The refugee crisis - Paris and Berlin view through different lenses

Whilst the French government focuses on military actions in dealing with the refugee crisis, these protestants in Toulouse demand more help for the refugees (September 5, 2015)
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Whilst the French government focuses on military actions in dealing with the refugee crisis, these protestants in Toulouse demand more help for the refugees (September 5, 2015)

In France economic and social problems, terrorism and internal security are viewed as more important than the migrant crisis. The French see conflicts in the Arab world as the main reason for the migrant flows and regard their ‘boots on the ground” military assistance as a valid way to deal with the problem.

While the refugee crisis has been shaping German politics for a year now and making considerable demands on the country’s social and political forces, it seems to have had little impact in France, Germany’s closest European partner. In fact, the situation is not the same on both sides of the Rhine, as in 2015 only 70,600 applications for asylum were filed in France (up 20 percent on 2014) compared to 441,800 in Germany.

This statistical difference has also been accompanied by a difference in perception that has been reflected in the vocabulary of public debate: what is a “refugee crisis” in Germany is a “migration crisis” in France. The choice of words is significant and to some extent explains the nature of the debate. The term “migrant” denotes the idea of voluntary movement, often for economic, political, or cultural reasons. The humanitarian aspect of the crisis and the urgency implied by the term “refugee”, that denotes someone fleeing war or conflict, is therefore missing.  Unlike migrants, refugees have rights of asylum as set down in the Geneva Convention.

Migrant crisis – not seen as a French problem

Given the electoral success of the far right in France and the not insignificant part of the population rejecting immigration, it is not surprising that the arrival of new migrants arouses mistrust and fear. Polls demonstrate that a large majority are opposed to France granting asylum to more migrants/refugees than it currently does (average for population is 58 percent opposed, with figure rising to 78 percent for non-graduates).

Behind this reluctance to grant asylum to more refugees, there is, however, a certain sense of guilt, especially on the political left, at not doing better. Expounding France’s moral greatness is practically mandatory for the country’s political leaders as Prime Minister Manuel Valls demonstrated in a speech to the National Assembly on September 16, 2015. He expressed the wish that, “in the eyes of the world,” France remain “a beacon that does not waver, even at the height of the storm, does not succumb to the temptation of turning a blind eye or taking the easy way out.”

This did not prevent him from also declaring at the Munich Security Conference in February 2016 that France cannot “receive more refugees.” This paradoxical stance reflects the tension between an idealized perception of France as the land of the rights of Man and the inability to do better given the present economic state of the country. In France the refugee/migrant crisis is only one crisis among others. As well the he economic and social problems as the crisis posed by terrorism and internal security are viewed as more important. Opinion polls conducted at the end of 2015 clearly illustrate this hierarchy of concerns with unemployment the primary concern (77 percent), closely followed by the fight against terrorism (75 percent). Other concerns voiced are all connected to these two topics. The refugee/migrant crisis does not even figure in the poll. It is therefore no wonder that this topic is only seen through the prism of the economy and national security.

Migrants - a threat?

With unemployment at over 10 percent and affecting a quarter of the country’s young people, the arrival of immigrants is seen as a threat to employment opportunities - particularly with the government struggling to reform the labour market. In addition, granting asylum to a large number is seen as a strain on public finances currently under budgetary restriction. Policy makers regularly justify France’s reservations on refugee policy by pointing out the country’s economic difficulties. Even the socialists, desiring that France fulfil its humanitarian duties, felt that it is an “issue that is hard to deal with […] in the present context of economic and social crisis”, (Gilles Savary, National Assembly March 2016). In the face of this dilemma, they are calling for a distinction between refugees and economic migrants.

The French debate sees Germany’s liberal refugee policy as compatible with its strong economy and aging demographic. This lets France off the hook, and allows it to rid itself of any sense of blame. It is only a small step from there to declaring German politics self-serving, and the populist parties on the right and left do not hesitate to take it. While the co-founder of the Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélechon, denounced the chancellor’s “opportunism,” the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, accused Germany of opening up its borders to “drive down wages and […] continue to recruit slaves via mass immigration.”

The Terrorism Question

The second crisis eclipsing the refugee question is the crisis of terrorism and internal security. The majority view in France is that there is a link between terrorism and migration – if only because a large proportion of asylum seekers come from countries such as Syria, which are threatened by so-called Islamic State. Certain policy makers, especially in conservative and radical right circles, even go as far as regarding refugees as potential terrorists. Since the Paris attacks in January and November 2015, the fight against terrorism has become a government priority and takes up a significant proportion of budgetary and political resources. The police, the armed forces and the intelligence services have all been equipped with additional funding and staffing.

These policies also have a European dimension. Paris has been advocating the swift implementation of the Passenger Name Record (PNR), which would make it easier to detect and track the itineraries of potential terrorists. It is also committed to creating a European task force that would bring together Europol and the European police forces to combat passport fraud. If France has taken a back seat in receiving refugees, it has shown leadership on these security issues.

Moreover, there is political consensus in France that the conflicts in the Arab world are one of the main causes of terrorism – and of the flow of refugees. Although the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in November were French nationals, a large proportion of policy makers, whether in the majority or in the right-wing opposition, are turning their attention away from France toward the countries south of the Mediterranean.

Taking a fair share of the burden

The French government has therefore decided to increase military intervention in the region. At present, French troops are deployed in Iraq, Syria, Mali, and the Central African Republic – a situation that has not provoked any real domestic controversy. The widely shared belief that France is dealing with the root of the problem explains a certain impatience with Germany, which is considered too reticent in getting more involved in the region. It also explains Paris’ annoyance at Berlin’s demands that it accepts more refugees; France believes it is already carrying its fair share of the burden by having troops on the ground, with all the risks that implies.

For several months, the refugee/migrant crisis was regarded in France as a German crisis, to be observed from the outside. Some saw it even as a German self-inflicted crisis following the opening of its borders. For the French it seems logical to protect their country’s social cohesion and internal security by limiting migrants.

The Franco-German agreement on relocation and hotspots was probably as much as could be achieved given that this crisis of migration looks different from each national perspective. In this context, it is going to be difficult for the EU to come up with a common solution that addresses all Member State concerns.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".


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