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Do tough immigration policies represent a victory for the extreme right, or are they the antidote to extremism?

New deportation laws in the EU and debates about immigration in the United Kingdom and the United States will mark the 2024 election calendar. Nationalists and populists appear to be advancing their agenda in the West

Migrants rescued by the NGO Open Arms in April 2023.
Migrants rescued by the NGO Open Arms in April 2023.Álvaro García
Marc Bassets

Everything is ready at the Suzanne Valadon Institute — named after the famous French painter — to accommodate 120 people who were previously sleeping on the street. Many of them are new immigrants. Folding beds in classrooms and removable showers have already been installed.

It’s a gray and rainy Friday in Paris. Local leaders and politicians have come to this old building — which was recently unoccupied — with a message: immigrants must be protected. No matter what the law says, even given the legislation that was recently adopted in France, with the support of the extreme-right. The new regulations restrict foreigners’ access to some of the benefits offered by the robust French welfare state.

For many among those present at the Suzanne Valadon Institute, the newly-implemented measures have struck an intimate chord. “I speak to you with emotion, because this is also my story,” says Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, while addressing the press. Hidalgo was born in Cádiz, Spain, arriving in France when she was two-years-old. She belongs to a third of the French population that has at least one immigrant parent or grandparent.

Mayor Hidalgo sees the law — introduced by center-right President Emmanuel Macron — as being representative of a dangerous societal drift. “France cannot follow this path; it’s not the path of its values,” the socialist Hidalgo tells EL PAÍS. The president, she denounces, “is preparing Marine Le Pen’s path to power.”

Hidalgo believes it, and Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party (formerly the National Front), actually said it when the legislation was passed: “We can rejoice in an ideological advance, even an ideological victory.”

Some on the left argue that, by tightening immigration legislation, Macron is normalizing Le Pen’s ideology. Although he defeated her in the past two presidential elections (2017 and 2022), he would effectively be helping her reach the Élysée Palace in the 2027 elections, when term limits prevent him from running again. In response to this argument, Macron and others in the moderate camp claim that, to stop the extremist vote, they must address head-on what fuels this vote: the fear of immigration. There would be no better antidote to the far-right, in their opinion, than taking away its main campaign promise of limiting immigration.

From Washington to Paris, from Stockholm to Berlin, from London to Canberra, the immigration debate is occupying center stage. After years of negotiations, the European Union (EU) has just agreed on a migration and asylum pact.

In countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), there were more than six million immigrants in 2022 — a record — and two million asylum seekers (another record). Within the EU, these figures are on track to reach the highest levels since the mass displacement of Syrians between 2015 and 2016. The number of irregular migrants arriving through the Mediterranean — and reaching countries such as Spain, where the debate doesn’t create polarization with the same intensity as in the rest of Europe — will also be the highest in recent years. Now, that being said, the continent is far away from the “migratory flood” or “great replacement” of Europeans… phrases that extremists deploy in their rhetoric.

“A very offensive vocabulary is used [about how we’ll be] flooded and immigration will be out of control,” laments François Héran, the chair of Migrations and Societies at the Collège de France, an institution that, since the Renaissance, has occupied the pinnacle of science and French knowledge. “Yes, there’s a progression. But it’s not an explosion of asylum claims and immigration.”

2024 election calendar

In this context, elections are looming in 2024. Citizens of the EU will vote in the European Parliament elections, there will be several critical votes in various German states, the U.K. will likely go to the polls and the United States will have its presidential elections in November.

Moderates — the broad spectrum that spans from the social democratic left to the Christian Democratic right — are observing (with great concern) the consolidation of the populist, nationalist, or extreme-right. Recent victories by figures such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are worrying. Hence, centrists everywhere have responded with tough new immigration laws.

In Germany, Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced: “We have to start deporting [migrants] on a large scale.” In Sweden — amidst violence related to drug-trafficking — Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson declared this past September: “We have been brought [to this point] by an irresponsible immigration policy.” In the U.K., the law to deport migrants to Rwanda is making its way through Parliament, while in the United States, the Republicans have made aid to Ukraine conditional on more funds being set aside to secure the border with Mexico.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, Patrick Vignal — a deputy from Macron’s party for a district in the south of France — affirms that “the National Rally cannot be fought with words alone.” “How do I make them retreat?” he asks rhetorically. “I step on their terrain.” In the towns near Montpellier, Vignal hears concerns about incivility, crime and Islamism. This is a fertile voting ground for Le Pen. He voted yes to the controversial law.

Macron puts it another way: “If we close our eyes — if we say there is no immigration problem — we play into the game of the National Rally.” For years, this has been a discussion on the left, given that, in the past, there have been moments in which large swaths of the working class shift their votes to the nationalist right. This happened in the U.S. with Trump, or in France with Le Pen. In deindustrialized regions, Democratic voters — or even communists and socialists, in the French case — felt abandoned and despised by the progressive, urban and multicultural elites.

“Immigration acts as a kind of [X-ray] of a country’s social problems,” explains Didier Leschi, director general of the French Office for Immigration and Integration. For this former Trotskyist — who still considers himself “a leftist guy” — one must think of immigration as a social issue that can have an impact on democracies.

“Some European citizens wonder if this system can be expanded infinitely and if it can accommodate all those who wish to benefit from it, without having contributed,” says Leschi, in a Paris café. “Those who own real estate, those who have inherited, or those who live in a well-off situation, they don’t worry about it. But, for those who depend on the welfare state, [the fear of immigration] shouldn’t be despised.”

He warns: “The European extreme-right has the wind in its sails, because it gives the impression of being interested in social issues, which makes us forget about its dangerous xenophobia.” In other words: either the democratic forces will take care of this issue, or the extremists will take care of it.

Leschi brings up the case of Scandinavia. In Sweden — a model of social democracy par excellence that claims to be open to the world, with the most developed welfare state — the governing coalition is propped up by the extreme-right. And in Denmark, the Social Democrats have managed to win the last couple of elections, but only by adopting anti-immigration policies.

“If only the far-right is talking about the problems, then it is only the far-right where people will be looking for solutions.” This is a quote from a 2019 interview with the Financial Times, given by current Danish Minister of Education Mattias Tesfaye. He is the son of an Ethiopian man and a Danish woman. “If I were a liberal rightwinger or in an Anglo-Saxon [country], then open borders would not be a problem. But for a Scandinavian welfare state, immigration has to be controlled.”

Sahra Wagenknecht — a career politician in Germany of Iranian origin — also refers to the case of Denmark in her speeches. Wagenknecht has broken with the Left Party to form her own. While maintaining the social welfare policies of her former party, she has adopted a tough line on immigration, unapologetically courting those who tend to vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has been thriving as of late. “Naturally, there are many people who vote for the AfD not because they’re right-wing, but because they are angry and desperate,” she said, in an interview with ZDF, a German broadcaster. “We want to make these people a serious offer.”

Fear

It’s a message that’s heard in sectors of the left throughout the West. Back in 2016, now-Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania supported presidential candidate Bernie Sanders against the centrist Hillary Clinton. His fiefdom is an industrial and working-class area of Pennsylvania. Today, when confronted with the demands of the Republican Party to stop immigration, he seems fully supportive. “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to have a secure border,” he shrugged, when questioned by reporters.

The danger — according to those who disagree with this line — is that you end up playing into the hands of the extreme-right. While referring to the new law in his native France, François Hollande — the former socialist president (2012-2017) — told Le Monde that “President Macron and his government haven’t taken the votes of the National Front (the former name of the National Rally), they’ve taken its ideas.” If one follows this logic, the extreme-right won’t be stopped. On the contrary, adopting its proposals will give it more power.

“There’s an intuitive argument [that when] the far-right proposes restricting immigration — and the centrist parties [subsequently] promote tougher immigration policies — far-right voters should return to the center,” explains Werner Krause, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam. He’s the co-author of the study Does Accommodation Work? Mainstream Party Strategies and the Success of Radical Right Parties.

“We’ve tested [this theory] through a sample of a dozen countries since the 1970s. We’ve discovered that this isn’t the case. What we have observed is that even more voters tend to move to the extreme-right. The problem is that, by promoting these ideas, you can legitimize them.”

Demographer Hervé Le Bras warns: “Does addressing the fears of the French calm them down? I think that, on the contrary, it gives them even more reasons to be afraid.” Le Bras observes that, in countries such as France, Germany, or the United States, the vote for the populist right is usually higher in areas where there are fewer immigrants. “Immigration,” he explains, “is a word that carries a lot of baggage. When talking about immigration, we often don’t talk about lived experiences, but about other things, such as identity, insecurity, or feelings about lack of protection and loss of control.”

“This concern is cultivated and standardized, because, when talking about immigration, the discourse goes in a single direction,” says Professor Héran. On a screen, he shows a bunch of data to deny the allegation of a “migratory wave” flooding France. “When we talk about immigration,” he laments, “it’s always to say that we must protect ourselves from it. It’s always perceived as a threat that we must put up a shield against, according to President Macron’s expression. The successes of integration and [harmonious relations] between populations — which are realities — aren’t valued.”

“You always have to listen, but listening doesn’t mean joining in,” François Ruffin pointed out, in a past interview with EL PAÍS. He’s a member of the French radical left and a deputy for La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the far-left party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “I will never cover my ears. The question is, rather, politically, what do we do?” Ruffin — who represents a blue-collar district in northern France, similar to Fetterman’s stronghold in Pennsylvania — opposes Macron’s immigration bill.

There’s a difference between listening to the demands of the far-right voter and implementing them. One can empathize and respond to real fears without falling into simplistic answers. Ruffin knows it. So does Macron, who — for the first time since coming to power in 2017 — has faced a rebellion from within his own party. A quarter of his legislators abstained or voted against the law, while the minister of health resigned as a result of its passage.

In addition to enacting new restrictions, the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum contains measures that respond, in part, to demographic decline and the economic need for foreign labor and taxpayers. Giorgia Meloni’s far-right administration in Italy (her party, the Brothers of Italy, is the heir to neo-fascism) has opened the door to 452,000 workers until 2025, for sectors facing labor shortages. Macron similarly says that his agreement will facilitate the regularization of undocumented workers in sectors where there’s a lack of labor. In any case, he has asked the Constitutional Council to verify if there are articles that “violate the fundamental law.”

“It’s false that Europe is being flooded, this is false,” emphasizes Vignal, the deputy from Macron’s party. “But there’s [a part of] Europe that refuses to open its borders to other people.” An ex-socialist who tries to wrangle Le Pen voters in his district, he doesn’t think the issue can be ignored. “The French expect firmness. At the same time, we’re a humanistic people. Firmness isn’t enough,” he adds.

“We need workers. But I want them to respect the Republic and the laws. If they don’t respect them, there are no gifts. Let them go home.”

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