Racial Prejudice in French and British Immigration Policy
FRANCE AND BRITAIN TODAY ARE SHADOWS OF THE GREAT COLONIAL EMPIRES they once dominated, yet the consequences of their imperial acquisitions continue to linger as both countries seek to moderate the immigration of persons from countries once part of vast imperial collections. In general, there is little public concern when an immigrant hails from Canada or Australia or another ‘white’ dominion. It’s a different reaction, however, when it’s a low-skilled black immigrant from Algeria or the Caribbean. This ‘reaction’ by both the general public and policy-makers results in immigration legislation that unduly discriminates on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin.
It is recognized that countries cannot have full open-door immigration policies
as the effects on national well-being would be staggering. There is, however, a great deal of latitude for countries to shape policies that provide equal-opportunity for migrants without regard for race, ethnicity, or national origin, or, on the contrary, to enact legislation that discriminates on the basis of these attributes. In the case of Britain and France during the past 40 years, immigration policies have drifted from the latter to the former, without fully characterizing either of these two extremes.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, strong anti-black and anti-minority sentiment has been veiled in the form of anti-immigration stances by leading political parties in both France and Britain. These positions were regulated in both countries by public sentiment, party power, and the economic well-being of the country. In the case of France, however, the emergence of the prominent French
nationalist party National Front (FN) pulled the leading right-of-centre parties further to the right, resulting in the adoption of discriminatory immigration policy
by the conservative French government in 1993; a similar nationalist movement in Britain did not have the same impact. Still, in both instances immigration policy is much more discriminatory at the close of the millennium than it was just forty years earlier.
IN THE EARLY POST-WAR ERA, most of the immigration to Britain was from other European countries, including many Irish and Polish, according to John Solomos, author of Race & Racism in Britain (Solomos 53-54). Yet a significant change in British immigration policy would come in 1948 with the institution of the British Nationality Act, distinguishing between citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and citizens of independent Commonwealth states, yet conferring citizens of both with the right to enter, work, and settle in Britain without restriction. It did not much alter the practical status of citizens of independent Commonwealth states, who had been considered full citizens of Great Britain with ‘free movement’ and ‘the protection of the crown’ since passage of the 1914 Imperial Act, but it would represent one of the first chips off an Imperial Act that would gradually be whittled down to shavings by racist immigration policymaking in London.
In post-war France, writes Alec G. Hargreaves in his book Immigration, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Contemporary France, the national government welcomed--even recruited!-- immigrants to help rebuild the country following years of war and depression (Hargreaves 10). Like Britain, the majority of immigrants to France were European, hailing from Italy, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, with limited numbers of Armenian, Russian, and Jewish migrants (9-10). Quickly, however, the economies of other European states began to improve, and the share of European immigrants to France declined while the portion of Maghreb (Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian) immigrants--visible racial minorities--began to climb (12).
It should be noted that the French perspective of minorities is decidedly differently than the Anglo-American perspective. According to Hargreaves, the French social relations vocabulary is relatively limited, with the word ‘immigration’ pertaining to a number social concepts related to race and ethnicity (1-2) and the word ‘immigrant’ itself generally describing a low-skilled migrant from the Third-World (18). The author also states that the French do not recognise individual ethnic groups, but speak of ‘integration’--an implicit ‘presupposition’ that newcomers to French society are to become integrated into the culture (1-2).
The denial of ethnic minorities by French society is mirrored (if not encouraged) by the French government. According to Hargreaves, immigration statistics are kept only of first-generation immigrants. States the author, ‘In the official mind of the state, the formal integration of immigrants and their descendants goes hand-in-hand with their obliteration as a distinct component of French society’ (4).
Residents of French overseas departments and territories (known by the French acronym DOM-TOM), including Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana, and Réunion, were considered French nationals, and held a status in France similar to that held until 1983 by citizens of British colonies. As French nationals, DOM-TOM migrants to France were never tracked as immigrants.
According to Hargreaves, the central myths of French identity were forged by a France united until 1789 by a central monarchy, and as a unified nation-state following the Revolution (5). As nationality became a tool to unite the people of France, divisive cultural differences were shunned.
Britain, on the other hand, has had a large history of mobilisation around issues of race and ethnicity, with the difference between the British culture and others ethnically distinct as a key aggravating factor. Therefore, Britain adopted was a ‘liberal’ attitude towards European immigrants following World War II, but perceived a variety of ‘problems’ associated with the arrival of ‘coloured’ workers, regardless of their status as British Commonwealth citizens (Solomos 56). Race riots at Notting Hill and Nottingham in the late 1950s supported arguments by opponents of black and minority immigration to institute even stricter immigration laws, as ‘too many blacks’ was seen as a growing British predicament (60-61).
In response to the growing black ‘problem’, Parliament passed the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962. Absolute free movement of Commonwealth passport holders ceased as a work permit was required for entry to Britain ***unless*** the individual was born in Britain or held a British passport. Solomos quotes one government official, who stated years later that ‘the bill’s real purpose was to restrict the influx of coloured immigrants. We were reluctant to say as much openly. So the restrictions were applied to coloured and white citizens in all Commonwealth countries--though everybody recognised that immigrants from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand formed no part of the problem’ (61). According to Solomos, there was limited opposition to the Act at the time by the media and the opposition Labour Party (61).
Significantly, Labour would not repeal or amend the Act after defeating the Conservative Party for control of Parliament in 1964. According to Solomos, Labour nearly converged with the Conservative viewpoint, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson calling for stricter immigration controls and greater ‘integration’ of immigrants (64). In 1968, the Labour government passed a second Commonwealth Immigration Act, which aimed at reducing the number of East African Asian (Kenyan and Ugandan) immigrants by requiring British and colonial holders of British passports to prove patriality.
Following the two Commonwealth Immigration Acts, the opponents of immigration were still not appeased. In 1968, prominent Conservative Enoch Powell called for repatriation of immigrants, as reduced immigration levels, he felt, were not sufficient (67).
Yet another piece of legislation that restricted immigration to Britain was passed by a Conservative government in 1971. The Immigration Act required patriality for free admission to Britain, and a work permit subject to annual review in the instance that one did not have patrial ties to Britain (69). States Solomos, ‘The 1971 Act eventually took away the right of the black Commonwealth immigrants to settle, and thus represented an important step in the institutionalisation of racist immigration controls’ (70). Indeed, the bedrock guarantee of British citizenship once promised to the citizens of all Commonwealth states had by 1971 eroded into a mere pebble of its former self.
During the early 1970s, the French enacted minority-restricting immigration policies themselves with the institution of an official ‘Zero-Immigration’ policy in 1974. According to Hargreaves, it was formally a ‘suspension’ of immigration, but remains in place today (Hargreaves 17). In practice, the policy eliminated all open-immigration that had formerly been permitted by French law. A number of holes in the ‘Zero-Immigration’ policy allowed immigration to France to continue, however, as European Community members still had free movement, asylum seekers were still protected, high-skilled workers were exempt, and other workers were permitted as economic need arose. The bottom line, however, was that France had removed the welcome mat from its front door.
Paradoxically, the visibility of immigrants in France would increase following the ‘Zero-Immigration’ declaration as families would join previous immigrants (18). Third-world immigrants, Hargreaves states, would come to be seen as threats to French tradition as it was--and still is--perceived that they integrated into society with greater difficulty (26).
British immigration policy would again tighten after Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to victory in the 1979 election. According to Solomos, Thatcher had stated while campaigning in 1979 that blacks posed a threat to British social and cultural values (Solomos 71), and her government passed the restrictive British Nationality Act in 1981. Among the provisions of the policy, British citizenship was further sub-divided, with the right of abode in Britain guaranteed only to citizens of the United Kingdom and not to citizens of dependent or overseas colonies, according to the British Information Service Internet site (‘Background’ Sec. 3). Stated an official government report for an OECD conference, ‘Firm immigration control is . . . essential in order to provide the conditions necessary for developing and maintaining good community relations’ (Solomos 71). Writes Solomos, ‘The strategy pursued since 1979 has continued to legitimate the supposed link between firm controls and community relations’ (72).
During the 1980s, immigrants were increasingly seen as a threat to French national identity. As a result, the National Front party (known by the French acronym FN) was created to advance the far-right cause of French nationalism. FN would succeed in winning a small percentage of seats in the French National Assembly, but its most significant impact was in pulling the mainstream centre-right parties in France further to the right.
Significantly, Britain faced a National Front movement of its own in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The National Front failed, however, to have a serious impact on immigration policy in Britain. According to Solomos, the party declined as a result of the ‘marginalisation of the racist message that the National Front was propounding’, ‘the incorporation of the National Front’s ideas into mainstream political institutions’, and internal party disintegration (190). Or, the party may simply have faltered as a result of Britain’s first-past-the-post system of Parliamentary representation, resulting in National Front failure to ever win seat in Parliament.
In France, with a system of proportional representation in the National Assembly, the party had a different effect. National Front gained popularity as France faced increasing unemployment during the 1980s, and immigrants were often perceived by the public as competitors with citizens for jobs. French public opinion surveys cited by Hargreaves show declining public acceptance of immigrants in France during economic downturns (Hargreaves 155-157). Most rejected were Africans, especially Algerians, whose dark complexion and Islamic beliefs, it was thought, made for difficult assimilation (161-163).
As a result of broad public support for tighter immigration policies, and to stem the tide of supporters to the National Front, French mainstream centre-right parties Rassemblement Pour la Republique (RPR) and Union por la Democratie Française (UDF) sought to further restrict immigrant access to France. In 1986, Legislators debated numerous amendments to the French Nationality Code (CNF) before deciding to end the automatic granting of French nationality to persons born on French soil to foreign parents. According to Hargreaves, public reaction against the relatively weak conservative coalition government led to retreating support for the 1986 measure, which ultimately did not pass (171). In 1993, however, a reinvigorated centre-right coalition successfully amended the CNF to allow a child born on French soil to be considered a French national only if at least one parent had resided in France for at least five years before the child’s birth (174). It was claimed that the bill sought to prevent expectant mothers from birthing on French soil to gain French citizenship for their babies and themselves, but the change was widely seen as a method of limiting the number of African and Islamic immigrants that supposedly ‘assimilated’ with such difficulty into French society.
THE END OF THE MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, AND BOTH BRITAIN AND FRANCE are poised to exit the century with racially-discriminatory immigration policies that annually prohibit entry and opportunity to thousands of potential immigrants. The countries continue to grow towards each other and other members of the European Union, but move ever closer to unified external borders that are liable to lock the doors to thousands more. Ideally, the EU clique would reach out to peoples living elsewhere in the world, and invite them to move to Europe and share in the economic success of the Union. Realistically, however, a more likely scenario envisions the construction of a ‘Fortress Europe’ that aims to keep foreigners out. According to leading race relations expert Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Eurocentric racism ‘emerging from the interstices of the old ethnocentric racism’ is expressed in the form of the European Union (Miles 36).
With massive minority populations, attention now turns towards ‘second generation’ settlers in Britain and France. Unfortunately, policies that support the growing minority populations have followed the same nationalist vein as immigration policies in these countries. States Solomos, ‘Central government departments . . . have not shown a clear commitment to or allocated adequate resources to racial equality programmes [in Britain]’ (Solomos 81). France, of course, continues to view immigration and race relations through blinders, failing to adopt any policies that promote anything other than ‘integration’.
There is slight hope that the individual sovereignties of Britain and France may liberalise immigration policies whilst they still have this ability. But with the continued stability of conservatives in France, it is unlikely that a move to end the official France ‘Zero Immigration’ policy will occur any time soon. In Britain, the new Labour government may change immigration policy, but a return to the Imperial Act, when British immigration policy reached its liberal zenith, is not foreseeable.
It is lamentable that the immigration policies of France and Britain have become so restrictive during the past 40 years, but one can only hope that the next 40, whether as individual states or in unison as EU members, bring a gradual decline in the racially prejudicial nature of French and British immigration policy.
‘Background to British National Law.’ Britain in the USA. British Information Services. 19 July 1998. .
Hargreaves, Alec G. Immigration, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Contemporary France. London: Routledge, 1995.
Miles, Robert. ‘The Articulation of Racism & Nationalism.’ Racism & Migration in Western Europe. Ed. John Solomos and John Wrench. Oxford: Berg, 1993.
Solomos, John. Race & Racism in Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.