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Attitudes Toward Refugees, Immigrants and Identity in France: More in Common

More in Common is a new effort to build communities and societies that are stronger, more resilient and more open. The More In Common initiative took shape from work undertaken since 2015 to understand why advanced democracies failed to respond more effectively to the refugee crisis and its impact on domestic politics. Read more about them on their website.

Excerpts from the Executive Summary:

France stands out among the world’s major democracies for the prominent role played by far-right populist parties in mainstream French politics for several decades. In contrast to most western democracies, where xenophobic nationalism and nativism existed only on the margins of politics, Front National – France’s main far-right political party – has been championing these sentiments in the country for many decades, and with growing success. Front National has significantly influenced a series of high-profile national debates about immigration, cultural integration, Islam and France’s response to the refugee crisis in Europe. The debate in France has also had reverberations across Europe, inspiring far-right populist movements across Europe.

This report provides insight into the appeal of populist sentiments relating to French identity, globalisation, immigration, refugees, and Islam. Its unique contribution is that it identifies five segments of the French population, who are distinguished by their differing attitudes towards these issues. By dividing the population in this way, it is possible to study the traits and trends within each segment and better understand what motivates and concerns individuals. In our view, the research portrays a more complete and nuanced picture of French public opinion than past reports, in particular by highlighting the conflicted views of a majority of the population, which belong to one of the three ‘middle’ groups. By highlighting the conflicted views of the middle groups, the report helps to explain why opinion polls can report views that appear to be contradictory.

This report is the first in a series of major country reports from More in Common, a not for profit organization incubated by Purpose Europe in 2017. It was commissioned in conjunction with the Social Change Initiative with generous funding provided by the Human Dignity Foundation. More in Common is working on understanding and responding to threats that divide communities and undermine open and democratic societies. This series of reports aims to provide deeper insights than have previously been available into attitudes to national identity, immigrants, refugees and community. The reports make it possible to identify commonalities and differences among countries (starting with France and Germany, with reports forthcoming in 2017 for the United States, Netherlands, Italy, and Greece). In addition to providing insights, More in Common’s reports are intended to assist those who work to promote the values of openness and inclusion, to influence policy outcomes and to resist efforts to divide communities and marginalise newcomers such as refugees and immigrants.

The key findings about overall levels of public opinion in France are the following:

  1. France is marked by pessimism and anxiety about the future. 65 per cent of people describe France as “fearful” and 50 per cent as “angry”. A key influence on this pessimism is the perception of economic decline. The proportion of people expecting economic conditions to worsen outnumbers those expecting improvement by more than five to one (51 per cent versus 9 per cent, with 34 per cent not expecting a change). It remains to be seen whether the political upheaval since May 2017 will lead to changes in the fundamentals of French public opinion.
  2. The majority of people are concerned about the effects of globalisation and demand protection from its effects. 58 per cent of people agree that the economic consequences of globalisation are very negative for France, while only 13 per cent disagree. An even higher proportion agree with the proposition that France needs to do more to protect itself from the world (61 to 15 per cent), and that France is losing its identity (59 to 20 per cent).
  3. The risk of terrorism is an issue of high public concern, with 53 per cent of people citing it as one of the three most important issues in France. The proportion citing unemployment and jobs as among the country’s most important issues is approximately the same (52 per cent of respondents).
  4. The French public believes that immigration has increased significantly in recent years. 85 per cent agreed with this proposition (62 per cent saying that the number of immigrants had increased a lot, and 23 per cent a little), and only 1 per cent disagreed. Immigration was the third most frequently cited issue of concern, (cited by 37 per cent respondents). In fact, the level of immigration has been fairly stable in France for the past decade.
  5. The public has strong negative perceptions of the impact of immigration on France. 56 per cent believes its impact has been negative (23 per cent “very negative”), while just 16 per cent believes it has been positive (and just 2 per cent “very positive”). These views are tied to the perceived failure of integration efforts both in cultural and economic terms. Further, only 22 per cent agree that immigrants generally make efforts to integrate into French society; 47 per cent disagree.
  6. The perception of Islam is a central determinant to people’s views on refugees, immigrants, and otherness in general in France. A sizeable minority believes that Islam is incompatible with French identity and loyalty to France. 38 per cent of respondents agree with the proposition that Islam and French society are not compatible (32 per cent disagree, and 25 per cent neither agree nor disagree).
  7. There is a relatively high level of understanding of the difference between refugees and immigrants (with 55 per cent agreeing that refugees are different from immigrants because they had no choice about leaving their home country, and just 17 per cent disagreeing).
  8. The high level of understanding of refugee status does not translate into strong public support for accepting refugees. 45 per cent agree with the proposition that France cannot accept any refugees right now, and should close its borders (29 per cent disagree). Right-wing populists appear to have successfully persuaded others that individuals claiming to be refugees are not genuine and are in fact coming to France for economic reasons: 51 per cent agree with this proposition (19 per cent disagree).
  9. In principle, the public supports the notion that France has an obligation to assist those who are fleeing war and persecution. However, the combination of anxieties about immigration, economic decline, terrorism and its links to radicalised Muslims, has created doubts that France has the capacity to take in more refugees right now, despite the scale of the global refugee crisis.
  10. There is a strong link in the public mind between domestic terrorism, immigration and the intake of refugees. This reflects a series of terrorist incidents in France, beginning with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in early 2015. 53 per cent agree with the proposition that it is too dangerous to let refugees into France as there is a major threat of terrorism coming from people who come to France as refugees (20 per cent disagree).
  11. There is anxiety over the erosion of the ‘social contract’ in France, in particular towards immigrants. The notion of a reciprocal contract between members of French society is a longstanding element of social and political debate in France. There is widespread concern that the social contract is no longer working. A consistent feature of the narrative of far-right populists in France is that certain groups such as immigrants are given priority over established residents for benefits, housing and public services (51 per cent agree, 23 per cent disagree). An even higher proportion believe that immigrants claim benefits and use public services without contributing something in return (65 per cent agree, 12 per cent disagree).
  12. Despite the public’s anxieties about immigration and integration, there is widespread concern about the rise of racism and discrimination. 71 per cent agree with the proposition that they are worried by it, of which 38 per cent “strongly agreed”, while only 13 per cent are not concerned. Likewise, 79 per cent agree with the proposition that extremism exists in all religions (and just 9 per cent disagree).

Visit the More in Common website to read the complete Executive Summary and the full report.