The first round of voting for the next President of the French Republic is over and it is Francois Hollande Socialist Party) by a hair. He received 28.63% of the vote with Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent, a close second with 27.08%. Marine Le Pen (Front National) did very well indeed with over 18% which didn't surprise me. Sarkozy's efforts to seduce her supporters by being anti-immigrant, anti-Europe were a nice try but it didn't seem to make much difference. Le Pen has a lot going for her: she's young, charismatic, fairly new on the scene, a good speaker, and her message has real appeal. Not enough to win the election but certainly enough to influence it.
For those of you who want a snapshot of the candidate's positions on the major issues, have a look at this page up on the Al-Jazeera website, Where do France's election candidates stand? What a wide variety of parties and positions - makes the U.S. elections look downright dull by comparison. Obama versus Romney? Snore. Just wake me up when it's over....
Naturally I am most interested in the candidates' positions on immigration. Sarkozy and Le Pen want to reduce it (no big surprise there) but they have wildly different targets with the former proposing a reduction of 50% and the latter wanting to pretty much shut it down all together. If Al-Jazeera is correct Hollande's take on immigration is: "What's the problem?" which did much to endear him to me.
Do I take these positions seriously? Not so much. Sarkozy and Le Pen can propose any number they like but they don't necessarily have the power to make it happen. The EU is a factor here and so are other stakeholders like sending country governments, French industry and higher education. The devil is always in the details and once the abstract immigrant is given a face in the media following some anti-migrant initiative, public opinion changes very quickly. When the impact becomes real, when people see families being ripped apart, highly-qualified immigrant workers desperately needed for certain industries happily leaving for Canada or watch French higher education start to lose its international luster, the reaction is, "Wait a minute, that's not at all what we had in mind." There is no way Marine Le Pen could reduce immigration in France by 95% - this is a wild promise without any substance at all. Even Sarkozy's more modest goal of 50% is probably unrealistic and, if he won (and he probably won't), his government would find ways to get around it to satisfy all the actors with an interest in maintaining, or even increasing, the number of foreign "guests" in France.
Immigration is dangerous territory for all politicians. I think the French political parties who propose to kick the whole business up to the EU are on to something. An elegant, if not terribly courageous, way of getting rid of an really sticky problem that has no solution that will not come back to bite a politician hard and in tender places.
Last remark - I find it amusing that any country can have a national discussion about immigration without talking about emigration. Where there are flows in, folks, there are also flows out. Check out this graph at the France Diplomatie website. Since 1985 the number of French expatriates has steadily grown with only a minor dip in 2007. Officially there are 1.6 million French men and women outside the Hexagone but this number only includes those who have registered as expats and my guess is that the real number is much higher. In 2011 alone the number rose by 6% compared to 2010. French politicians are conspicuously silent about this trend. Is it because they think it is a good thing? It is, after all, a very effective way of getting those unemployment numbers down. When the young cannot find jobs, just send them abroad to countries that are thrilled to have them. It doesn't take a genius to see that this can be very good, very sane policy, though perhaps not one that would win elections if it was spelled out for the voters.
Or is it because the French population isn't really aware of the numbers and, frankly, would prefer not to know? I don't know. All I can say is that the reactions of my French friends to their "domestic abroad" resembles closely those of my American friends: "They are just temporarily abroad" or "French citizens always come home eventually." Interesting. I'd like to see the empirical evidence supporting those statements. I've met a lot of French citizens abroad in the U.S., Japan and Canada and many of them are long-term residents, if not actual citizens of those countries. Once someone has lived in another country 10+ years, I just don't see how you can fool yourself into thinking they are "temporary."
And I really wonder what Marine would have to say about that. :-)