France to accept Syrian refugees amid surge in anti-immigration politics

500 asylum seekers from the war-torn Syria will arrive in France as the far-right National Front gains prominence

Marine Le Pen has toned down the far-right National Front party's tone toward immigrants, but some analysts say the political group is still "hostile."
Fancois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images

France is set to welcome 500 Syrian refugees, reports say, at a time when what many call an anti-immigrant, far-right National Front Party is making strides in local elections and popularity polls — a sign Arab and Muslim community advocates say has grim portents for France's immigrants.

Philippe Leclerc, the French representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told French newspaper Le Figaro Wednesday that President Francois Hollande agreed to accept the Syrian immigrants, after requests from the United Nations that European nations help alleviate the toll massive inflows of refugees have taken on Syria's Middle Eastern neighbors.

Also on Wednesday, a survey conducted by news channel BFM TV and pollster CSA revealed that close to one in two French nationals see Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front, as the "strongest opposition leader" against the Socialist Hollande and his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

It appears, according to some French Arabs, that France's political climate is not an ideal one for Arab immigration.

"The National Front's discourse is dangerous," said Tarik Fadili, 34, an Arab and Muslim community rights advocate living in the southern city of Montpellier, "I don't want to live in a country where the National Front is gaining in power."

Although Le Pen has toned down party's tone on French immigrants — many of whom are from France's former colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa — since her father and National Front founding leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's vitriolic diatribes against Muslims, Jews and blacks, the party is still "hostile" toward immigrants.

"Marine Le Pen has been trying for the past few years to completely rebrand the National Front to make it more like a mainstream party, rather than an extreme party of agitators," Karim Emile Bitar, director of Paris-based international relations think tank, the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques (IRIS), told Al Jazeera.

Bitar explained that while Le Pen has attempted to steer the party away from the "skinhead and neo-Nazi groups" it has previously "tolerated" within its ranks, it "still from time to time sends discreet signals to genuine racists within the electorate."

"I would kick out all the foreign fundamentalists," Le Pen told Le Monde newspaper late last year, "All of them! We know who they are."

As Europe continues to struggle with the Eurozone crisis and the austerity measures imposed in response, the National Front's anti-immigrant policies are likely to continue gaining ground with French voters.

In France's current economic environment, "you get angry electorates, you get anti-immigrant sentiment. You get far-right populists. The Front National is likely to do well for the foreseeable future," said Charles Kupchan, a European Union analyst with Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Many [of the FN's constituents] are underprivileged people who want to register a protest vote," Bitar said.

The ruling Socialist Party expressed dismay Monday after the National Front got 40.4 percent of votes in the first round of a local by-election in Brignoles, saying it was a sign that the party would see unprecedented wins in municipal elections next March.

A new life?

It is unclear how the 500 Syrian asylum seekers will fare in their new lives in France.

"They will have a harder time than if they were immigrants from Denmark," Kupchan said. "There are visible and invisible barriers that exist within French society."

Fadili says that while "there are problems" for Arabs and Muslims living in France, they will "undoubtedly be happy to leave their current situation."

But that too is uncertain.

The U.N.'s announcement that France would accept new Syrian asylum seekers came less than two weeks after a group of 65 Syrian migrants, some of whom were on hunger strike, blocked a gateway to a ferry terminal to Britain in the northern city of Calais, asking for asylum in Britain after what they called a deplorable reception in France. French authorities, according to what the migrants told television station France 24, had given them next to no resources to subsist in their temporary residence, and they had been subjected to violent raids by French police in their makeshift homes there.

Fadili said that in the 15 years since he emigrated from Morocco to France, he has not experienced racism, but he explained that he obtained his current apartment through a large real estate firm, because, "When you have an Arab name, it's impossible to find an apartment with certain landlords."

While a lack of education and professional experience is to blame for high unemployment rates among North African immigrants, that unemployment remains a problem for first and second generation French nationals, Fadili said.

"The politics of integration have failed. That's how we have French people, born in France, and they still aren't members of society," he said.

And although authorities have in recent years facilitated economic integration programs in suburbs with dense populations of Muslim migrants, focusing on language training, according to Kupchan, various laws against religious dress in public schools and an all-out ban on Muslim facial coverings will make some Muslim immigrants feel less than welcome.

Anti-immigration politics may be handicapping France.

"Ultimately, Europe has to get over the hump when it comes to immigration, and that's because birth rates are well below replacement rate in many EU countries. Populations are aging. Pension systems are poised to go broke. The only way to rectify demographic decline is through immigration," Kupchan said.

The National Front was not immediately available for comment at time of publication. 

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