Immigration in France: Myths and Facts

Despite being widely shared by the far right and adopted by parts of the right, the theory of a massive foreign invasion, the so-called “great replacement,” falls flat on examination.
© Boris Séméniako

France awash with hordes of Arabs and Africans is an image depicted by far-right figures promoting the great replacement theory. According to this racist hypothesis, first developed in the late 19th century before being revived by writer Renaud Camus, “white, Christian, European populations are threatened with extinction as a result of Muslim immigration.” Supposedly incited by the “globalized elite,” the apparent objective of this great replacement is a total change of civilization.

Eric Zemmour, a candidate in the 2022 French presidential elections and the new standard-bearer of the hardline nationalist movement, does not mince his words. He states that France will be “a half-Islamic country” by 2050 and an “Islamic republic” by 2100. No less! But has immigration grown to such proportions that it threatens France’s very socio-cultural identity? And how much credit should we give such right-wing nationalist eruptions?

We first need to agree on the terms used. According to the U.N. definition, an international “migrant” is an individual residing in a different country than their country of birth, regardless of their nationality. While said individual is an “immigrant” in their country of residence, they are an “emigrant” from the perspective of their country of birth. Meanwhile, the term “foreigner” is used to describe someone who does not have the nationality of their country of residence, whether they were born there or not.

The French definition is somewhat different. The word immigré (immigrant) refers to an individual born outside of France with a nationality other than French, who comes to live in France for at least a year. In other words, an immigrant is someone who is not French and born abroad. This means that those repatriated from the former colonies, particularly from Algeria, are not included in this definition.

France’s 6.8 Million Immigrants

In 2020, according to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), France was home to 6.8 million immigrants in terms of the French definition, or 10.2% of the country’s overall population. Among these, 2.5 million or 36% had acquired French nationality. Around the same time, 1.7 million people residing in France had been born with French nationality abroad. These figures should then be completed with illegal immigrants, whose numbers are estimated at between 300,000 and 600,000.

Of the 6.8 million immigrants living (legally) in France in 2020, 47.5% were born in Africa, 32.2% in Europe, and 14% in Asia. The countries most represented were Algeria (12.7%), Morocco (12%), Portugal (8.6%), Tunisia (4.5%), Turkey (3.6%), and Spain (3.5%). Overall, more than half the immigrants in France come from the Mediterranean region.

We must now compare these figures to those from neighboring countries. If we take the U.N. definition, immigrants made up 12.8% of France’s population in 2019, ranking the country 16th in the 28 European nations (including the United Kingdom at the time). This makes it more or less average for Europe (12%), a little higher than Italy (10.4%), but below the U.K. (13.7%), Spain (14%), and Germany (16.1%). Then there is the Duchy of Luxembourg, where almost half of the population (47.3% to be exact) was comprised of immigrants at the time.


Has there been a massive rise in immigration in France over the last few years? According to other figures from INSEE, the French immigrant population grew from 5% of the overall population in 1946 to 7.4% in 1975, before reaching the current 10.2%. As many immigrants acquire French nationality, the proportion of non-French foreigners living in France has grown much more slowly, from 6.5% in 1975 to 7.6% in 2020.

The statistics therefore show a regular rise in the number of people arriving in France. It is also true that the percentage of people from the regions of North and Sub-Saharan Africa (44%) has more than doubled since the 1970s and 1980s (20%).

A Longstanding, Moderate Immigration

What sets France apart from other European nations is the long history of its immigration, much of which began with a huge influx following World War II. In 2017, 15.1% of the French population was made up of people born in France to one or two parents born abroad.

This is twice as many as in Germany (7.7%). And if we add immigrants and their children together, this represents a quarter of the total population. But this is a far cry from the apocalyptic “great replacement” loudly denounced by nationalists. Compared to other countries, the current migratory flow is moderate. In 2019, France’s net migration, meaning the sum of those arriving and those leaving, was 140,000 people. Just 0.002% of the population! In a large number of cases, the rise in immigration is actually driven by international marriages, asylum applications, and foreign students.

All credible studies also show that migrants living in France quickly adopt the same codes as native French people, including matrimonial behaviors and religious practices. As a result, most Muslims residing in France do not – or only vaguely – follow the religion of their elders. Despite this fact, an increasingly large number of French people perceive immigration – particularly from Arab Muslim countries – as a threat. Islamist terrorist attacks – of which France is far from being the only victim – contribute to this growing hysteria.

Xenophobia, a National Tradition

This is actually nothing new in the country that gave us Charles Maurras and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Since the late 19th century, times of crisis, recession, and economic uncertainty have been regularly accompanied by a rise in xenophobia. In the 1880s, this ire turned on Italians, who were criticized for “forming a nation within the nation.” Fifty years later, the far right focused its wrath on those it deemed “undesirable”: Armenians, white Russians, German Jews, and, above all, the hundreds of thousands of Polish and Italian immigrants invited to rebuild France after the demographic hemorrhage of World War I.

In more recent times, after the 1973 oil crisis, the French government, led by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, closed its borders to immigrants and tried to deport tens of thousands of North African workers who had lived in France since the end of World War II.

© Boris Séméniako

Once again, France is not an exception in Europe. All across the continent, there is the same hostility towards immigrants and foreigners in general. This is reflected in the electoral results of nationalist and xenophobic political parties from Finland and Austria to Hungary and the Netherlands. Almost everywhere, immigrants are partly blamed for crime. They are perceived as a threat to jobs and a burden on health and social security systems.

All these prejudices are based on a mistaken vision of reality. Many immigrants work in jobs that natives do not want, including in construction, home services, driving, and security. This phenomenon also affects the most qualified profiles. We often forget that more than 40% of economic migrants have a college degree, and French hospitals would grind to a halt without the contribution of North African and Eastern European doctors.

A Population Often Left Behind

But what about the connection between immigration and crime, brandished ad nauseam by the far right? According to figures from the French Ministry of Justice, the foreign population is indeed overrepresented in “criminal sentencing” at 15%, or twice as much as the proportion among the overall population. From a sociological perspective, this is unsurprising. Crime committed by immigrants is above all committed by the poor, and is closely tied to living conditions in working-class areas. This could be called a classic crime pattern.

In fact, the problem is actually caused by the failure of public policy to integrate people. Over the decades, immigrants and their descendants have been pushed into crowded, deprived areas. In suburbs of cities across France, there are neighborhoods where the proportion of foreigners born outside Europe is more than 50%. These are also areas with a number of problems, including unemployment, incivility, drug use and dealing, and multiple forms of violence. What’s more, there is inadequate public transportation, public services are often inefficient, and the police struggle to perform their duties. In France, these areas are known as “territories outside the Republic.”

These “no-go zones” make up a tiny fraction of the country, but their very existence helps form the opinions (and therefore the votes) of a major percentage of French people supporting parties which base their politics in xenophobia. In 1985, the cover of the right-wing Figaro Magazine displayed a Marianne figure wearing a hijab, coupled with the headline “Will we still be French in 30 years?” We are now in 2022, and France is still French. For better, and for worse.


Article published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.