Over the past month, while the British press busied itself with stories about the type of wallpaper in the Prime Minister’s apartment, France has become embroiled in a crisis that threatens the legitimacy and future of the entire Republic.
Predictably, it all started with a letter. Published in Valeurs Actuelles last month and signed by around 1,000 servicemen and women, including 20 retired Generals, it warned President Macron that Islamist extremists, and the existence of the banlieue ghettos, have the potential to tip France into civil war.
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The contents of the letter were disturbing. But so was the timing, coming as it did on the 60th anniversary of the failed generals’ putsch of 1961, when generals of the French Army attempted to topple President Charles de Gaulle. Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that it sparked an extraordinary scandal, with government ministers threatening to punish all the letter’s signatories.
Undaunted by these threats, the warning was repeated this week in a second letter, this time signed by 130,000 members of the French public. Once again the French government condemned it. Elsewhere, their reception has fallen along predictable political lines: mainstream politicians of the Left and Right have criticised the letters, while Marine le Pen has been careful to express support for the signatories.
This is, of course, to be expected. Le Pen will seize on whatever embarrasses the rest of the political mainstream, while the rest of that mainstream will continue to resist anything which could be seen to provide ammunition for Le Pen.
But it is really the longer-term effect of interventions like these that are of most interest. Because what is striking about the debate on immigration, integration and security in France in recent years is not that the same lines keep getting drawn. The interesting thing is that, while this has gone on, French politics has experienced a silent revolution. Indeed, things are today said in France on immigration that would normally end a political career in most English-speaking countries.
The most high-profile demonstration in recent weeks came in the form of Michel Barnier. The Frenchman turned 70 in January, a milestone which precludes him from taking up another job in the European Commission. And perhaps as a result, he is now eyeing up a run for the French Presidency.
How do we know this? Because in an interview on Sunday, Barnier dropped this bombshell:
“There are links between [immigration flows] and terrorist networks which try to infiltrate them… There is a risk of an explosion, particularly on the topic of immigration. We need to introduce a moratorium on immigration. We need to take time to evaluate, check and if necessary, change our immigration policies.”
In this and later interviews the same day, he speculated that France should consider a total suspension of immigration for between three and five years, as well as a reassessment of free movement within the Schengen area. In other words, it is time for France to take back control. Suddenly, external migration and internal movement in the EU are now up for debate in the political centre.
There are several interesting things to note about this. The first is the way in which the events of the last year have already shifted the debate on immigration and border control more than anyone might have expected. For more than a generation, governments in the developed West have argued that high levels of immigration into Western countries are a fact of life; migration cannot be stopped altogether even if the governments of the developed countries wanted to do so.
But the events of the last year have shown this to be a lie. In an extreme event — on this occasion a global pandemic — countries around the world have shown that they are able to close their borders. Even Justin Trudeau’s Canada and Angela Merkel’s Germany, which have made a great show in recent years of being open to migration from around the world, did something that nobody could ever (before the pandemic) have expected them to do: they shut the borders and kept them shut.
The public and some wilier politicians will have noticed something here. If it is possible to close the borders to prevent a pandemic, then it should be possible to close the borders to prevent excessive migration. Whether you agree with the policy or not, it has suddenly become a viable option.
The only discussion, then, is whether a particular set of circumstances is serious enough for a pandemic border response to be enacted. Clearly there are many in France who think they are at this point. And that raises an important question over what is a more serious challenge to the long-term security of France: the Covid pandemic or the ongoing divisions and security concerns brought on by high levels of immigration?
If you go to parts of Paris — even in the city centre — there are migrant tent communities set up that resemble somewhere in the third world, or California. As long as they exist, it is surely understandable for Parisians to wonder why this problem can’t be fixed.
Their Government has shown that it can mandate everyone to stay in their homes, lock the borders and force everyone to wear masks. Why can it not deal with the issue of mass migration? Clearly the thought is out there. Otherwise Mr Barnier would not have taken — utterly cynically, no doubt — up the cause.
And yet it is not just Covid that has changed things. Rather, as I described in The Strange Death of Europe, public opinion in France on immigration has long been shifting in this direction. Very few people, year on year, say that they are less concerned about integration; and very few believe that multicultural France has a happy future if migration continues at the rate of recent years.
Politicians of the Left as well as the Right have long been facing up to this. But the Barnier intervention — like that of the generals — is a demonstration that the political reality, as well as the political rhetoric, in France is changing. Things that were once unthinkable are now being proposed as national policy. No doubt that will all come as a shock to Mr Barnier’s former colleagues, but they would be unwise to ignore it.