state,” said Ahmed Djamai, 58, during a protest last year. For him, being Arab or black, even if they hold a French passport, often feels like a second-class citizen.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy for immigration to become a veiled topic. “The feeling among the French that their country is being taken away by immigrants is in many ways delusional,” said Anne Muxel, deputy director of the Center for Political Studies at Sciences Po. “It’s about being disoriented, losing control, and life becoming increasingly difficult. That feeling was in the DNA of the National Rally, but not in the DNA of Macron.”

The cultures of the United States and France are very different. One is a country formed through immigration, with a core of self-renewal; the other — France — is a more rigid country, where the integration of “visible minorities” (mainly Muslims) has challenged the country’s self-image.

Still, many people in every country fear, to some degree, a loss of identity, and leaders like Le Pen and Trump can exploit such anxieties. In the United States, there are fears that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority by mid-century. Millions of immigrants have entered the country illegally, violating Americans’ sense of the sanctity of the law. The French are concerned about threats to their way of life, a feeling exacerbated by repeated acts of Islamist terrorism over the past decade.

The consensus that the problem of Muslim immigration is unsolvable is now so entrenched throughout the political spectrum that “despite its centrality to the campaign, there is no serious debate about immigration,” said Hakeem El-Kaoui, a prominent immigration consultant.

Ms Le Pen has worked for more than a decade to normalise her father’s racist party. She has stamped out anti-Semitism, reversed calls for exiting the European Union and adopted a generally moderate tone.

Still, the party’s core message remains that immigration undermines a national unity seen as glorious and mystical. She said her party would seek to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public if elected.

Both she and Mr. Bardella embrace the idea of ​​“nationals first” — essentially systematic discrimination between foreigners and French citizens in access to jobs, subsidized housing, certain health benefits and other social assistance.

Bardella said last week that immigrants legally in France “have nothing to fear from my arrival at Matignon, the prime minister’s residence, as long as they work, pay taxes and obey the law” in an effort to appease the prime minister’s campaign pressure.

But France’s unemployment rate is 7.5%, with 2.3 million people out of work. According to a study by the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies last year, the unemployment rate for immigrants is even higher, at about 12% in 2021. Many of them may be in vulnerable situations.

According to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, about 140,000 migrants applied for asylum last year. That is double the number from a decade ago. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin estimated last year that there were between 600,000 and 900,000 illegal immigrants in France.

“Le Pen and Bardella are likely to infringe on individual freedoms,” said Célia Belin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.

At the Bardela gathering in Montbéliard, eastern France, Laurent Nansé, 53, who runs a funeral home, said he had recently inherited an ancestral house and had been looking through photo albums from his youth. “There were no veiled women, no Maghreb people, no Africans,” he said. “It’s Ramadan and supermarkets are full of ads about Ramadan. I didn’t see any ads about Lent.”

He said he believed Mr. Bardra was capable of leading the country. “I am fed up with these little actions of Macron,” he said.

At a press conference last week, Macron appeared to grapple with his own defeat, blaming the rise of the “far right” on “doubts about what we are becoming, existential anxiety.”

He cited his own immigration bill and called for “reducing illegal immigration,” but acknowledged that “our efforts in this area have not yet been fully heard, felt and understood.”

On Tuesday, Macron accused his new left coalition – made up of the Socialists, the Greens and far-left parties – of being “immigrationists” – a term Marine Le Pen’s party often uses to describe politicians who encourage uncontrolled immigration. The National Front has called Macron an “immigrationist” in the past.

All of this is clearly an attempt by Macron to block the National Rally from power by strengthening it on immigration and security. The problem is that just as Trump has dominated the anti-immigrant political landscape in the United States, so too have Le Pen and Bardella in France.

Macron has sought to stay out of the fray during his seven years in office. Biden offset his border closure by announcing soon after closing the border to asylum seekers that he would protect 500,000 illegal spouses of U.S. citizens from deportation and offer them a path to citizenship.

It is not clear whether such a cautious approach to an explosive issue will work. Today, the mood in France is tense. “We have tried everything,” Ms. Muxel said. “We need to try something new — that’s the mood in the air.” It was the mood in the United States in 2016.

Of course, it is the efforts to build and maintain a homogenous society that lie at the heart of the most heinous crimes of the last century. A central idea in postwar Europe is that borders should be abolished to save Europe from repeated wars. An ever-closer union means an ever-widening peace.

Yet those thoughts appear to have receded. Whatever the risks, this is a time for national renewal.

Last week, the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé published a cartoon on its front page showing a French man wearing a beret, holding a baguette and a bottle of wine, and pointing a large-caliber shotgun with the words “National Rally” printed on it to his head.

“We never tried that!” the caption read.

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