It is an extraordinary thing, in a modern western democracy, to hear a mainstream politician openly suggesting a complete ban on all immigration. Such calls, after all, are usually reserved to the fringes of the political fringe. Even Donald Trump, the most openly anti-immigration world leader of recent times, never went so far as to call for a complete ban. Yesterday, Michel Barnier, one of the most prominent politicians in France and Europe, did just that:
In a shock pledge amid a stuttering presidential bid, former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has told French TV he wants to suspend immigration to France for 3-5 years and toughen checks on the EU’s external borders.
“There are links between [immigration flows] and terrorist networks which try to infiltrate them,” he told RTL-LCI-Le Figaro on Sunday, adding that he didn’t think all immigrants “including those who are trying to cross the Mediterranean to find a better life, are major terrorists or delinquents.”
How did it come to this?
French politicians, like those in almost every other western democracy, have resisted calls to restrict immigration for decades. As in every other western democracy, those who have called to reduce immigration have been portrayed consistently in the media as racists, xenophobes, and political untouchables. Now, suddenly, overnight, opposing immigration is so mainstream that a centrist like Barnier is making statements that even two years ago would have been considered unforgivably extremist.
And that is the trouble, isn’t it? Not talking about an issue, and suppressing debate about an issue, does not make the issue go away. For decades, French politicians told voters that immigration was not something they had a right to worry about. Finally, it seems, the voters have had enough, and now demand objectively extreme solutions.
Irish politicians, at least in this generation, probably need not worry just yet. Over the past decade, France has experienced racial and sectarian strife on a scale unimaginable in Ireland: Terrorist attacks like the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Bataclan murders, and the Toulouse Lorry attack have dramatically altered the French landscape and put a focus on extremism amongst Muslim immigrants. A massive rise in sectarian attacks on Synagogues and Churches, which are blamed (fairly, or unfairly) on those same Muslim immigrants has added to the problem. But it is not only about Muslims and religious conflict: Ethnic conflicts from around the world have been imported into France, with groups of immigrants fleeing warzones, only to let the enmities they fled from re-emerge on the streets of their new home.
Last year, in Dijon, for example, 200 people of Chechen origin descended on the town to carry out “punitive missions” in the Arab dominated parts of that town. France 24 reports that “gang violence is on the rise”, with 74 criminal gangs active across the country – the majority made up of young, migrant, men.
France is not blameless, of course. The country’s cities are littered with Ghettos, into which migrants have been unceremoniously herded. Life in these places, by all accounts, is impoverished, and offers little hope of the better life that emigration promises. Many of them are drug infested, and dominated by criminals. As experiments go, it is hard to argue that France’s experience of immigration has been a success.
Most of these problems, though, were obvious years ago. And the seeds for a similar endgame are being sown, in Ireland, today.
Immigrating to Ireland, especially as an asylum seeker, does not especially offer a better life. Our national policy, for more than a decade, has been to confine people in hotels and disused holiday camps, banning them from working, and offering them a meagre allowance. We have let a further 20,000 people settle here illegally. We refuse to discuss, or even acknowledge, the role that immigration plays in our housing crisis: If you were to mention on national television that immigration is high, and leads to competition for housing, you would be called a racist almost immediately, and you would be lucky if it was only online, and not on the television programme itself.
For many migrant workers, life in Ireland is one of “doing the jobs Irish people won’t do” – finding employment as cleaners, or meat factory workers, or food delivery workers – often for very low pay. Landlords will openly tell you that apartments in Dublin are full of immigrant workers, often with eight or nine people sharing one property. We don’t discuss it. During Covid, migrant communities were often hotbeds of infection, for those very reasons: Cramped living conditions, cramped working conditions, and in some cases, language barriers making it harder to communicate public health advice.
None of this is sustainable, and it will, in time, lead to social problems. Immigration is not a bad thing, by itself, but taking people into your country when you cannot offer them a better life, and pretending that it is compassionate, is just asking for trouble, in the longer term.
In Ireland, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we are willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that high immigration means, in many cases, poverty for immigrants themselves. It also means more competition for housing, jobs, and resources. Immigrants, as they have done in every society throughout history, end up banding together to survive, and that is how ghettos emerge. We should not believe that we are immune, because we are not.
France today is Ireland, some way in the future. It might be ten years, or thirty, or even a hundred years: but we are making the same mistakes. And some day, it will be a major Irish politician who emulates Barnier, and admits it.