French president: Europe has ‘too many foreigners’

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is on course for a defeat in next month’s national elections. Now, in search of a boost in the polls, he has launched a fiery attack on immigration to Europe.

With six weeks remaining before France votes, President Nicolas Sarkozy is running out of time. Personally unpopular and burdened with a faltering economy, Sarkozy is lagging badly in the polls to Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.

But the combative leader was never likely to accept defeat without a fight. His chosen battleground: immigration.

Speaking at a mega-rally this weekend, a typically energetic Sarkozy warned that high levels of immigration threatened the European ‘civilisation’ and ‘way of life’. Unless Europe’s borders were tightened, he said, France would withdraw from the Schengen Agreement that guarantees freedom of movement between 26 European countries. He also advocated protectionist EU laws that would force governments to buy goods and services from companies based in Europe.

France has a long, potent tradition of nationalism – a tradition evident in the rippling sea of flags at the rally. But some find this nationalism hard to square with the growing diversity of French society. Around seven percent of the French population have recent North African heritage, and six million French residents were born abroad.

This is not just a French issue. Since the 1980s, a stream of immigration has swelled non-European communities throughout the continent. Over 20% of people in Birmingham, England are from Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds; Berlin has the biggest Turkish population outside Turkey itself. These days 85% of Europe’s annual population growth comes from immigration rather than births.

Some have welcomed this as a triumph of multiculturalism. But it has also caused alarm, and contributed to the rise of far-right parties like ‘Front National’ in France or the BNP in Britain. Recently the global financial crisis has heightened hostility towards immigration, with resentment fuelled by competition for scarce jobs.

Fortress Europe?

Sarkozy’s speech shows that he shares some of these concerns. He wants ‘a Europe that protects its citizens’ – an alliance of countries built on shared history and identity. The EU, he argues, was built to serve the interest of European citizens united by a common culture. To preserve that culture, the flood of immigrants must be stopped.

Critics see this as a dangerous appeal to xenophobic attitudes. The richest cultures, they argue, are born of diversity and intermingling. Inclusiveness and tolerance are the most admirable qualities of European culture – these are the traditions we should honour. Shutting Europe off from the wider world will only lead to stagnation.

You Decide

  1. Is immigration good or bad for Europe?
  2. Why do people have so many fears about the impact of immigration?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of someone who has just immigrated to your country and is unfamiliar with the local culture.
  2. Make a list of ten specific reasons why somebody might choose to leave their country and settle elsewhere.

Some People Say...

“Multiculturalism has failed.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What does this debate mean for European immigrants?
Only extremists argue that immigrants who have already established themselves in Europe should be deported, so the most drastic consequences are still a long way away. But Sarkozy has supported a wave of policies attacking multiculturalism, such as banning burqas. This has been echoed elsewhere in Europe – with major consequences for the lives of those from foreign backgrounds.
So it would only affect those from foreign backgrounds?
No. For one thing, ending the ‘Schengen Zone’ would make travel within Europe harder. Other consequences are hard to judge. Favouring European companies and restricting immigration might reduce competition for jobs – but it might also make the economy less flexible and so reduce the number of jobs available.

Word Watch

Protectionist
Protectionist governments pursue policies that favour domestic businesses over foreign ones. This is the opposite of a free market. Usually this means higher tax rates for imported goods and companies based abroad. In this case, Sarkozy is arguing for a ‘Buy European Act’ based on the US ‘Buy American Act,’ which encourages the US government to buy from US companies.
Tradition of nationalism
Today’s French nationalism can be traced all the way back to the French Revolution over two centuries ago, when the king was toppled by a popular uprising. Some call this the earliest example of modern nationalism.
Xenophobic
Xenos is the Greek word for ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner,’ while phobos simply means ‘fear’. So ‘xenophobia’ is fear of foreigners. Although unlike ‘arachnophobia’ (fear of spiders) or ‘pteromerhanophobia’ (fear of flying), it usually means suspicion or hostility rather than terror.

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