Immigration: Catalyst for Political Alchemy in France

By Josh Erb

In recent years, the debate around immigration in France has cultivated the rise to prominence of an intriguing political figure. Manuel Valls, who was appointed Prime Minister in March of 2014, is himself a naturalized immigrant who acquired his French citizenship at the age of 20 in 1982. Born in Barcelona, Valls is the quintessence of a successfully integrated (read “assimilated”) immigrant in France: fluent in French, trumpeter of the necessity of Republican ideals, and concerned about the cohesion of French national identity. So what does Valls’ rapid rise to prominence within the Socialist Party signify, especially after the perceived silence of the Socialist Party on the subject of immigration during the reign of the Sarkozy administration? It is increasingly clear that Valls’ success is largely a result of his immigration policy, a point which suggests that Valls is a symptom of a much larger political conundrum in France.

Understanding Valls as a symbolic actor in the French political arena allows for certain insights into the role he evidently feels compelled to fill. Thus, examining three pieces written about him in French newspaper Le Monde, it becomes clear that Valls is, in essence, the only solution for a Socialist Party that has been experiencing mounting pressure to take a proactive stance on immigration. While Prime Minister Valls and the discourse he provokes and invokes are not indicative of the left as a whole, they certainly represent a clear response to pressures the left has been feeling in the past decade.

Manuel Valls (center) at a Socialist Party event in 2012. (Photo by Mathieu Delmestre

Manuel Valls (center) at a Socialist Party event in 2012. (Photo by Mathieu Delmestre)

The publication of three profiles and a critical opinion piece in Le Monde are evidence of the left’s uncertainty over the political ideology Valls has quickly come to represent. Vall’s rapid ascension within the party under the Hollande administration is quite telling of the role his views on immigration interpret and fill. This is demonstrated by the critical editorials published about his political allegiance. Valls began as the Mayor of Évry from 2001 to 2012, was appointed the Interior Minister by President Hollande after the presidential victory in 2012, and just recently was promoted to Prime Minister in March of 2014. As a pull quote in the first substantive article on the then Interior Minister explained: “Paradoxically, Manuel Valls offers the image of someone with the ambition to surpass, or even ‘replace,’ a leader in a delicate political position.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon – founder of the Parti de Gauche (the Left Party), a far-left offshoot of the Socialist party – once accused Valls of being “contaminated by the ideas of Madame Le Pen.” A comment which explicitly connects Valls with the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant party le Front National and its current leader, Marine Le Pen. Of course, Le Monde, a somewhat left-of-center paper, does not miss the opportunity to reference this comparison in its description of Valls’ political career. Responding to these allegations, Valls definitively declared:

If Francois Hollande nominated me [to this position], it’s because he knew I had a form of coherence on questions of security, immigration, and secularism.

The article also explains the reasoning behind Valls’opposition of a ban on the Muslim veil, quoting an article he wrote for Le Monde in 2003:

This intransigence only accentuates the separation between French Muslims and the rest of the population and might push a certain number of them to raise their children in communitarian schools.

Despite the seemingly progressive tone of this statement, it is important to note that Valls is still perpetuating a dichotomy between French Muslims and “the rest of the population.” He fails to express concern over the ban calling into question the freedom to wear a religiously marked garment. Rather he indicates that attempting to ban the veil will cement communal identity and prevent the proper assimilation of French Muslim populations. Having singled out the problem, Valls fails to see how the discourse surrounding the issue may be obfuscating it.

In February the following year, Valls is presented in an article on the impending release of the immigration statistics from his time as Interior Minister. While the portrait painted in each article is certainly one of a “popular and controversial” figure, the presentation of Monsieur Valls is particularly telling of Le Monde’s – and subsequently Le Monde’s public’s – perception of the politician. One article bears the headline: “Immigration: M. Valls displays his firmness at any cost.” Another full page article uses a provocative picture taken during a university speech that has all eyes focused on him as he makes an aggressive and determined face. These discursive acts, in addition to being inspired by contemporary perceptions, perpetuate and spread the national understanding of Valls as a political symbol.

The left’s uncertainty of the figure of Manuel Valls is most explicit in a critique printed on page 16 of the Le Monde’s April 5, 2014. In this piece an unsatisfied left-wing philosopher laments the prominence and traction of Valls’ opinions, in particular Valls’ similarity to his adversaries on the right – a common speaking point when discussing the politician. The critic, Michel Feher, a philosopher, complains about a particular lack of difference between the “immigration anxiety treatment and the affectation of secular concern towards excessive Islam.” A remark wherein it is evident that despite Valls’ party allegiance and seemingly progressive approaches to these persisting concerns, the far-left still views him as insufficiently capable of correcting these problems of immigration policy. In this public critique, then, it becomes apparent that the far-left perceives the position of Manuel Valls as one which feigns progress while embracing an anxiety (identical to the right-wing) over the ability of North African and Middle Eastern immigrant groups to integrate. Interestingly enough, both perspectives overlook the fact that these immigrant groups are historically well-established in France. In most cases the so-called “poorly integrated” are second or third generation immigrants who were born on French soil, many of whom speak French as their first and only language.

In broad terms, Manuel Valls – the political figure – represents an extremely intriguing development in French political discourse and the path the Socialist Party feels obliged to take. Valls embodies the Socialist Party’s decision to actively engage the discourse of immigration, which had previously been perceived as absent or indirect, but he also gives insight into the landscape of the discourse the Socialist Party (at least Hollande’s branch) is now obligated to actively participate in. Hence, the attitudes and the popularity they have engendered – particularly those on the compatibility of certain immigrant groups to integrate – become indicative of a much broader trend in the state of French public discourse than one might initially assume.

Acknowledgment and acceptance of cultural difference and racism are not mutually exclusive, and by no means should they prevent the successful integration of immigrant communities. Yet France – or, rather, in the French public’s self-understanding – the former is often conflated into a taboo or stigmatized model of the latter. As a result, the French have actively sought to completely disregard race. The ultimate hope continues to be the fully realized assimilation of all immigrants into a paradoxical ideal of a “pure” French national identity, or what is increasingly often referred to as the French “national community.” This desire, coupled with an intense association of Muslim identity markers and North African immigrant communities, has ultimately led to the rising vein of discourse that Manuel Valls has come to represent.

It is increasingly clear that the stigmatization of racial awareness has handicapped France’s political and institutional ability to combat the systemic inequalities manifested in the daily lives of immigrants. These inequalities can be seen as the result of negative racial stereotypes that have implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) manifested in the national political discourse, and go on to become embedded within the national consciousness. Inevitably, this has allowed the seed of latent ethno-religious anxiety – and subsequent skepticism – to seep across the political spectrum, and greatly drive the primary concerns that policies have addressed. By 2014, this implicit attitude has become a ubiquitous subtext in principal national discourses and inhibited the successful integration of the second, third, and fourth generations of these immigrant populations.

As Manuel Valls’ rapid ascension demonstrates, immigration continues to be a driving force in the political arena of France. It is increasingly evident that if French political parties wish to remain relevant, they may only do so by addressing the populist demands induced by the national anxiety that persistently surrounds immigration from North Africa and the Middle East.

Josh Erb received his B.A. in Global Studies with an emphasis on immigration from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and his M.A. in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is currently working for an international democracy advocacy group in D.C. where he spends his days coordinating election observation missions to Tunisia. Despite this day job, he continues to find French immigration policy a source of endless fascination and debate.

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