Equality? Not in French refugee policy

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On March 3, 2022, European Union interior ministers voted unanimously to approve a Temporary Protection Directive which, in addition to allowing Ukrainians to stay in member states for a period of one year renewable, will also facilitate and speed up the process of obtaining residence permits. , housing and assistance for children entering the French school system.

“This…reflects, I believe, the full commitment of the European Union to the solidarity we owe to the Ukrainian people in the face of this unjustified war,” said French Interior Minister Gérald Darmaninwho described the support as “significant and historic”.

While it is indisputable that measures like this are necessary as a humanitarian response to the ongoing crisis, it is also important to recognize the unequal treatment that France has extended to other refugee populations, in particularly those of countries in the Middle East and Africa. The UN has gone as far as officially criticize France in 2018 for “increasingly regressive migration policies and the inhuman and unsanitary conditions suffered by migrants” who lived in tents without toilets, forced to wash in polluted rivers or lakes.

In 2020, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously ruled that France had violated article 3 prohibiting degrading and inhuman treatment and, as a result, was ordered to pay between 10,000 and 12,000 euros to three asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Russia and Iran who were living on the streets without any resources or support.

For a country whose founding universalist principles are steeped in humanitarian rhetoric, it is staggering how their heralded value of equality has been violated.

Brotherhood was not spared either.

In 2017, Natacha Bouchart, Mayor of Calais, prohibits the distribution of food to migrants to prevent the creation of new refugee camps. This was widely interpreted as a tactic to make refugees “invisible” as food distribution moved from the now prohibited hours of the day into the evening.

For a country whose founding universalist principles are steeped in humanitarian rhetoric, it is staggering how their heralded value of equality has been violated.

It was not the first time that solidarity was criminalized. On October 17, 2016, Pierre-Alain Mannoni, professor of geography at the University of Nice, has been arrested after he was found driving three young girls from Eritrea, Africa to hospital for medical treatment. Three months later, on January 4, 2017, Cédric Herrou, a farmer from the Roya valley along the Franco-Italian border, was judged for helping 200 asylum seekers to enter France. Both were penalized under the Code for the entry and stay of foreigners and the right to asylum (CESEDA)which prohibits “helping foreigners to enter, travel or stay without papers” and is punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros – a heavy penalty for humanitarian acts rationalized on the basis of fraternity, a value on which the republic is founded.

The unequal treatment of refugees dates back to the interwar period, a time when France became a “land of asylum” with one of the largest populations of foreign-born residents. Despite this reputation, the motivation to accept refugees was not entirely altruistic. Reeling from the losses of the First World War, during which about 1.3 million French soldiers were lost, France welcomed the refugees as a source of labor to support post-war reconstruction efforts. However, the tide began to turn in 1933 when Hitler came to power and France fell victim to the global economic depression.

The response was to position the refugees (and their suddenly “suspicious” political loyalties) as scapegoats, which caused France to begin to distinguish old refugees from new ones. Through the Law of May 2, 1938, residence rights for Russians and Armenians remained while applications for permanent or temporary residence for Germans, Spaniards and other recently arrived refugees were much more difficult to obtain. Jews in particular became the targets of anti-Semitic propaganda fueled by protectionist measures for salaried workers fearing excessive professional competition.

There were also social anxieties which began to shape beliefs about which qualities were “assimilable” and which were not, a distinction which implies an unequal treatment which is quite contrary to the values ​​of the French Republic. Concerns about assimilation were voiced by Charles de Gaulle when he lamented how “Mediterranean and Oriental peoples…have profoundly altered the composition of the French population over the last half-century”. (source: Gérard Noiriel. The French crucible: immigration, citizenship and national identity, page 20)

If the principles resulting from the French Revolution laid the rhetorical foundations of France as the nation of asylum par excellence, they also set in motion the will of the State to monopolize what it means to be French, a meaning that is continually threatened by economic considerations, identity, and social insecurities.

Despite the idealistic language that France claims to adopt, contradictions and hypocrisies emerge as the republican myth of equality crumbles in the face of these insecurities. The question is therefore not whether France owes solidarity to the Ukrainian people, as expressed by Darmanin, but rather why it has not extended the same solidarity to all refugees.