The French government on Wednesday announced a bill that would create a specific residence permit to enable illegal immigrants who work in understaffed sector to legalise their status. The new measure aims to fight the exploitation of undocumented migrants and comes at a time when many European countries are experiencing labour shortages.
Immigration took centre stage in France this week, with the issue of expulsion orders for undocumented migrants dominating the political discourse, followed by a parliamentary uproar after a far-right MP on Thursday yelled “Go back to Africa!” as a Black legislator from the far left asked a question on migrant arrivals.
The latest turmoil was sparked when Carlos Martens Bilongo of the far-left France Unbowed party (LFI) was questioning the government’s response to migrants rescued at sea in recent days.
Gregoire de Fournas, a newly elected member of the far-right, anti-immigration National Rally (RN), claimed he shouted, "They should go back to Africa!", but was interrupted.
In French, the pronunciations for the pronouns "he” and "they" are similar. The comment was perceived as a suggestion by de Fournas that his Black parliamentary colleague go back to Africa.
On Friday, de Fournas was slapped with a 15-day suspension from French National Assembly along with a pay cut.
Thursday’s parliamentary furor came a day after the French government unveiled a series of new measures that attempt to integrate immigration policies with labour market needs.
The balancing act between immigration and employment was on display in a joint interview of Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt with French daily Le Monde on Wednesday.
"If I had to summarise, I would say that we must now be tough on the bad guys and kind to the rule-abiders,” Darmanin told Le Monde.
The new immigration bill, which will be debated in parliament in early 2023, will speed up the expulsion of some undocumented migrants while creating residency permits for undocumented migrants who are already in France and who want to work in sectors suffering labour shortages.
While the ministers did not reveal which industries will be covered by the new bill, France has many understaffed sectors that are heavily dependent on foreign workers, such as construction, restaurants, hotels and agriculture.
New ‘skills in demand’ permit
The creation of the “métiers en tension” – or "skills in demand" – residence permit was inspired by a 2012 official circular that allowed migrants who have been on French soil for several years and have been working for several months to obtain a residence permit. Cases are examined on a case-by-case basis. The procedure requires a work contract or an employment letter. The duration of the residence permit depends on the duration of the work contract.
With the proposed “skills in demand” residence permit, an uncocumented worker will be able to personally apply for legal status "without going through the employer", who may have a vested interest in keeping workers in their undocumented status, explained Dussopt. Since undocumented workers are not covered by French labour law, they often work for lower pay under exploitative conditions.
The ministers have not yet specified whether undocumented migrants will have to present a work contract or employment letter (as is already the case under the 2012 circular). If this is still the case, the provision enabling migrants to apply for a permit “without going through the employer” would seem contradictory.
The creation of the “skills in demand” residence permit enables France to "fight a lot of irregularities and abuses, such as illegal work or ‘rogue' companies that regularly employ illegal immigrants, which constitutes unfair competition for companies that do business by the book," Emmanuelle Auriol, an economist at the Toulouse School of Economics, told AFP.
Economic migrants need not clog asylum system
The new immigration measures are mostly symbolic, according to Virginie Guiraudon of SciencesPo’s Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics. The government aims to "provide a political impetus or to position itself politically on the issue", she explained.
Guiraudon cited the example of Stéphane Ravacley, a baker in the eastern French town of Besançon, and his apprentice, Laye Fodé Traoréiné, a young man of Guinean origin. Their story created a media stir in France when Ravacley went on a hunger strike in January 2021 to demand the legalisation of his apprentice, who was subject to an explusion order when he, as a teenaged undocumented immigrant, turned 18.
Ravacley, a portly French baker, had to be hospitalised during his hunger strike. His petition on Change.org calling for his apprentice’s legalisation got more than 200,000 signatures and mobilised the town as well as celebrities across France.
The case of the small-town baker and his apprentice highlighted public approval for enabling migrants to access and retain employment even as the far-right RN party increases its vote share in successive elections.
Guiraudon notes that, “we may not need a law to regularise undocumented migrants" since “the real problem in France is that we have to wait months, sometimes years, to get an answer from the prefecture about our papers".
Despite the shortfalls of the immigration system, including its long delays, Catherine Wihtol de Wenden from SciencesPo’s Centre for International Studies welcomes the new measures, which she explained are realistic and could help address immigration fraud. These include numerous cases of economic migrants clogging France’s asylum system with refugee status applications. "This new residence permit will encourage people not to apply for asylum since they know that they will be able to apply for a legal work status,” she noted.
The new measures have been supported by MEDEF, France’s largest employers organisation. But conservative and far-right critics say they don’t go far enough in addressing illegal immigration.
In his interview with Le Monde, Darmanin noted that the government was trying to implement a policy of "selective immigration" or, more precisely, "selected regulation". The idea, the interior minister explained, was to regulate immigration in a measured, rather than a massive, scale.
The government has not specified whether the “selected” regulations will apply to new arrivals or will be restricted to undocumented migrants already in France.
Centre-right French governments over the past decade have attempted to implement policies similar to the points-based systems in Australia and Canada, where immigration eligibility is determined by an applicant’s ability to score above a threshold number of points in a scoring system that includes factors such as education level, work skills and language fluency. The US also maintains an occupations list for H-1B work visas. When he was in power, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a “jobs in demand” residence permit as well as immigration quotas before giving up on the proposals.
In Europe, there is a growing awareness of the need to address labour shortages, according to immigration experts. "In European countries, there is an awareness of the lack of labour supplied by nationals and the need to open up the labour market to immigration. This is a good sign, because it will allow a number of people to work legally in Europe," explained Wihtol de Wenden.
When he took office in December, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz famously declared that “Germany is an immigration country”. Addressing the Bundestag, the new chancellor said it was “high time we understand ourselves. Therefore, it’s high time we make it easier for immigrants to become German citizens.”
The new German administration promised to attract 400,000 qualified workers each year, and in June, it approved a plan allowing “assimilated” immigrants without residence permits to have easier access to integration and professional language courses.
Another reform unveiled in July allows foreigners to come to Germany if they can provide proof of work experience and an employment contract in the country. Germany is also preparing to set up a points system, like Australia and Canada, to attract qualified workers.
In southern Europe, Italy, which is confronting a rapidly ageing population, makes massive use of the migrant population, particularly for low-skilled jobs in the agricultural sector, construction, and the hotel and restaurant industries. Guiraudon cites the example of "women who work in homes for the elderly in Italy" and who benefit from a specific residence permit. "In Italy, does this completely protect the employees? These are still very poorly paid jobs, so it doesn't solve all the problems," she warned.
Italy’s policy of "selected immigration" could however be challenged by extreme right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s new government, which openly opposes immigration.
(This article is adapted from the original in French.)