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Europe: Economic Crisis Fuels Rise in Anti-Immigration Politics

The French presidential election may be over, but the fact that outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy chose immigration as a core theme of his campaign [fr] is still the subject of much debate on the Web. Many netizens have wondered whether his choice to flirt with the far-right wing of his electorate helped temper his defeat or whether, on the contrary, it was one of the reasons his electorate deserted him [fr].

Given the apparent waning appetite of European voters for multiculturalism, singling out immigration as the root of the global economic crisis has proven fruitful for far-right parties across the continent.

African refugees by Vito Manzari on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

African refugees by Vito Manzari on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it's because it has affected the old continent, when in times of crisis, in a cyclical pattern for centuries. Valérie, on her blog 'Crêpe Georgette', recounted the chronology of perceptions on immigration in France [fr] from the first half of the 19th century until today:

S’il est une idée en vogue, c’est bien de penser que les anciennes vagues d’immigration (italiennes, polonaises, espagnoles, belges …) se sont parfaitement intégrées au contraire des vagues, plus récentes, maghrébines et africaines.
Les anciennes vagues d’immigrés étaient travailleuses, ne posaient aucun problème et les français les ont d’ailleurs parfaitement acceptées, entend-on souvent.
Constatons donc que les propos actuels sur les immigrés les plus récents ne sont qu’une répétition d’idées reçues anciennes et qui se sont exercées à l’encontre de toutes les communautés migrantes (qu’elles viennent de province ou de pays étrangers).

If there is but one fashionable idea, it is the belief that the old immigration waves (from Italy, Poland, Spain, Belgium…) are now fully integrated in our society, as opposed to the more recent immigration waves from Maghreb and Africa.
We often hear “the former immigration waves were related to labour, did not cause any issue, and were indeed perfectly accepted by the French.”
Let us then recognise that current comments on the most recent immigration waves are the mere reiteration of old stereotypes which  all migrant communities have faced (whether they originated from the countryside or from foreign countries).

Valérie drew a parallel between allegations that Italian and Spanish immigrants did not and could not be integrated, and those against today's immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa:

Toutes les populations d’immigrés – mais aussi les populations pauvres de manière générale – sont vues au cours des siècles comme sales, non intégrées, se vautrant dans la luxure et des coutumes exotiques. Ce qu’on entend à l’heure actuelle sur les quartiers « islamisés », « envahis » de femmes en burqa avec 10 enfants n’est que la répétition, comme vous le constatez, de propos tenus sur toutes les vagues d’immigration précédentes. L’italien lui aussi fait une cuisine infâme, trop d’enfants et se vêt d’oripeaux. Le polonais se ridiculise avec son catholicisme particulier et à se tenir debout pendant la messe alors que le bon français est assis.

All immigrant populations – but also the poor in general – have been deemed throughout the centuries to be dirty, non-integrated, indulging in lust and other exotic customs. As you may observe, what is said today about the ‘islamicised’ neighbourhoods, 'swamped’ with women wearing the burqa and their tens of children, is only repeating comments of all the previous waves of immigration. The Italian immigrant also cooks dreadful food, has too many children, and dresses in rags. The Polish immigrant is ridiculed for his peculiar brand of Catholicism and his habit of standing up throughout mass whereas proper French people remain seated.

Economic downturn not the only reason 

Nevertheless, the economic downturn alone cannot explain the attractiveness of anti-immigration arguments. In an editorial on the future of multiculturalism in France, Julie Owono highlighted that:

The reason for the growing worry over the future of Europe is not simply related to the crisis. Contrary to what some politicians were quick to explain on the evening of the first round, it seems that the French who gave their vote to extremism do not suffer that much from the immigration scourge. French analysts have found that, while the latter represents a major concern for 62 per cent of National Front voters, areas where the party has received a significant number of votes do not have a particularly high immigration rate.

A European phenomenon

Foreigners in Europe by Digital Dreams on FlickR License-CC-BY

Foreigners in Europe by Digital Dreams on FlickR License-CC-BY

Politicians singing this weathered old tune against immigration are not limited to France. In Greece, the Neo-Nazi party known as Golden Dawn took advantage of the country's economic difficulties and broke through during the most recent general elections. In Great Britain, a commenter posting under the name James reacted to the fact that Cameron, Merkel, and Sarkozy declared the failure of multiculturalism in Europe:

She [Merkel] wanted People from richer nations to embrace and train poorer region folk! It hasn't worked, its cost us all billions and its getting more expensive year on year! Would you rather have a farmer from romania working in britain, claiming to be poor and sending all the money home to build a mansion! thats whats happening.

Valérie said she is no longer surprised by recycling of anti-immigration rhetoric. She suggested in her blog some reading to open up the debate:

Pour combattre les craintes face aux immigrés maghrébins et africains, on gagnerait à lire les textes du 19eme et du début du 20eme pour comprendre comment se fondent ces peurs et comment l’on ne fait que répéter les mêmes idées ayant cours dans les siècles précédents. Conseils de lecture :

- Conseillé par Melle S. : A. SAYAD « L’immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité » (1. L’illusion du provisoire et 2. Les enfants illégitimes).
- Gérard Noiriel, « Le creuset français ».
- Laurent Dornel, « La France hostile. Histoire de la xénophobie en France au XIXe siècle ”

To address anxieties over immigrants from Maghreb and Africa, one would gain from reading texts from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries in order to understand the foundations of such fears and how the same arguments are being used throughout the centuries. Suggested reading:

- Suggested by Melle S. [fr]: A. Sayad, Immigration or the Paradoxes of Alterity [fr] (1. The illusion of the ephemery and 2. The illegitimate children)
- Gérard Noiriel, The French Melting-Pot
- Laurent Dornel, Hostile France. A History of Xenophobia in France in the 19th Century [fr]

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