France is arguably the country with the largest immigration population in Europe. 8.6 million people who were born outside of France made up 13.3% of the country’s total population in 2021. The top three countries of birth were Algeria (16%), Morocco (12%), and Portugal (7%). 2020 saw the long-term or permanent admission of 238 000 new immigrants to France (including those with free movement and changes of status).[1] This enormous immigrant population is out of proportion to what the French economy, which has been contracting over the past 20 years, needs.[2] A declining economy and widespread migration have led to a crisis in large cities’ suburbs. These suburbs are home to affordable social housing, which is mainly publicly owned. Immigrants settled in these suburban zones because they are still within reach of urban infrastructure, are close to (former) employment opportunities in industry and the service sector, and promote ethnic cohesion, i.e. group settlement. Forty percent of immigrants remain in the Paris metropolitan area despite attempts to encourage migrants to settle in rural areas. Most of the immigrants outside Paris suburbs also reside in the larger cities in the South and North of France.[3]

You can call it a sensitive area, a vulnerable area, a banlieue, a ghetto or a no-go zone, these areas are hotbeds of radicalisation that can take many forms, including separatism, radical protests and civilisational violence. This includes the phenomenon of self-insulation.

The impact of French immigration policy on cities

In the 1950s and 1960s, French urban policy placed workers, most of them from immigrant backgrounds, in social housing in tenement blocks near the suburban industrial zones of the big cities (Paris, Lille, Marseille, Lyon). In French, social housing is referred to as habitation à loyer modéré (HLM), which is multi-story housing with modest rent that is typically in rustic buildings with subpar conditions. In the decades following the once glorious decades known as les trentes glorieuses (three decades of economic growth in France between 1945 and 1975), the industrial fabric collapsed and, as de-industrialisation began in the 1970s, these low-rent housing estates became a symbol of social crisis. As the labour market has changed and the productive sector has concentrated in a few centres far from these zones, social housing has lost its purpose.[4] The districts of the HLM have become sensitive urban areas.

French urban sociology confirms the disruptive effect of this social reality. Loïc Wacquant writes:

“Damage to space alters perceptions, distorts the reactions of citizens, the positions and actions of commercial businesses and government officials. People living elsewhere are afraid to enter the neighbourhood, whose inhabitants are characterised by harmful qualities. Businesses are reluctant to open an branches or provide services to customers living in ‘no-go zones’ and other ‘outlaw areas’. Employers are reluctant to hire jobseekers from here because they automatically believe they lack work discipline and have lax ethical standards.”[5]

Seven percent of French citizens, or 4.4 million people, were residing in “sensitive urban areas” (zones urbaines sensibles, or ZUSs) in 2006. These places have a younger population than the nearby urban units, a higher immigrant population, and lower employment and labor force participation rates. Tenants of public housing make up 60% of ZUS households. Huge families are more prevalent in these zones than they are elsewhere, although huge homes are less common. The mobility of residents from other regions is higher than that of tenants in ZUS private rented accommodation.[6] Although the youth in question has a deep mistrust of official institutions, particularly the police, the French government has made little efforts to include youth from immigrant backgrounds within society, especially in sensitive urban zones, of which there are over 750.

In the French suburbs, confrontations between young people of immigrant backgrounds and the police typically spark protests. France has seen six ethnic urban riots in the 21st century alone. After the 2005 French riots, the 2009 French riots, the 2013 Trappes riots, the 2014 Sarcelles riots and the 2017 French riots, the 2023 French riots erupted on 27 June 2023, following the killing of Nahel Merzouk in Nanterre. The recurrent ethnic riots in France thus point to a systemic issue inside the French state and society.

The recent response to these problems (without any measurable positive change) was Emmanuel Macron’s anti-separatism law of 2 October 2020, in which he defined separatism as the refusal to live together, to leave the republic, in the name of Islam, but misinterpreting it.[7] In doing so, Macron wanted to avoid accusations of Islamophobia, while at the same time making it clear that the isolation has religious roots. Among other things, the law aims to reduce the influence of Islamism in French suburban areas, strengthen the objective acceptance of the state and gender equality, and tighten the regulation of foreign financial flows.[8] But trends have been pointing in the opposite direction for decades. Macron’s law only rhetorically brings the state back to the suburbs, while Islamism relies on funds and ideology more suited to radical identities.

The suburbs are territories abandoned in every sense by the French state: they seem to be part of the Third World, enclaves of poverty imported and maintained on the margins of Western civilisation, which arouse resentment in the French majority. A significant part of the immigrant population lives off unemployment and social benefits, drug trafficking, semi legal economic activities, crime and also feeds resentment against the state. They are a burden on the state, while some young people find refuge in Islamism as a religious-economic alternative.

The Seine-Saint-Denis district of Paris is a “sensitive” region, considered a centre of crime and Islamism. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of French urban riots in recent years have originated here.[9] Social researchers have found that Seine-Saint-Denis lacks inclusive urban sustainability measures, and that the unequal distribution of opportunities particularly affects the Ile-de-France region (Paris and its suburbs).[10] The problem is that other districts in Paris have neighbourhoods with a high standard of living by world standards, while Seine-Saint-Denis has the highest rates of poverty, crime, unemployment and hopelessness. Seine-Saint-Denis is generally considered to be a fourth world area: a region that, although located in the first world, is dominated by third world social conditions.

A recent study by Zauberman et al. concluded:

“The risk of victimisation is generally higher in Île-de-France (Paris and its suburbs) than in the rest of the country (…) the best protection against the risk of victimisation is to move away from the capital: people in the more remote suburbs are less exposed, at least compared to Île-de-France. The Parisian air does not immunise its inhabitants, who are even more exposed to the risk of victimisation than the average French citizen (…) The inhabitants of the North and North-East districts are the most affected (…) They live in former working-class neighbourhoods where the old inhabitants have been largely replaced by immigrants. As might be expected, crime is rife in the nearby popular suburban districts in the north, but ultimately the threat is just as great in the parts of the capital that border these suburbs.”[11]

The French lower middle classes who live in or near these areas are aware of the threats they face. They try to detach themselves from the immigrant neighbourhood, choosing other schools and places of entertainment in order to avoid social interaction.[12] As early as 2000, French criminologist Xavier Raufer stated that 2,950 of the 3,000 perpetrators of urban violence were immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and this was later addressed by the French Senate commission on decentralisation.[13] Crime among members of the second generation who emigrated as children or were born in Europe is reaching alarming levels. This phenomenon started already in the 1980s.

In such neighbourhoods, extremist Islamists are also present, usually living around an Islamic association. They live according to a radical interpretation of Islam and propagate this trend. In addition to religious activities, these communities form groups on the streets and draw attention to themselves through their language and dress. As their numbers grow, they are increasingly in the public eye, imposing their lifestyles, dress codes and behavioural norms on others.

Macron’s plan to settling migrants in rural areas

French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled new immigration and asylum policies in September 2022. In particular, the president of France proposed housing migrants in rural areas that had been abandoned by their previous occupants. Macron views this plan as a means of reviving the rural areas which are losing population and where schools and colleges will be closed while these areas offer better conditions for the reception of immigrants than urban areas that are already densely populated, with a concentration of massive economic and social problems. There is a contradiction in the argument, but the message is clear: the demographic revitalisation of the countryside should be through resettled migrants. Macron thus has two goals in mind: 1. stopping the decline of rural areas. 2. relieving the strain on cities that are overrun with immigration. All things considered, this idea was warmly embraced by the French public opinion. On the one hand, the major urban areas are unable to handle the flood of migrants, and as a result, camps frequently appear in their suburbs and centers, frustrating and upsetting certain segments of the population. Conversely, in rural areas, a lack of population is causing villages to fade, schools to close, and public services to relocate farther away).[14]

The idea of placing immigrants in rural areas is already in place for asylum seekers, according to critics of Macron’s plan, but it is impractical for other inhabitants (those who are students, members of reunifying families, or were children of immigrants).[15] In fact, after the 2015 crisis, the state established a system for assigning asylum seekers to housing outside of their zone of arrival, which is known by the acronym Snadar (or schéma national d’accueil des demandeurs d’asile et d’intégration des réfugiés) in order to ease congestion in the Île-de-France region (Paris and its suburbs), where 46% of demand is focused for 19% of accommodation capacity in the national reception system, and to direct asylum seekers to the regions and departments with the least demand.

Asylum seekers forfeit their right to housing elsewhere and financial assistance if they reject this referral. Over 15,000 individuals were redirected to rural zones in 2021. The problem lies with immigrants who possess residence permits, and who are allowed by the law to dwell wherever they please, just like any other citizen, because they have valid residency permits in good standing. While there is a risk of perpetuating the situation in the poorest neighbourhoods, the history of immigration to France and housing opportunities often push them towards the Île-de-France or metropolitan areas where they know they can benefit from community solidarity.[16]

However, the immigration law that Parliament passed in December 2023 makes no mention of how migrants should be distributed in rural areas. Macron’s proposal may succeed in the future, according to optimists, since the distribution of asylum seekers is currently in place and will benefit from reorganization in Paris suburbs as part of preparations for the 2024 Olympic Games. The state therefore has little say in the choice of residence of this majority category of immigrants. The Olympics may bring a short-term boost, but this is more of a case for staying in, while not bringing structural change or integration.[17]

The applicability of French urban policy

Housing and population growth are inextricably linked to economic development. Urban centres are experiencing tensions and asymmetries, as the economic fabric is constantly changing, new industries are emerging, employment requires constant training and retraining, while people are looking for security and stability. It was revealed that the construction of communal housing for manufacturing workers—many of whom were guest workers who entered France in the 1950s and 1960s—was a trap.

The restructuring of the economy has not been able to make these regions and their inhabitants active participants in the change, due to a lack of skills and partly well-founded prejudices.

The state provided minimal welfare benefits to migrants and increased the budget for law enforcement to control violence in these sensitive areas.[18] During the Socialist government of François Mitterrand (1981-1995), the left’s response was to support a large part of the immigrant population with social assistance, as this was considered the least costly solution.

But the first case of French ethnic riots started in 1981 as young people in the second generation realized what a trap they were living in, demonstrated the limitations of this approach.[19]

Therefore, the main conclusion that can be drawn from the French situation is that social assistance to suburban dwellers leads to a perpetuation of poverty, unemployment and economic isolation, which at the same time fuels violence (crime, urban riots and terrorism).

Sociologists tend to blame the 1980s French urban policy for the concentration of immigration in big cities; they believe the French state should strive to integrate or assimilate the migratory flows into French society.[20] But the French government has lost the initiative in a neoliberal economy (driven by multinationals and global trends). To slow further deterioration, residents in these neighbourhoods have been supported by government social assistance for decades, which keeps living standards low. Rather than making efforts to promote integration, the government has chosen the path of aid, which at the same time places an unsustainable burden on the state and society. [21]

The map below illustrates the concentration of migrants in France’s historical industrial zones—the north, around Paris, and around Strasbourg—and in the east and south, in the industrial zones of Lyon and Marseille. Unfortunately, immigrants have not been able to adapt as the economy has shifted from a factory-centered economy to one focused on technology and services.

Migrants are particularly concentrated in the Ile-de-France, Rhône-Alpes and Bouches-du-Rhône regions. In the Ile-de-France region, the proportion is as high as 15%. In areas marked in darker green on the map, the proportion is between 7.8% and 15.1%.

Today, these suburbs resemble huge social prisons with no future. The French social crisis is an example of Europe facing the severe consequences of mass migration due to the influx of people with “no economic function”, while its industry continues to decline due to the war in Ukraine and the loss of cheap Russian energy.

Immigrants should be integrated into the changing economic fabric, primarily through vocational training programmes,

rather than by providing socially disadvantaged immigrants with aid or relocating them to areas lacking infrastructure.

The countryside: the potential for resilience based on local assets and culture

There are serious risks involved in settling migrants in rural areas. The viability of local communities, as Roger Scruton pointed out, is based on the principle of fair risk-sharing, which puts resilience before disruption, responsibility before dependence in managing risk.[22] However, for local communities with historical and cultural roots to function efficiently, people have to sacrifice for the environment, and this is only possible if attachment to habitat takes precedence over tribal, family and religious identification. Scruton calls this oikophilia.[23] The policy of multiculturalism and mass migration does not meet the requirements of localisation and therefore does not contribute to ecological civilisation and cannot be a solution to rural depopulation.

Immigration and the mass resettlement of migrant communities in rural areas can be seen as a risk transfer, not a solution.

The basic premise of oikophilia is that resilience lies in local solutions. In September 2019, the National Front, the main opposition to President Emmanuel Macron, announced an “ecological turnaround”. In this context, they advocate an ecology based on localism, proposing lower taxes on local products, higher taxes on global imports “to promote growth from innovation and investment, not from over-consumption and resource plunder”.[24] According to Marine Le Pen, “ecological civilisation” aims to preserve the living environment of French citizens and allows them to support localism through border controls by eliminating free trade, which “consists of consuming in one area of the world products that can be produced locally but are produced at the other end of the world”.[25] Such political interpretations of ecological civilisation are simplistic, while the concept itself deserves serious consideration. It is notable that the current economic model, which destroys the environment, promotes the free movement of goods and encourages mass migration, has failed in many ways. The new development model, based on local assets and culture, should seek to preserve local products, environment, culture and human resources and prevent mass migration.

• Migration and spatial structure

Following the demographic losses of the Second World War, highly industrialised Western European countries decided to import migrant workers from Southern European and North African countries in order to rebuild their industries. The first wave of immigrants settled in industrial regions.  As industrialisation, a strong service sector and transport infrastructure go hand in hand with urbanisation in the West, and cities provide the conditions for settlement, migration is largely an urban phenomenon. Following family reunification in the 1970s and 1980s, immigrant communities were established in the formerly working-class suburban neighbourhoods of Europe’s major cities, leading to ethnic tensions between the indigenous population and the newcomers. Immigrant communities remained oriented by the economic and social norms of their country of origin, which discouraged integration efforts in the host countries.

Europe remains the number one destination for migration today, but the European Union and the governments of the countries concerned have failed to provide comprehensive and effective responses to the economic and social challenges posed by immigration. Our series of analyses aims to explore the regional nature of migration, its impact on local societies and the motivations behind the migration policies of the European Union and host countries.