The Immigration Game: How the refugee crisis has affected French and German politics

France and Germany have never been known for having much in common, but recent geopolitical events have shaken the countries’ political systems and led to a surprising amount of overlap in one key area: immigration policy. The 2008 Great Recession and the political crisis that ensued – on both national and European levels – have left French voters worried about the consequences of mass immigration. The right-wing National Front (FN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in turn has drummed up sizeable support by highlighting these issues. In Germany, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) has similarly attracted voters disillusioned by the government’s handling of the migrant crisis; among the AfD’s electoral support, 94 percent are especially concerned about massive immigration flows. The weakness of French and German immigration regimes during this period of mass migration has led to political inconsistencies within the traditional right and left parties, with moderate positions engulfed by anti-establishment parties’ clear-cut stances. The failure of current immigration regimes has greatly affected the political climate in the two countries and looks certain to impact French and German voters when they cast their ballots this year.


Although recent policies suggest France is more hostile to immigrants than Germany, historically France has given migrants far broader political rights. Indeed, after WWII, both France and Germany received and even encouraged large numbers of migrants to fill labor shortages. Although these were highly controlled immigration flows, France provided newcomers with easy access to citizenship rights while Germany failed to liberalize nationality laws until 2000. However, on cultural matters, the nations’ policies couldn’t be more different. France’s immigration regime has sought to assimilate migrants while Germany has opted for a more segregationist model.

Far from making assimilation demands on its immigrant population, Germany has historically upheld segregationist principles and specifically required migrants to maintain their identity; in other words, not to adopt a German identity.

The integration of migrants into French society has been conditioned on their ability to embrace French culture, often at the expense of their native heritage. This forced assimilation is largely based on the idea of laïcité, a concept that has its roots in the French Revolution, but was fully implemented by the 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Laïcité is a French concept of secularism at the heart of French national identity, privileging French republican principles over individual religious or cultural identities. At its best, laïcité creates an egalitarian ideology and could better serve the integration of second-generation migrants. However, this assimilationist policy also manifests itself in the repression of cultural differences, rather than the diversification and the integration of different backgrounds.


The Islamic headscarf has become an unfortunate target of assimilationist fervor. Le Pen recently published a booklet titled “Islamist Terrorism: Let’s Protect the French!” She exploits laïcité to advocate a total absence of multiculturalism, targeting Muslims. Even among those with a favorable view of Muslims in France, the Pew Research Center finds that 35 percent see refugees from Iraq and Syria as a major threat, compared to less than 20 percent in Germany.

Economic difficulty and terrorist threats have challenged national identities and led both extremist and center-right moderate parties to appeal to populism.

Germany’s far-right reaction to migrants has centered on political rights rather than cultural identity. As a result, the country has pursued almost the opposite of France’s assimilationist polices. The aftermath of WWII, combined with the economic miracle of the 1950s and the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, required an influx of laborers to sustain development. In the 1960s, the German government signed multiple bilateral recruitment agreements to bring in less skilled workforce made up of Gastarbeiter, guest-workers, destined to work in the industrial sector. This system created ethnic enclaves in which migrants remained within their own community, failing to assimilate into the German population. However, they became a driving force of German industry, and, due to pressure from heads of industry and trade unions, the government started an effort to grant political rights to these migrants workers.


The progress towards the liberalization of citizenship laws took 30 years, leaving much time for the separation of the German and immigrant populations to crystallize, but was finally institutionalized in 2000 with a nationality law that extended citizenship to children born of foreign parents, albeit with some restrictions. Germany’s tardiness in politically integrating its immigrant population may explain the present-day estrangement between natives and immigrants. The Pew Research Center overwhelmingly ranks Germany in the top European countries where the population is concerned that refugees will increase domestic terrorism. 61 percent of Germans raise that concern, compared to 46 percent in France. The divergence of immigration regimes in these countries in the second half of the 20th century may explain the differences of their current policy responses.


France and Germany’s approaches to immigration have differed significantly in dealing with the recent migrant crisis, which brought over 1.3 million asylum applications in 2015. France has shied away from dealing with this ballooning crisis; Prime Minister Manuel Valls reaffirmed the EU’s agreement in which France pledged to welcome only 30,000 migrants. “We won’t take any more,” he declared in Munich in February 2016. Conversely, Angela Merkel firmly made the decision in 2015 to admit almost a million migrants with the catchphrase, “We can do it.” This move, a big step away from the traditional German segregationist model, created a political backlash from many parts of Germany, including from her own conservative coalition. While immigration was first greeted more genially in Germany than in France, the historical gap in political rights between immigrants and German citizens has made the adoption of such a large number of refugees into German society incredibly difficult.

Laïcité is a French concept of secularism at the heart of French national identity, erecting French republican principles over individual religious or cultural identities At its best, laicity creates an egalitarian ideology and would actually serve integration of second generation migrants. However, this assimilationist policy also manifests itself as repression of cultural differences, rather than diversification and integration of different backgrounds.

France is facing an internal political crisis following the hesitant, contradictory, and almost silent steps taken by the government to address the migrant crisis. The center-left Socialist government members have disagreed on all core policies – labor laws, immigration responses, and economic reforms. The opposition has also struggled under the pressure of the economic and migrant crisis, and for the most part French voters have turned against establishment politics. President Hollande chose not to seek reelection, having hit the lowest popularity rate in history: four percent. French voters threw the most established candidates out of the race in the primaries of the two traditional French parties, and polls show that the final race might not even include either of these two main party candidates.


In Germany, the situation is similar. Merkel’s back-and-forth between bold open-border policies and reducing the influx of migrants has discredited her coalition and left a vacuum for other parties to further establish themselves. Left-wing concerns about workers’ rights and right-wing anxiety about how immigration may affect German identity have induced ideological convergence and encouraged the development of the anti-immigration AfD. Since its founding in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party, it has fed on present-day fears of terrorism and focused its dialogue around immigration. Like Le Pen’s party, the AfD fails to differentiate between Muslims and radical Islamists. At the heart of leader Frauke Petry’s speeches are the words “Luegenpress” (an expression previously used by Nazis meaning “lying press”), appeals against free movement between EU members, and the possibility of police shooting at migrants “if necessary.” Merkel’s flip-flopping immigration policies have created a political backlash, bringing the AfD more publicity and support.


However, populism is not purely an extremist movement; moderates have harnessed its appeal and gained support. They are “reaching people through emotions,” explains Franz Müntefering, a veteran German Social Democratic leader, regarding Martin Schultz. Schultz is the newly-elected leader of the Social Democratic party who was previously absent from the national political scene, is a fresh figure with higher approval ratings than Merkel. In France, Emmanuel Macron, former secretary of the economy, embodies a moderate alternative to traditional right and left-wing parties. Like the other anti-establishment candidate Le Pen, he wants to reconcile “the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long.”  Unlike Le Pen, he plans to do so with socially liberal and centrist economic policies rather than the FN’s right extremist measures. He is emerging as an alternative for both right-wing and left-wing voters disillusioned by the traditional parties, but hoping for a more welcoming, prosperous, and diversified Europe. Schultz and Macron represent the promise of political renewal, one that is driven by liberal ideas to heal the countries from their failed policies and rejuvenate the EU. But this renewal is only possible if these candidates win and are able to provide an effective governing alternative to populists on both sides.


The migrant crisis has destabilized both countries’ political systems, and poses a danger to each nation as well as to the integrity of Europe. Since 2015, large influxes of migrants have weakened understandings of laïcité in France and political rights in Germany, while underscoring the longstanding lack of integration of migrant populations in European society. Moreover, the absence of consensus among established parties on the migrant crisis has exacerbated the state of uncertainty and sparked demand for political renewal. Such renewal need not come from the far-right, but unless viable alternatives are able to pull ahead in the upcoming elections and show they have a workable liberal model, such extremes may be the only option. With presidential elections coming up in France and federal elections on the horizon in Germany, these alternatives may become the new establishment.