A Migrant’s Tale: How the Path to Residency in France Got Harder

(Bloomberg) -- For thousands of people like Amadou Dieng, France represented safety and security. The former school teacher fled Mauritania in 2021 where he said he faced persecution. He is now applying to become a French resident.

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It’s a process that has been complicated, and possibly upended, by President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap legislative election and by the momentum of the far-right National Rally.

The biggest risk is that the party secures an absolute majority on Sunday, though center-right and left parties are mobilizing to try to stop that from happening. If they fail, and the National Rally forms the next administration, Dieng and many others would be asked to leave France. Enacting a campaign promise to urgently ban the regularization of undocumented migrants like him would be easy as rejecting or accepting residency requests is the government’s prerogative.

Even if the country ends up with a hung parliament, in which no party has the numbers to unilaterally pass legislation, the frame of the debate has shifted, with hardships faced by migrants, and minorities, set to continue. Macron himself, who first came to office as a centrist defender of liberal democracy, has gotten tougher on issues relating to security, identity and immigration.

“My application is solid, I work hard and I have a good reputation,” said 45-year-old Dieng. But now, he added, “of course I’m stressed.”

The National Rally has softened its stance on some social issues, like LGBTQ rights and abortion, under Marine Le Pen, its most iconic figure. But it still advocates France first policies and at the heart of its domestic agenda are measures to drastically toughen immigration and strengthen the rights of nationals over non-nationals, in everything from housing to employment.

Under the party’s proposals, undocumented migrants, estimated to number between 600,000 and 800,000, will be systematically expelled.

Applications for residency and asylum will have to be made outside the country. All non-economic immigration will stop and family reunifications severely restricted.

In a radical change, children born to migrants in France will never be French citizens.

And dual nationals, estimated by the government to be about 3.5 million (or 5% of the population of 68 million), many of whom are of Muslims of North African and or Sub-Saharan descent, will be barred from some government jobs.

There is a complete lack of clarity over the details, including who will enforce the plans, how any appeals process will work, and if residency permits already granted will be renewed when they expire. Or how much any of this would cost or save — Le Pen has said she plans to use funds that go to migrants to help finance her expensive spending program.

It’s not even clear how many of the measures would get past the Constitutional Council — France’s top court — in the first place.

Le Pen also wants to get rid of the equality ministry. She says none of this is about ethnicity, only culture. “I am absolutely not racist,” she recently told French TV. But Jordan Bardella, who will become prime minister if the National Rally wins an absolute majority, talks about the Great Replacement, a racist conspiracy theory that has led to violence around the world. And many party members have lashed out at minorities in some way.

Critics say xenophobia is in the party’s DNA. “The National Rally uses the idea of national identity, which they see as based on blood and on the opposition to foreigners, to set people apart,” said Valerie Igounet, a historian who specializes in the far-right and tracks online racism and antisemitism via Conspiracy Watch.

“They don’t believe in the ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ motto,” she added, referring to the values enshrined in the constitution that are meant define French society.

Migration has been a hot topic in France since at least the 1980s when establishment politicians and commentators began scapegoating migrants for things like crime and unemployment. Far-right talking points became more mainstream after a wave of terrorist attacks in 2015. Mutual resentment over France’s colonial past has helped exacerbate tensions.

Against that backdrop, a national debate over identity has gradually become more toxic. Race and religion-based hate crimes reported to authorities have been soaring.

Luciano Onca, a manager at the Emmaus non-profit organization, says he expects that ultimately, the National Rally’s plans will come up against reality, and it will realize that migrants are needed.

One of the world’s top tourist destination, France relies on migrant workers to help keep its hotels and restaurants running, as well as its construction, care and transport sectors, and many are undocumented. One in 10 jobs is filled by an immigrant, according to a 2021 government study, including more than one in five cooks, close to two-fifths of domestic staff and just over a quarter of low-skilled construction laborers.

“These workers will likely continue to be there but their lives will be even more difficult, and pushed further down underground,” Onca said.

In Mauritania, Dieng says he was persecuted by the White moor minority that dominates the government. It was after being beaten by police — for taking part in protests calling for greater workers’ rights — that he decided to leave, ending up in a suburb of Paris.

Without official papers, he hasn’t been able to get a job, take out a loan or rent an apartment. To get by, he stacks shelves for a charity shop and helps with its accounts in exchange for food and very basic accommodation.

Dieng bets that many of the measures sought by the National Rally would face pushback. Sitting on a couch as another undocumented migrant prepared lunch in their shared living room, he said he hopes people will realize that many migrants are decent people who can help create wealth for France. “It’s mutual interest,” he said. “Both sides can take advantage of it.”

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