Immigration in France: What are the real numbers?

Immigration has already emerged as a key theme of the 2022 French presidential election. But as candidates come out with statistics to fit their narratives, how many migrants really come every year, and what impact do they have on France?

Protesters hold candles and placards during a demonstration for the regularisation of migrants on International Migrants Day in Paris.
Protesters hold candles and placards during a demonstration for the regularisation of migrants on International Migrants Day in Paris. Photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP.

With France facing presidential elections next year and two far-right candidates currently polling relatively well, immigration looks set to be a crucial issue within the campaign.

But the statistics can be interpreted in very different ways depending on the context, so it’s essential to look at the wider numbers, as well as the consequences of immigration for France as a whole.

How many immigrants?

The headline figure is that in 2020, 6.8 million immigrants were living in France, representing 10.2 percent of the total population in the country.

This figure comes from French national statistics body Insee and is an estimate, based on census data with additional modelling from demographic trends, and is meant to take into consideration both legal and illegal migration.

France – unusually among European countries – does not require EU migrants to register for residency, so information on the number of residency permits issued does not give the whole story of immigration.

According to Insee’s estimate, 32.2 percent (or 2.2 million) of the 6.8 million immigrant total are Europeans, including both EU and non-EU migrants.

The number also includes 2.5 million people who had acquired French nationality. Indeed, it is important to distinguish between foreigners (those who live in France but do not have French nationality, even if they were born there), and immigrants (those born non-French and outside of France).

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France also distinguishes between EU and non-EU immigration in debates. In political discourse, the word étrangers, often translated into English simply as foreigners, in the context of immigration frequently refers to people from outside the EU who do not benefit from EU freedom of movement, even if EU citizens count as étrangers in official statistics.

When ex Brexit negotiator and now French presidential candidate Michel Barnier laid out his political platform of tough controls on immigration, it was seized upon by some in the anglophone world as a sign that he no longer believes in European freedom of movement. But he was talking about étrangers in France – non-EU arrivals who require visas and residency permits – not the right of EU citizens to move between countries (although his platform is controversial for other reasons).

When looking at residency permits - issued to non-EU arrivals - the number issued fell by 20 percent in 2020 as consular services shut down due to the pandemic. However before that there was a steady growth in non-EU migration levels.

However, far-right pundit Eric Zemmour was wrong to claim during a recent debate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon there would be 2 million more migrants at the end of Emmanuel Macron's tenure at the Elysée.

While 261,000 migrants arrived in France in 2017, another 63,000 left, including students at the end of their studies, according to Insee.

There were therefore 198,000 more migrants living in France in 2017 than the previous year. When you account for deaths, the figure falls to 139,000, and that's before taking into account French-born people who emigrate abroad.

Broadly stable between 1975 and 1999 (+65,000 people on average per year), the difference between migrants entering and leaving France has been rising since the start of the 2000s, Insee reports.

The graph also shows that the migrant crisis of 2015 did not have a significant effect on arrivals France - in 2016 Germany registered 722,000 asylum seekers, in the same year France registered just 75,990. 

Channel migrants

While those hoping to make it across the English Channel are visible in the media, they form a very small proportion of migrants in France.

There are around 800 to 1,000 people living in makeshift camps in Calais according to French authorities, although charities and academics put the figures higher, at around 1,500 and 2,000 people.

That's in context of the 272,000 total immigrants who came to France in 2019.

Where do migrants come from?

France's former colonies still account for a significant proportion of new arrivals.

Of those who migrated to France in 2019, 32 percent were from Europe (both EU and non-EU countries).

But a larger group - 41 percent - were born in Africa, with Morocco the most common departure country, followed by Algeria and Tunisia. 

Overall, Algerians are now the largest foreign community in France, accounting for 12.7 percent of immigrants, followed by Moroccans and the Portuguese.

Why do they come?

With EU migration there is less data, since EU arrivals don't need to apply for residence cards that detail their reasons for being in France, but work and study are among the most common reasons.

When looking at non-EU arrivals, most of the 277,406 first-time residence cards issued in 2019 were either for family reasons (including immigrants as well as French citizens who bring over foreign partners), or for students - these each represented 33 percent of residence cards.

Only 39,000 (14 percent) came for economic reasons.

What do they do?

Of 1,673,200 foreign nationals in the workforce in 2018, the largest sector - comprising almost 300,000 people - was services such as security and cleaning of professional premises, hairdressing, housekeeping and home help.

This was followed by the construction industry where 247,300 foreign workers were employed.

France in 2020 offered citizenship to immigrants who had worked on the frontline during in the pandemic - in healthcare but also jobs including security, retail, public transport and childcare. In total 16,381 people applied and just over 12,000 were granted citizenship.

Asylum seekers

The number of asylum requests has also fallen due to the pandemic, but France remained the third destination in Europe for asylum seekers last year, behind Germany and Spain. 19.6 percent of first-time applicants in the EU applied in France, according to Eurostat.

Taking into account the 11 percent of people who were not applying for the first time, 122,015 people requested asylum in Germany, followed by 93,475 in France, ahead of Spain with 88,540. Greece received the fourth largest number of requests (37,900), but this is still more than the 36,041 applicants in the UK.

Of almost 90,000 decisions taken in 2020, the Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides (OFPRA) granted protection to 21,000 people, or 23.7 percent of requests, and a further 12,000 successfully appealed to the Cour nationale du droit d’asile.

Almost two thirds of those granted protection had refugee status, while the others were granted subsidiary protection because they would have faced a real risk of suffering serious harm had they returned to their country of origin.

The main countries of origin for refugees last year were Guinea, Syria and China, while those offered subsidiary protection came predominantly from Afghanistan and Syria. The average age of asylum seekers in France is 31.

Sans papiers

Official figures rely on data such as the census and applications for residency cards, but there are also undocumented migrants living outside of official structures in France, who are of course harder to count.

Known as sans papiers (without papers) these include failed asylum seekers and people who have overstayed visas or failed to regularise their immigration status within a deadline (which will soon include any Brits who have not applied for the post-Brexit residency card).

Figures on these are necessarily an estimate, but academics put this figure at around 250,000, many of whom are employed in the 'gig economy' delivering food and parcels or in construction.

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French Mediterranean resort’s far-right mayor bans burkinis

The far-right mayor of a resort on the Mediterranean coast of France has banned Muslim women from wearing burkinis in any of the town's swimming pools or beaches - despite previous court rulings saying that this is illegal.

French Mediterranean resort's far-right mayor bans burkinis

Three days after the southeastern city of Grenoble voted to allow swimmers to wear the full-cover swimsuit, the mayor of Fréjus – a member of Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National party – announced that he had decided to outlaw it.

“I learned with amazement of the authorisation given by the mayor of Grenoble to authorise the burkini in the swimming pools of its commune,” David Rachline wrote in a press release. 

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In fact, Grenoble updated its rules for municipal swimming pools to allow all bathers to wear any swimsuit – including burkinis – that protected them from the sun. It also permits women to swim topless if they wish and men to wear swim shorts instead of Speedos.

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move – including France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who ordered the local Préfet to review the decision, and later announced that he had asked for a legal challenge to the new regulations.

READ ALSO French government aims to block ‘burkinis’ in swimming pools

Rachline has pre-empted any decision from the government by acting unilaterally, trotting out the familiar refrain from the right that the decision in Grenoble goes against the “fundamental republican principle of secularism”.

“The express authorisation of the burkini is neither more nor less than an electoral provocation with a communitarian spring, implemented by the radical left,” he said.

“I see a culpable complacency with radical Islamism, for electoral purposes and in defiance of national cohesion.

“In order for things to be clearly stated, I have decided, as mayor of Fréjus, guarantor of public hygiene and safety, to modify the corresponding decrees to explicitly specify the ban on the burkini.”

His ban extends to both the town’s municipal swimming pools and its beaches, and he’s not the first southern mayor to attempt to ban burkinis on beaches.

In 2016, Cannes mayor David Lisnard issued an anti-burkini order on the beaches of his town.

The decision, which had also been taken in municipalities such as Villeneuve-Loubet (Alpes-Maritimes), was overturned after an opinion from the Conseil d’Etat, one of France’s highest legal authorities.