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Security, Identity, Adversity: The “French Touch” on the Securitization of Immigration

2 Comments 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

Girls at a pro-immigration rally with a sign reading “I’m not from here either.” Photo credit: Gustave Deghilage.


by Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia

The securitization of immigration is a process through which political elites (such as governments, both mainstream and extremist political parties, and associated policy networks), public opinion, and the media construct immigration as a security threat. The security-immigration nexus is therefore visible in the ways that politicians view policies on immigration (mostly border controls) and the integration of migrants and their offspring as a way to counter threats. This nexus is consolidated by negative stereotypes propagated by the mass media and official public discourse. It gives legitimacy to a range of normative perceptions – as illustrated by the distinction between “wanted” and “unwanted” immigrants, as well as “good” and “bad” citizens of foreign descent. These normative perceptions, in turn, fuel and are fueled by the implementation of security-driven policies designed to police minorities and secure borders.

Both the United States and Europe have gone through a similar process.[1] There is, however, a French distinctiveness that can be explained by its peculiar features. These include the legacy of France’s colonial history and the presence of large Muslim communities originating mostly from North Africa;[2] the electoral weight of the National Front, one of the largest far-right parties in Europe, and its influence on the agendas of mainstream parties; the prevalence of the so-called ‘Republican model’ of integration, based on secularism (laïcité) and allegedly ethnic-blind policies; and a political consensus about the “security first” principle that allows invasive counterterrorism policies to the detriment of civil liberties.

The current framing of immigration as a security issue in France is the result of a long-term process dating back over three decades. The immigration-security nexus initially related to the belief in the 1980s that immigrants posed a socio-economic threat to French natives. Supporters of restrictive immigration policies argued that immigrants took jobs from native workers, reduced their wages, and consumed more social benefits than they contributed in tax payments. The National Front, for example, introduced anti-migrant rhetoric in its propaganda in the early 1980s by claiming that immigration was the main source of unemployment in France.[3] This assumption has gained currency among both leftist and rightist mainstream political parties, in the media and among large segments of the general public. Numerous surveys show that the belief that immigrants are a “burden to the country” is now deeply ingrained. According to a 2010 survey conducted by the National Consultative Commission on the Rights of Man (CNCDH), for example, 67 percent of the French believed that “many immigrants come to France exclusively in order to take advantage of welfare benefits.”[4] Comparably, in 2014, 57 percent said they wanted fewer immigrants allowed in France, and 52 percent believed that immigrants took jobs from natives.[5]

Concerns about the ethno-cultural composition of both migrant groups and native minorities have reinforced these economic concerns. They have been matched by symbolic fears about national homogeneity and the loss of certain values or ways of life. Muslims, either foreign-born or second-generation, became the most targeted group in the aftermath of the 1989 “Islamic headscarf affair,” which targeted the wearing of the hijab in public schools that abide by the principle of secularism according to the 1905 law of the separation of church and state. This affair turned into a heated debate about the potential conflict between Islamic traditions and republican integration. Politicians with differing ideological backgrounds expressed convergent views about preserving national identity and national values. The National Assembly subsequently passed a law in 2004 prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools by an almost unanimous vote. The law also had strong popular support, with 69 percent of the French population favoring it.[6]

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, at a 2012 rally. Photo credit: Blandine Le Cain.

The assumption that the secular character of the Republic was under threat by aspects of Islam further fueled suspicion about the willingness of Muslims to integrate into French society. Beyond the traditional left-right cleavage, political leaders expressed concerns about the drift of youth towards ‘communitarianism’ – a term which in French suggests that immigrants want to maintain their original culture and are reluctant to integrate fully into French society. Again, French public opinion echoed these concerns. Majorities believed, for example, that Muslims form a “separate and partitioned group” (55 percent) and that wearing a veil constitutes a threat to French values (89 percent).[7] The government went further, instituting a full-face veil (burqa) ban in 2010 – an initiative again supported by political leaders on the left and right and by 80 percent of French public opinion.[8]

In the aftermath of the 2005 riots and subsequent episodes of urban violence involving both Muslim and non-Muslim youths (either foreign or French citizens) living in deprived neighborhoods (the banlieues), concerns over the prospect of cultural disintegration turned into fears about safety. While the primary trigger for violence was in fact socio-economic discrimination, political leaders across the mainstream French political spectrum nevertheless interpreted these events as proof of the lack of civic integration of young immigrants. Their response was to securitize integration policies, as illustrated by four measures: first, a July 2006 law required all new arrivals to sign a contract of integration. Second, that same month, the ELOI register on illegal immigration was created, reinforcing the surveillance of French citizens in regular contact with foreigners. Third, a November 2006 law enforced new requirements for marriages with foreigners. And finally, in March 2007, the National Observatory on Laïcité was established.

On the eve of the 2007 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, justified all these measures by declaring that

the truth is that many French see in immigration a threat to their security, to their jobs, to their way of life, to the preservation of the values to which they are attached, to the unity and cohesion of the nation. It would be totally irresponsible to ignore this anxiety. We have a duty to formulate a response to it, through our words and our deeds.[9]

Leftist opposition parties subscribed to certain aspects of the rightist UMP program, notably the increased criminalization of illegal immigrants, the fight against delinquency among minorities, and the reaffirmation of French values. The link between immigrants and social disorder was extended to other minorities, such as Roma (“travelers,” or Gypsies) suspected of involvement in criminal activities during the subsequent Sarkozy presidency (2007–2012). In a 2010 speech, President Sarkozy claimed his determination not only to dismantle illegal Roma encampments, but also to make it easier to strip convicted criminals of their French nationality (particularly in cases of violence perpetrated against state officials), to reinforce video surveillance in sensitive urban zones, and to cut family assistance to immigrants when their children were absent from school.[10] The electoral victory of Socialist François Hollande in 2012 failed to constitute a major turning point in the securitization process, as illustrated by his government’s adoption of anti-Roma measures and promotion of “selective immigration policy” (immigration choisie) comparable with those pursued on the Right.

Non aux lois anti immigres

A protest against an anti-immigration law in Paris. Photo credit: William Hamon.

The final component of the securitization process relates to the link between immigration and terrorism established by the terrorist attacks perpetrated in France by the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) during the 1990s. But it was reinforced after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 (involving Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent), the 2004 Madrid bombings, and the 2005 London bombings as well. Specifically, French officials became acutely aware of the threat posed by homegrown terrorists following attacks carried out by people like Mohamed Merah, a French national of Algerian descent who killed three French soldiers and four Jewish civilians (including three children) in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse in March 2012. Amid rising concerns of a “jihadist threat” in France, domestic security agencies increased their surveillance of radical Islamists. A normative consensus on security issues in French society permitted government counterterrorist agencies to mount large and indiscriminate surveillance and arrest operations – leading to the roundup of suspected Islamist militants and deportation of radical imams.

This consensus was reinforced by the terrorist attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, in which Cherif and Said Kouachi killed eleven cartoonists and journalists for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, as well as one Muslim policeman. In parallel, Amédy Coulibaly shot a policewoman before killing four hostages at a kosher supermarket. All three terrorists were French, from Paris, and were born and radicalized there. The government’s response was twofold: first, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced the creation of 2,680 new security-related jobs, including 1,100 additions to police intelligence, over three years. Second, this past May, the National Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing even more intrusive domestic spying by the government with limited judicial oversight.

What are the significant consequences of this securitization process in France today? Like in many European countries, the augmentation of border controls, intended to curb illegal immigration and limit the number of asylum applicants, has proven ineffective. Furthermore, security-driven policies designed to address concerns raised by ‘communitarianism’ have not addressed the socio-economic causes of dis-integration. There is evidence that immigrants and minorities suffer from socio-economic discrimination, yet the securitization of integration policies has not alleviated this problem. Problematically, conventional expectations regarding the behavior of immigrants and minorities have expanded from traditional socio-economic and cultural requirements to a compliance with security-defined norms (such as conformity, obedience, and loyalty). This, in turn, has fueled resentment and alienation among targeted communities.

Finally, the French Republican model of integration is being seriously challenged. This “performative model seeks to maintain the fiction of a universalist nation that had succeeded in overcoming ethnic and racial divisions.”[11] Yet French social unity is currently damagingly characterized by intergroup tensions, as illustrated by the anti-foreigner sentiments expressed by natives (especially those who define themselves as Français de souche­, or ‘of French origin’), increased Islamophobia, and anti-Semitic sentiments and attitudes among the Muslim community. Meanwhile, superficially ethnically-blind public policies in reality tend to take ethnicity into account in determining access to resources and rights, thus leading to a systemic racism within certain institutions, such as the police, housing, and health services. As a result, the official distrust of any ethnic claims paradoxically reinforces ethno-cultural and religious cleavages. The use of laïcité (secularism) as a political mantra is seriously undermined by an ethical conflict of principles – mainly between religious freedom and freedom of expression. Originally designed to balance state neutrality in the public space and religious freedom in order to secure public order, laïcité now legitimizes state partiality while increasing public disorder.


Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia is Professor of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University and a Senior Researcher affiliated with the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po Paris.


This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

[1] See Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia, Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2012).

[2] Criteria such as religion and ethnicity are not recorded in the French census. Social scientists, using different methods, estimate the Muslim population to be somewhere between 4 and 5 million.

[3] The main motto was “one million French unemployed = one million immigrants to get rid of” as the justification for the préférence nationale policies supported by the National Front.

[4] CNCDH (Commission nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme), Rapport d’Activité 2010 (Paris: La Documentation Française, 2010).

[5] Pew Research Institute, Global Attitudes and Trends (chapter 3, 2010), available at <> (accessed May 2, 2015).

[6] CSA Poll of December 2003. See Justin Vaïsse, “Veiled Meaning: The French Law Banning Religious Symbols in Public Schools,” US-France Analysis Series, The Brookings Institution (March 2004).

[7] CNCDH (Commission nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme), Rapport d’Activité 2012 (Paris: La Documentation Française, 2012).

[8] Georg Lentze, “Islamic Headscarf debate Rekindled in France,” BBC News, available at <> (accessed May 3, 2015).

[9] Speech of December 11, 2006, available at <> (accessed May 4, 2015).

[10] It should be noted that in March 2011, the Constitutional Court invalidated the majority of the amendments that were adopted by the National Assembly and Senate on the basis of the Grenoble speech.

[11] Valérie Amiraux and Patrick Simon, “There Are No Minorities Here: Cultures of Scholarship and Public Debate on Immigrants and Integration in France,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 47, no. 3–4 (2006): 192.


  1. 🕔 4:26, 01.Feb 2016


    I am a British woman living in France. There is recent evidence (notably in video footage such as that available from immigrant support groups an example of which is linked by the British street artist Banksy from his later work carrying a Q code near the French embassy in Paris) that far-right groups have been gathering outside the Jungle in Calais at night, launching stones and name calling, shouting obscenities at residents of the Jungle. CRS stand behind/next to these groups of Frenchmen observing and making no arrests. When residents arrive in numbers large enough for the police to claim the peace is threatened, they then launch teargas into the crowds of men withing the camp (not into the crowds of men outside who started the disturbance) and a riot ensuees in which police

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  2. 🕔 4:44, 01.Feb 2016


    cont… and immigrants are quoted as being injured in the national press. I have yet to find one example of an arrest made by police of the vigilante group.

    Having said all that, I also need to add that I fully support the law making the Full Face Burka illegal in France and support the secular ideal as one that provides an important freedom and human right in France. I say that women all over the earth have the right in public life to move freely around the whole world and to expect others to help me prevent people from assaulting us verbally or otherwise made to feel dirty or evil by religious extremist views.
    The view that women should cover themselves in order to remain good citizens and therefore beyond sexual harassment is wrong and should be argued against. It is wrong and just because it currently forms one of the basic cultural religious symbols of Islam does not make me nor anyone else who refuses to capitulate to this nonsense a racist. I feel I have a duty to protect all girls(and boys) from this sort of lies. It is a lie to tell anyone that if they cover themselves up they are a good person and if they refuse they are a bad person. You can be a Moslem, Jew, or a Christian fundamentalist and my right not to have to believe all of you is stronger than your right to insist that I wear clothes that you design for me. Nor do I agree with foot binding or wearing collars. Ithink, therefore that your article is very interesting but that you are using the wrong examples of French politics in order to illustrate the bias that exists here. Yes, there is police discrimination here and it is based on distrust of immigrants but the law against the full face Burka is not an example of that

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