The Nation Resurgent, and Its Borders, Too

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Written By Blue & Gold NLR Team



At the core of the rapid rise of the nationalist right, which views immigrants as a direct threat to the essence of France, lies a growing sentiment among many French citizens that they no longer feel at home in their own country.

This feeling, a vague yet potent unease, has multiple elements. These include a sense of dispossession, neighborhoods transformed by the arrival of mainly Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and a lost identity in a rapidly changing world. The National Rally, with its anti-immigrant stance central to its rising popularity, has capitalized on this sentiment.

“No French citizen would tolerate living in a house without doors or windows,” said Jordan Bardella, the charismatic 28-year-old symbol of the National Rally’s rise to the brink of power, on France 3 TV this past week. “Well, it’s the same thing with a country.”

In other words, nations need effective borders that can be tightly sealed.

This message, echoed by rising nationalist parties across Europe and a central theme of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States, has proven powerful. In France, it propelled Marine Le Pen’s National Rally to victory over President Emmanuel Macron’s party in recent European Parliament elections.

So shaken was Mr. Macron by the defeat that he opened the country’s political future with a risky move: he called for legislative elections, with the first round on June 30. France could have a nationalist far-right government with Mr. Bardella as prime minister before the Olympic Games begin in Paris on July 26.

The unthinkable has become thinkable. Almost a decade ago, Angela Merkel, then the German chancellor, famously said “Wir schaffen das” or “we can do this,” as she admitted more than one million Syrian refugees to Germany. Today, her embrace of immigration seems otherworldly, so completely have attitudes changed in Europe and the United States.

A similar gesture of “Wilkommenskultur,” or welcome culture, would spell the end for most Western politicians today.

Once the core theme of the xenophobic right, the push to control or stop migrants has moved to the center of the political spectrum. The view of immigrants as diluting national identity, freeloading on social safety nets, and importing violence has spread, often fueled by thinly veiled bigotry. The once absolute French taboo against the National Front, now the National Rally, has collapsed.

Centrist leaders, including President Biden and Mr. Macron, have shifted from openness on immigration to a harder stance to try to undercut nationalist movements. They have had to acknowledge that many conservatives, with nothing “far right” about them, identify with Mr. Trump’s words during a 2017 visit to Poland: “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?”

Early this year, Mr. Macron’s government passed an immigration bill that removed deportation protection for certain foreigners residing in France who committed a “serious violation of the principles of the Republic.” It imposed immediate expulsion for rejected asylum seekers and attempted to revoke the automatic right to citizenship for children born in France to foreign parents, before the Constitutional Council struck that down.

If the intent of these measures was to dent the rise of the National Rally, the legislation backfired. For the left, it was a betrayal of French humanist values; for the right, it was too little, too late.

Similarly, citing a “worldwide migrant crisis,” Mr. Biden, who has consistently championed the United States as a nation of immigrants, temporarily closed the southern border to most asylum seekers this month. It was a drastic reversal, and many Democrats accused him of embracing Mr. Trump’s politics of fear. But Mr. Biden’s decision reflected the fact that many Americans, like many in France, want tougher policies in the face of record numbers of migrants entering the country.

Why this shift? Western societies of increasing inequality have left many people behind, fueling anger. In France, a social model that worked well for a long time has failed to resolve the problems of lost hope and poor schools in suburban projects where many immigrants live. This exacerbates frustration, and tensions frequently flare between Muslims and the police.

“The government always protects the police, a state within the state,” said Ahmed Djamai, 58, during a protest last year. For him, being Arab or Black, even with a French passport, often meant feeling second-class.

In this context, immigration easily becomes a dog-whistle theme. “This French sense of losing their country to immigrants is in many ways delusional,” said Anne Muxel, the deputy director of the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po University in Paris. “It’s tied to disorientation, lost control, and life getting harder. The National Rally gets that in its DNA, whereas it’s not in Macron’s DNA.”

The cultures of the United States and France differ profoundly. One is a nation formed through immigration with a self-renewing core; the other, France, is a more rigid country where the integration of “visible minorities,” a term mainly referring to Muslims, has challenged the nation’s self-image.

Still, many people in both countries, to some degree, fear a loss of identity, an anxiety leaders like Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Trump exploit. In the United States, it is the specter of non-Hispanic white America becoming a minority by midcentury. Americans’ sense of the sanctity of the law is offended by the illegal entry of millions of migrants. The French focus on a threat to their way of life, compounded by repeated acts of Islamist terrorism over the past decade.

The consensus that “the situation with Muslim immigrants has become insoluble” is now so entrenched across the political spectrum that “there is no serious debate on immigration although it’s at the center of the campaign,” said Hakim El Karoui, a prominent consultant on immigration issues.

Ms. Le Pen has worked hard for over a decade to normalize her father’s fringe racist party. She expunged its antisemitism, reversed calls to exit the 27-nation European Union, and adopted a generally moderate tone.

Still, the party’s core view that immigrants dilute the national body — held up as a glorious and mystical thing — endures. She has said that the party, if elected, will seek to ban the use of the Muslim headscarf in public.

She and Mr. Bardella embrace the idea of “national preference” — essentially systematic discrimination between foreigners and French citizens when it comes to access to jobs, subsidized housing, certain health benefits, and other social assistance.

Mr. Bardella said this past week that immigrants legally in France “who work, pay their taxes, and respect the law have nothing to fear from my arrival at Matignon,” the residence of the prime minister. This was intended as a reassuring pitch for the top job.

However, the unemployment rate in France is 7.5 percent, with 2.3 million people jobless. The rate is higher among immigrants, around 12 percent in 2021, according to a study last year by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. Many of them could be vulnerable.

About 140,000 migrants applied for asylum last year, according to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and the Stateless. That is double the number from a decade ago. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, estimated last year that there were 600,000 to 900,000 illegal immigrants in France.

“An assault on personal freedoms by Le Pen and Bardella is likely,” said Célia Belin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.

At a Bardella rally in Montbéliard, in eastern France, Laurent Nansé, 53, who runs a funeral home, said he had recently inherited a family house and had been looking through albums from his youth. “There were no veiled women, nobody from the Maghreb, no Africans,” he said. “Now at Ramadan, the supermarkets are full of advertising for that. I don’t see any advertising for Lent.”

He said he believed that Mr. Bardella has what it takes to lead the country. “I am so sick of Macron’s little of this, little of that,” he said.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Macron seemed to grapple with his own failures. He linked the rise of the “extreme right” to “doubts about what we are becoming, existential anxiety.”

In response, he said it was essential to stand firm. He cited his immigration bill and called for “cutting illegal immigration,” but acknowledged that “our efforts in this area have not been sufficiently seen, felt, or understood.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Macron accused the new left-wing New Popular Front alliance of Socialist, Green, and far-left parties of being totally “immigrationiste” — a word often used by Ms. Le Pen’s party to describe politicians who encourage uncontrolled immigration. In the past, the National Rally has called Mr. Macron an “immigrationiste.”

All of this is clearly an attempt by Mr. Macron to stop the National Rally’s march to power by hardening his stance on immigration and security. The problem is that, just as Mr. Trump has occupied the anti-immigrant political terrain in the United States, that ground is taken in France by Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Bardella.

Mr. Macron has tried over seven years in office to navigate the middle of a virulent debate. Mr. Biden offset his closure of the border to asylum seekers by announcing soon after that he would protect 500,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens from deportation and provide them a path to citizenship.

It is not clear that such carefully balanced navigation around an explosive issue will work. The atmosphere in France today is restless. “We tried everything,” Ms. Muxel said. “We need to try something new — that is what’s in the air.” It was in the air in the United States in 2016.

Of course, it was precisely the measures taken to construct and preserve a homogeneous society that lay at the core of the most heinous crimes of the last century. A core postwar insight in Europe was that borders should be dismantled to save Europe from its repetitive wars. Ever-closer union meant ever-expanding peace.

Those ideas, however, appear to have faded. This is a time of the nation resurgent, whatever the perils of that.

A cartoon this past week on the front page of Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical newspaper, showed a Frenchman in his beret, with a baguette and a bottle of wine, pointing a large-caliber shotgun with “National Rally” emblazoned on it at his head.

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