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The French president risked riling those on the right in France when he gave an impassioned defense of the impact of immigration on the country in his first speech on the subject since being elected in 2012.
As he inaugurated France’s Museum of the history of Immigration in Paris on Monday, Hollande said: “French society must be represented by all the colours of France.”
The museum actually opened seven years ago but Hollande’s predecessor provoked outrage when he refused to inaugurate the new cultural centre.
Without naming anyone specific, Hollande also took a swipe at those on the right and far-right, namely the National Front for scaremongering and encouraging hate.
France cannot “leave space for speeches that exploit the fear of dissolution, disintegration, and disappearance and to those who dream of a smaller France, a more spiteful France, a France in decline”.
“We must fight against these claims for the sake of France,” Hollande added.
With those words Hollande had in mind his old adversary and former president Nicolas Sarkozy who said in a recent speech that “immigration threatened the French way of life”.
“The French want to stay in France and that France does not look like another country,” Sarkozy had said.
When it came to the current debate around freedom of movement in Europe and the argument – pushed by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen among others – that France should take back control of its borders, Hollande was firm.
“Dismantle the Schengen agreement? That would mean going backwards and restoring borders in each country.
“The Schengen agreement is exactly what has allowed European countries to organize and control immigration,” the president said.
And on the subject of Islam in France the president criticized the spreading of “fear” around the religion, by those who try to portray it as “incompatible with the Republic”.
Hollande said it was “unacceptable” and called on both France and Europe to find an answer “to the bad winds that are increasing in force across both France and Europe.”
One of the spikier matters Hollande was expected to confront was the old issue of voting rights for foreigners living in France.
Among his many election promises Hollande had vowed to give foreigners in France the right to vote in local elections, something EU citizens already have thanks to the EU.
But since 2012, the controversial issue has been pushed to the back, with Hollande knowing that he would probably be defeated if he tried to push it through.
“Nothing can be done without a revision of the constitution, which requires a two thirds majority in parliament,” said Hollande.
That is unlikely to happen, especially with opinion polls suggesting 60 percent of French people are against giving voting rights to foreigners, but nevertheless Hollande said he was “favourable” to the change and called on the right to help make it happen.
‘No study has shown immigration has been detrimental to France’
The issue of immigration in France like in other European countries is a highly sensitive and divisive issue, which can be seen in the rise of right wing parties in recent years.
This week saw more anti-Islam demonstrations in the German city of Dresden which have left authorities in Berlin fearing clashes between salafists and people drawn to right-wing, xenophobic politics.
Jean-Christope Dumont from the Paris-based think tank OECD told The Local recently that “No study has ever shown that migration was not beneficial for France.”
“In certain sectors like hotels, construction, and the care industry, immigrants are needed to fill vacant jobs because there is an employment gap,” he said.
The OECD published a report that revealed permanent migration into France reached “a historical high” in 2012 it’s “no longer a significant phenomenon”, especially when compared with other OECD countries.
“Contrary to what most people believe migration to France is fairly low,” Jean-Christophe Dumont, from the OECD’s International Migration Division told The Local. “Immigrants coming to France in 2012 represented only 0.4 percent of the population, which is much lower than the OECD average of around 0.8 percent.
Some 241, 900 permanent immigrants arrived in France in 2012, compared to 399, 900 in Germany and 282, 600 in the UK, according to the OECD.
“There’s a gap between the perception and reality when it comes to the importance of migration – 200,000 to 250,000 might sound like a lot of people but as a percentage of the population it’s not,” he said.
– The Local