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Historical Development of Immigration and Immigration Policy | France |

France Background Information Historical Development Current Migration Trends The Immigrant Population Irregular Immigration Refuge and Asylum Citizenship Current Developments Future Challenges Literature and Further Reading

Historical Development of Immigration and Immigration Policy

Marcus Engler

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France has a long history of immigration. Immigrants were brought in as early as the 18th and 19th century because the process of industrialization in conjunction with the fall in the birth rate had resulted in a labor shortage. In this sense, France was an exception in Western Europe during this period.

Most other industrialized states, including Germany, had higher birth rates and were primarily countries of emigration. The shortages on the French labor market were aggravated still further as a result of the decline in population brought about by the wars of 1870-71 and 1914-1918. In order to alleviate this, France concluded labor recruitment agreements with e.g. Italy (1919), Poland (1906), Czechoslovakia (1920) and Spain (1932). 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 on the basis of bilateral recruitment agreements with Italy (1946), Greece (1960), Spain (1963), Portugal (1964), Morocco (1964), Tunisia (1964), Turkey (1965) and Yugoslavia (1965). At the same time, immigration from the former colonies increased due the process of decolonization. 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. In 1964, France negotiated an agreement for the recruitment of Algerian workers with the now independent country.

During the economic crisis of the early 1970s, France followed the example of other European countries and in 1974 stopped all recruitment programs for foreign workers.

At the point in time when labor recruitment was halted, 3.5 million migrants lived in France, and they made up in total 7 percent of the entire French population. Portuguese and Algerians were the largest groups, each with about 20 percent.

Ending the recruitment of foreign labor did, 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, yet with currently declining tendency.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the conservative Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, (Rassemblement Pour la République) pursued the aim of a zero immigration policy (immigration zéro). Numerous regulations were tightened up as 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. Especially the “fight” against irregular migration moved to political center stage. 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.

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 legalization program was drawn up for foreigners who were residing in the country without authorization (see “Irregular Immigration”).

Since a Conservative government came into power in 2002, one can observe a return to a more restrictive immigration policy. This course was continued under Nicolas Sarkozy (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP), who won the presidential elections in April 2007 (compare “Current Developments”).

The perception of immigration as a problem, however, is tempered by a growing awareness that it represents an enrichment of French society. There are several examples for this development: the Soccer World Cup in 1998 (most players in the equipe tricolore had a migration background, and the team won the title in their own country), the opening of a museum on the history of immigration (Cité nationale de l‘histoire de l’immigration, CNHI, inaugurated on October 10, 2007), as well as the naming of Rachida Dati as the first female minister who came from a migrant family (in office 2007-2009).

The presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012 will determine the future course in French migration politics (compare “Future Challenges”).



  1. In the First World War alone, 1.4 million French people were killed or disabled.

  2. Even before the signing of the Recruitment Agreement, France already had contractual provisions with Italy regarding the organization of labor migration. This country has traditionally provided the most important source of foreign labor.

  3. For detailed information on bilateral migration treaties in Europe between 1919 and 1974, see Rass (2010).

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. In English: “without papers.” This is a term often applied to irregular migrants in France.

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