French far-right politicians change their tune on immigration

With an eye on presidential elections, far-right candidates are forced to undertake different approaches to immigration

Shweta Desai   | 11.03.2022
French far-right politicians change their tune on immigration


Far-right politicians who had vowed to stop irregular immigration into France have changed their position and declared that it is natural to "welcome" refugees fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine because they are Christians and Europeans, who are different from the Muslim refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

"We are closer to Christian Europeans… Arab or Muslim immigrants are too unlike us, and it is more and more difficult to acculturate and assimilate them," Eric Zemmour, a former journalist turned politician and aspiring presidential candidate, said on BFMTV news Tuesday.

A week before, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, also shared similar words on the same news channel.

"Ukraine is a European country, and I think it is natural in terms of regional solidarity to welcome war refugees from European countries."

Until last month before the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, both Le Pen and Zemmour had popularly based their campaigns for the 2022 presidential elections on the issues of immigration, Islam, and French identity.

Ukraine is not Syria, Afghanistan

Far-right political parties have claimed to be the gatekeepers of immigration specifically emerging from Muslim-dominated countries. At the time of the severe migration crisis in 2015, they exploited the rising anti-immigrant sentiment by denying that Syrian refugees were fleeing the war and accused them of arriving in Europe for economic gains.

Zemmour, who announced his presidential bid by harping on the themes of invasion by Islamic immigrants and restoring France’s glorious past, had claimed that France was destabilized and overwhelmed by immigration.

Referring to 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, a photo of which became the defining image of the 2015 refugee crisis, he warned the government against taking decisions on the Ukrainian refugees based on the “emotional tsunami.” He said he would rather prefer the Ukrainian refugees to be in Poland, as they can return home easily when the war is over.

Defending her past stand, Le Pen said "the bombed Syrians were Islamists." She indicated that the Syrians posed a security threat as they were mainly men arriving in Europe, unlike the Ukrainians, where you see women, children, and the elderly crossing the border.

"We knew that the Islamists were slipping into the convoys. We knew it fully well, and I think the situation is fundamentally different (now with Ukraine)," she said.

Change of tune: Eye on presidential elections

But amid the outpouring of sympathy and the growing tide of Ukrainian refugees, several far-right politicians including Zemmour and Le Pen have been forced to change their tune on receiving immigrants in France.

For the far-right candidates vying for the highest office of government, the issue has become particularly sticky, as they now find themselves in a bind with their existing views on refugees and immigrants.

With the first round of voting due on April 10, the views of prospective candidates on the resolution of the Ukraine war, responses to the looming energy crisis, and the refugees have suddenly gained more prominence among voters.

The predicament of the far-right parties has become direr in the face of incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who is also running for a second mandate and has proclaimed unwavering support for the Ukrainian people.

The Macron government has relaxed stringent policies targeting undocumented refugees to facilitate Ukrainians, even those without a passport, find safe passage, temporary accommodation, and transportation.

More than 2.3 million Ukrainians are estimated to have fled the fighting. France has so far welcomed over 7,000 Ukrainians and has launched a sponsorship program for French families to host Ukrainian nationals.

The disparity has prompted several nonprofit organizations working with asylum seekers to denounce French authorities for racially discriminating against refugees from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries in recent days.

Change of positions

Zemmour and Le Pen have been indicted in the past for hate speech against Muslims, and refugees have signaled a different approach to provide asylum to mainly Christian and White Ukrainians. Considering the high stakes both candidates have, the forthcoming presidential elections appear to have weighed on their changing positions.

While campaigning on March 5, Le Pen was confronted by a French woman who questioned what she was doing about the war in Ukraine: "What we can do is welcome refugees, keep hope (alive,) and work for peace," she said.

Her response has been starkly different from the time when her National Rally party launched a petition urging the French to oppose the "massive reception of Afghan refugees" after the Taliban returned to power last August.

The following month, Le Pen unveiled a bill titled "Citizenship, Identity, and Immigration," which would prohibit the regularization of illegal immigrants and allow for the expulsion of lawbreakers.

She assured that the bill would be put to vote in parliament once she is elected as a president. "Demography controls everything, we know that. It will decide the balance of our world and the survival of our nations, and will be at the center of the next presidential term."

Ukraine war causing a change of heart

But not every far-right politician is letting the elections dictate their politics.

Robert Menard, the mayor of Beziers in the south of France who had infamously threatened to expel Syrian refugees and children, swears that he has had a change of heart seeing the plight of Ukrainians fleeing for safety. "The bombs are no different when they fall on my friends in Kyiv than when they fall on my friends in Aleppo," he told LCI news on Wednesday.

The city councilor recently regretted his actions opposing the migrants from Syria, Iraq and berating Muslim refugees, saying they were not welcome in Beziers.

"I am ashamed of to have said and done things because it was not right," he said, referring to the time in 2015 when he broadcasted a video "You are not welcome here" and published a photo on the town hall magazine of Muslim refugees crowding a train with a bold headline warning "They Are Coming!" to depict his tough position on immigration.

Menard and his parliamentarian wife Emmanuelle are now raising funds and sending aid to Poland to help the Ukrainians.

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