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The Immigrant Population

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The Immigrant Population

Marcus Engler

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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.

On January 1st, 2008 there were 5.23 million immigrants living in France (total population on January 1st, 2008: 62.13 million). 2.72 million immigrants had acquired French citizenship by 2008. In general the proportion of immigrants in the French population has risen significantly since the mid-1970s. At that point, it was about 7.4%, and it stayed at that level until the turn of the millennium. Then it rose to 8.4% by 2008.

Immigrants by country origin

in %in absolute numbers
Europe 38.0 2,032,021
EU-27 33.9 1,808,425
Spain 4.8257,315
Italy 5.9317,260
Portugal 10.9580,598
United Kingdom 2.8147,954
Other EU-27 states 9.5505,296
Africa 42.5 2,271,231
Algeria 13.4713,334
Morocco 12.3553,826
Tunisia 4.4234,669
Other African countries 12.5669,401
Asia 14.2 756,846
Turkey 4.5238,862
Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam 3.0162,684
Other Asian countries 6.7355,301
America, Oceania 5.3 282,191
Total 100 5,342,288

Source: INSEE, Census 2008 (France with overseas territories)

Immigrants and foreigners in official statistics (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

In contrast to immigrants, foreigners are defined as people who do not have French citizenship. At the beginning of 2008, about 3.6 million foreigners lived in Metropolitan France, which corresponds to about 5.8% of the entire population. More than 550,000 of these were born on French territory. Between 1999 and 2008 the foreign population grew faster than the French population as a whole (14.4% vs. 8.7%). The Figure exemplarily shows for the year 2006 how the groups of immigrants and foreigners can overlap in statistics.

Concurrent to the relative and absolute increase 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. In 2008 it was at only 39.2%. 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 Africa living in France (1962: 15.3%; 2005: 42.2 %) than from Europe. Also in 2008 migrants from Africa represented the largest group of foreigners in France, although this trend is falling slightly (41% of foreigners living in France in 2008 were of African descent). They represent especially immigrants from the former French colonies in North Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Also the immigration from Asia has significantly risen (from 2.4% in 1962 to 13.9% in 2005). In 2008 migrants from Asia constituted 13.7% of all foreigners living in France. Turkey was the most important Asian sending country.

Proportion of foreigners in the total population according to population censuses since 1851 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

Measured in absolute numbers, about 1.3 million of the 3.7 million foreigners living in France (including the country’s overseas territories) come originally from the European Union (EU-27). Another 154,000 immigrants with a foreign passport came from a non-EU European country. In total 1.5 million immigrants were citizens of African countries. About 509,900 of those foreigners living in France had their roots in Asia. The most important individual countries of origin of the foreign population in France as of 2008 were Portugal (490,724), Algeria (470,776), Morocco (443,536), Turkey (221,935), Italy (174,016), Great Britain (150,819), Tunisia (143,716) and Spain (128,780).

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. In 2008, 51% of France’s foreigners (étrangers) and 49% of the country’s immigrant population (immigrés) were male.

Descendants of immigrants

Descendants of immigrants (descendants d’immigrés) are defined as people who are born in France and have at least one parent who was born abroad with foreign citizenship. Estimates for the year 2010 indicate that about 6.4 million people living in France could be counted in this group. This constitutes about 10.4% of the entire population. The composition of the group of descendants of foreigners reflects France’s history of immigration. 3.3 million people with a migration background had at least one parent who migrated from a European country, especially Italy, Spain and Portugal. These were countries that already provided a majority of the foreign workers in the early phases of labor migration since the 19th century. Further 1.8 million people were descendants of immigrants from Maghreb states, that is, former French colonies in North Africa. The remaining 1.3 million people with a migration background have their roots in other regions of Africa and in Asia, countries which have provided the more recent influx of immigration. The descendants of immigrants are a young population. Their average age is about 31.9 years old, significantly lower than that of the population as a whole (40.5 years old).

Living conditions of the migrant population

A look at immigrants’ employment market integration shows that they are facing a considerable disadvantage compared to the population as a whole. This is especially the case for third country nationals. They are more commonly confronted with unemployment and precarious working conditions and show a lower rate of participation in the labor force.

In 2010 the labor-force participation rate among the foreign population was 64.5%, compared to 70.6% in the French population. This low rate is mainly the result of the comparison of labor-force participation of foreign women (52.4%), compared to French women (66.9%). This rate was especially low among women from Turkey (21.8%) and from the Maghreb States (37.3%). In contrast, especially male foreigners from the European Economic Area and Switzerland (81.2%) as well as Algeria (80.5%) show labor participation rates that are significantly higher than the average in the French population (70.6%).

In 2010 third country nationals were unemployed three times more often than French nationals. Their unemployment rate was 23.5%, compared to 8.9% of the French population. The unemployment rate of immigrants from the European Economic Area (8.5%) was lower than that of French nationals. The higher unemployment, especially among third country nationals, as well as their often precarious employment conditions, contribute to this group’s higher risk of facing poverty. In 2009, 36% of all third country nationals lived under the poverty line, compared to 10% of people with a French passport.

Levels of education within French society (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

The educational level of immigrants has risen significantly; one can observe that this population is catching up with non-immigrants. However, there is still an educational disadvantage, which especially becomes apparent regarding the number of students leaving school without a degree (see figure left).

Regionally, immigrants to France are concentrated within the major urban areas. The region with the highest proportion of immigrants is the Region Île-de-France (in Greater Paris), where 40% of all foreigners live. Other important regions are Rhône-Alpes (Lyon) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (Marseille). In 2008, the proportion of foreigners in both regions was 8%.



  1. INSEE, Census 2008. In France there is no legal obligation to report where one lives. Comprehensive information on the population is collected only every eight to nine years in the general census (recensement de la population). It is on this basis that one can draw conclusions about the immigration population. The last census took place in 2008. Sensitive data, for instance regarding religious affiliation or ethnic background, are not allowed to be collected, which makes it more difficult to make statements on immigration and integration processes.

  2. In particular from the Maghreb (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria).

  3. INSEE, Census 2008.

  4. INSEE, Census 2008.

  5. Secrétariat général à l’immigration et à l’intégration/Ministère de l’intérieur, de l’outre-mer, des collectivités territoriales et de l’immigration (eds/2011).

  6. Département des statistiques, des études et de la documentation (2010).

  7. Secrétariat général à l’immigration et à l’intégration/Ministère de l’intérieur, de l’outre-mer, des collectivités territoriales et de l’immigration (eds/2011).

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