Immigrants in French politics

Immigrants in French politics

by Laure Michon

Researching political integration in France: A difficult undertaking

“Première, deuxième, troisième génération, nous sommes tous des enfants d’immigrés” (“First, second, third generation, we all are immigrants’ children”) is an often-heard slogan in French demonstrations against racism, government restrictions of immigration or harsh measures facing immigrants. Indeed, many people in France are immigrants, immigrants’ children or grandchildren. It is estimated that at least a quarter of the population has parents or grandparents born abroad (Tribalat 2004). How many immigrant descendants France precisely has is not clear, because of the legislation that does not allow to register information on people’s origins. On the basis of national censuses we know how many foreigners there are (3.8 million people in 2007) and how many immigrants (foreign-born, 5.3 million in 2007; see Insee), but the size of the second or third generation of migration can only be estimated through survey-data

The lack of data raises problems for those who are interested in investigating processes of integration. How can such processes be studied if one cannot register people’s origins? Furthermore, the lack of a general understanding of the role of immigration in France leads politicians, policy-makers and researchers to use different references to various groups. Therefore, comparisons – whether over time, between French cities or with other countries – are difficult to make.

Despite the lack of data and consensus on definitions with regard to immigrants in France, my contribution will present figures on one aspect of immigrant integration: their political integration. After a brief overview of the different fields of political integration, I will focus on the political representation of immigrants. Their low presence in elected assemblies at the national, regional and local levels will be specified and the reasons for the relative closure of the French political system will be explored.

The diversity of studies of immigrant political participation

Different studies have looked at voting behaviour. They have focused on specific immigrant groups, in particular voters of North-African origin, and have used different methods such as the study of election registers or surveys. (1) Various questions have been addressed by these studies. As it is necessary to register as voter in France in order to be able to vote, some have looked at the extent to which immigrants and their descendants register as voters. It appears that they register to a lesser extent than the native population which impedes their political weight (Pan Khé Shon 2004). Other studies have investigated to what extent immigrants cast their votes. Results are inconclusive in this regard but the most recent analysis (Maxwell 2010) shows that the first and second generation of immigrants participate less in elections than the natives do.

Another relevant question with regard to the political participation of immigrants concerns the parties and political values that they favour. Studies have shown that immigrants are inclined to vote for left-wing parties and that their left-wing inclination is stronger than that among natives (Kelfaoui 1996; Brouard/ Tiberj 2005). These outcomes with regard to voting patterns of immigrants in France are parallel the results of studies conducted in other Western European countries (Bird et al 2010).

France also has a history of unconventional mobilisation of immigrants, like the well-known ‘Marche des Beurs’ exemplifies. In 1983, young people of immigrant origin, more particularly of North African origin, marched from Marseille, Lyon and other parts of France to Paris. More recently, the 2005 riots in the French ‘banlieues’ have been analysed by some as a mobilisation against social and political exclusion (see f.i. Bonelli 2005).

The indecisive figures of immigrant political representation

Also there is an ongoing debate about if and how certain groups should be represented in politics, few of us would think of a parliament in which only white, middle-aged men with a high level of education would have seats as being representative (Pitkin 1972). In terms of the legitimacy of political decisions, there is a general consensus that the diversity of society should be made visible in some way elected assemblies. This is why I now focus on the figures of immigrant political representation at the different levels of government in France.
Low levels of representation at the national level

When it comes to levels of representation of immigrants, France does poorly from an international perspective, especially at the national level. After the 2007 legislative elections, three of the 555 Members of Parliament elected in districts in metropolitan France (excluding the overseas territories) are first or second generation immigrants and one was born in the French Antilles. In the Senate, the situation is slightly better but still by no means representative of the diversity of the French population. Five senators out of 305 have foreign origins.

Without advocating the idea that only immigrants can represent immigrants or that each group in society should be represented equally in Parliament, this underrepresentation of immigrants and their descendants in the French Parliament raises concerns with regard to the legitimacy of the political process. Theorists of political representation have pointed out that the absence of representatives of groups that are underprivileged and historically or structurally discriminated, may lead to distrust of political institutions among these groups (Pitkin 1972; Mansbridge 1999). From this point of view, it is worrying that not one Member of Parliament is of North African origin, while an estimated three million persons in France share that origin.

Some exceptions do exist to the rule that immigrants are badly represented in French politics. The appointment of a Minister of Justice of Moroccan-Algerian origin in 2007, Rachida Dati, was seen as an important symbolic decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy. At the time, he also appointed two secretaries of state of foreign origin. It is important to note that they were appointed, not elected. In other words, their position and thus their political power fully depended on the newly elected president. Other examples exist in the recent history of France of people from the former colonies or the overseas territories having gained entrance to the highest levels of French politics. Clearly however, these are exceptions to a more general rule: in French national politics, immigrants hold marginal positions.

The lack of political representation of immigrants is again less salient at lower levels of government in French politics, as these are the levels where in some contexts immigrants are present in growing numbers. This might indicate that the electoral system – the rules according to which people get elected – has some effect on the presence of immigrants. The French Parliament is elected via a two-round election with single-member district. Only one person – the one who wins the majority of the votes – is elected in each of the 577 French districts. This electoral system entails a severe competition for nominations and is therefore rather closed to politicians who do not enjoy the full support of their party. The representation of women is very low at this level (Sineau 2001). The Senators are not directly elected by the electorate but by local and regional councillors. It gives a large advantage to rural areas, in which immigrants do not have a strong political presence. Both electoral systems are not favourable to the access of immigrants to politics. On the other hand, regional and local elections are elections in which party lists compete. There is a two-round (and thus majority) vote but with limited proportionality (2), that allows the presence of minority groups in the local and regional councils.

Hopeful representation rates at the regional level

It is estimated that 5.3 percent of all regional councillors in France are either immigrants (first or second generation) or come from the overseas territories. I will use the term ethnic minority representatives for these groups. There are, however, important differences between the 22 regional councils: most of them have no or only a few ethnic minority councillors, while the region of Ile-de-France (the region of Paris) has 14.4 percent of ethnic minorities elected in its council. Furthermore, figures concerning the share of ethnic minorities holding an executive position in the regional councils show again important disparities. Again, most councils do not have ethnic minorities in their executive, and again the region Ile-de-France (together with the region Bourgogne) distinguishes itself with 20 percent of its executives having an ethnic minority background.

Table 1: Ethnic minorities in regional councils after the 2010 elections (Source: Keslassy 2010, calculations by the author)

The region of Ile-de-France is, indeed, by its composition, the most likely candidate for an important presence of immigrant representatives. It counted 1.9 million immigrants (first generation) in 2004 that represent 17 percent of the population (Ferré 2006). Half of these immigrants come from African countries (North-African or Sub-Saharan African countries), representing some 8 percent of the population of the region. These are the groups of immigrants most discriminated against and whose presence in elected assemblies is most important in terms of the representation of ethnic minorities. Their share of the population is much higher in the region of Paris than in other parts of France.

Nevertheless, the composition of the population cannot fully account for the presence of immigrants in the different regional councils: regions with a high share of immigrants among their population lag behind in terms of the presence of immigrants in the regional councils and executives. In the region of Lyon (Rhône-Alpes), 3.5 percent of the population are first-generation immigrants from African countries, and in the region of Marseille (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) 4.4 percent of the population are first generation immigrants from African countries. This is more or less half of the share of immigrants from African countries in the region of Paris, while in this region, three times more regional councillors are ethnic minorities than in Rhône-Alpes and in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

In other words, the composition of the population has some importance but does not explain the extent to which ethnic minorities are elected to regional councils. Comprehensive studies of the mechanisms through which political arenas have opened up to minorities only exist at the local level, so clues to the process of the political integration of immigrants will have been found at this level.
A diverse representation of immigrants at the local level

It is difficult to give an overall impression of the situation in the 36,000 French municipalities, even more so because only few councils have been studied with regard to the issue of the presence of ethnic minorities in councils. Figures are known, however, for the ten biggest cities after the 2008 local elections. A great diversity of situations was found: the variation in the share of ethnic minorities in the ten biggest French cities ranged between 4.6 percent in Nantes and 13.8 percent in Strasbourg (Keslassy 2009).

Table 2: Ethnic minorities in the councils of the ten largest cities, 2008 elections Source: Keslassy 2009, Michon 2011

In the French local political system, there is no strict distinction between the council and the executive: the mayor and his (rarely her) deputy mayors are part of the council. (3) Only few ethnic minority councillors have an executive position: most of the ten biggest cities have only one ethnic minority councillor chosen as deputy mayor. Only a few councils have more than one (three in Lille, two in Nantes, eight in Paris).

Paris seems to form an exception: ten percent of all Parisian councillors have a non-Western background, and among the executive, there are six deputy mayors, representing 22 percent of the executive. This cannot be explained by the composition of the population: the population of Paris is not extremely diverse in terms of immigrant background. Only 7 percent of the population in Paris was born in an African country. Furthermore, there is a great difference in the composition of the Parisian council before and after the 2008 local elections. Before, 8 of the 163 Parisian councillors were first or second generation immigrants and after the 2008 elections, their number doubled. What has happened?

The study of the political integration of immigrants at the local level shows that at some points in time, some parties, in particular the left wing parties, have made an extra effort to include ethnic minorities on their lists. In 1989 this was the case for the socialist party and in 2008 several parties did the same (Geisser/ El Soum 2008). The choices made by party leaders seem crucial in this regard because the French political system is hierarchically organised. Local party organisations thus have their own dynamics in which the representation of immigrants may or may not be deemed important (Garbaye 2005).

Other dynamics may also play a role: President Sarkozy’s decision to appoint one minister and two secretaries of state of foreign origin in 2007 appears to have spurred other parties, especially the socialist party, to include immigrants on their lists so as not to lag behind.

The obstacles to the inclusion of immigrants in French politics

In Table 3, the figures for the different levels of government and the presence of immigrants and ethnic minority representatives are summarised. It shows that the higher the level of government (on a ladder from the local to the national level), the less immigrants are present in elected assemblies. It also shows if one recalls figures for other Western European countries that France scores very low in terms of immigrant representation at the national level (Bloemraad 2010). In the Dutch Second Chamber, 11 percent of the Members of Parliament have an immigrant background (2011 elections) and in the UK, 4 percent of the MPs are non-white (2010 elections).

Table 3: Overview of immigrant/ethnic minority representatives in French politics (Source: Keslassy 2009; Keslassy 2010; Michon 2011)

Several reasons exist for the limited representativeness of French politics. Many scholars point at the French dominant ideology of assimilation and republicanism. France’s dominant republican discourse encourages migrants to assimilate and considers minority identities to be an illegitimate basis for political claims-making (Maxwell 2010). Thus, as Alba and Foner (2009: 292) phrase it, “republican principles provide a basis for objecting to the very notion that immigrant-origin politicians are needed to include the views and interests of these constituencies.”

This view dominates among the French political elite. The idea that descriptive representation is needed for some groups is not accepted with ease, as the discussions about the French law on ‘parité’ have shown. Since 2000, this law makes the equal presence of women and men on candidate lists compulsory. It only passed after heated debates and does not have the expected effects at the national level.

On a less ideological level, political parties have often been reluctant to openly support migrant issues out of fear of alienating mainstream voters (Garbaye 2005). The argument that immigrant candidates would lead to more votes for the extreme-right Front national was, until recently, the most often-heard argument used by political leaders who did not wish to include immigrants on their lists. It has been shown however, that the electorate is not reluctant to vote for immigrant candidates (Brouard/ Tiberj 2006). This argument therefore mainly appears to serve to preserve the political elite as it stands. More generally indeed, the French political system is rather closed. Party rules and political culture (for example, the wide-spread accumulation of political offices by political leaders) make it difficult for newcomers to enter the political arena (Michon 2011).

Nevertheless, some hope for change can be gained from the better representation of immigrants at the local level, and the steady increase of immigrant representatives at different levels. As in other contexts, immigrant representation appears to be ‘sticky’ (Bloemraad 2010): once immigrants get elected, their numbers only rarely decrease over time. A dynamic has been set in motion that will finally – hopefully – lead to a better representation at other levels of government as well.


This contribution has summarised the situation in France with regard to the presence of immigrants in elected assemblies at the national, regional and local levels. The findings of existing studies on the subject show great differences between these levels of government, and confirm findings of studies on women in politics: the higher the stakes, the fewer minorities are present. The hierarchical and closed political system in France is seen as a major reason for the limited access of immigrants to politics. The type of election also seems to play a role: when list systems are used (instead of single-member districts) and where there is some proportionality, elected assemblies are more diverse. Some hope for change towards more representative assemblies can be gained from the steady increase of immigrants in politics over time and their presence at the local level, at least in some cities.

September 2011


(1) The study of election registers allows to investigate the rate of registration and to measure the turnout of the electorate, as in the registers, it is noted whether voters have turned up at election day. When using election registers, researchers usually determine the origin of voters on the basis of their name. Surveys used to measure turnout, but also party choice and other features of electoral behavior, are usually exit-poll surveys. On election day, voters coming out of a polling station are asked to fill in a questionnaire, in which they can give information on their nationality, their country of birth and/or the country of birth of parents, so as to determine their origin.

(2) If a list wins a majority of the votes in the first ballot, it automatically wins half of the seats on the council. The other half are allocated by a system of proportionality among all of the lists which won at least five percent of the votes (including the list with a majority of the votes). If a second round is necessary, all lists that won at least 10 percent of the votes go through to the second round. The list with the most votes wins this ballot, and automatically gets half of the seats on the district council. The other half of the seats is divided as set out above (Bécet 2001).

(3) The number of deputy mayors can differ greatly: in the ten largest French cities, their number varies between 18 (in Lyon and Strasbourg) and 36 (in Paris).


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Laure Michon, PhD is a researcher at the Department for Research and Statistics of the City of Amsterdam. She mainly works on the political participation of migrants in the Netherlands and France.