The words

What is an immigrant?

Entre deux chaises
Plantu, Entre deux chaises. 1985 © Musée national de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration

A fashionable term since the second half of the 20th century

Use of the term “immigrant” became widespread in the mid-20th century to describe immigration by manual workers. Since 1945, it has been common to talk about immigrant labour or immigrant worker and, in everyday language, the term is tending to replace the word “foreigner”. From the early 1990s, “immigrant” became a statistical category, used by demographers to describe any person born a foreigner in a foreign country and residing in France. Hence an immigrant may not be a foreigner – as is the case for individuals born abroad who became naturalised French citizens. And a foreigner may not be an immigrant, if he was a foreigner born on French soil.

Some figures and a gap

In 2020, the “immigrant” category – which includes French citizens by acquisition (born outside France) and foreigners (born outside France) – had reached 6.8 million, i.e. 10.2%. French citizens by acquisition born outside France accounted for 2.5 million, i.e. 36% of them: so they are no longer foreigners. As Insee puts it: “Unlike the status of immigrant, the status of foreigner does not always last a lifetime: provided that current legislation allows, a person can become a French citizen by acquisition.”  Hence, according to national statistics, “French citizens by acquisition” remain “immigrants”, associated with a category which, instead of melting them into the Republican cultural pot, specifies, if not their foreignness, at the very least their particularity. According to demographer Hervé Le Bras, it used to be simple: either you were French or you were a foreigner. Nowadays you can be French, but “immigrant” French. The “harmfulness” of the word lies in “thumbing one’s nose at naturalisation”, and even more serious, the fact of “inflating the foreigner part by adding naturalised people to it, thus increasing the gap between the latter and the French”. Hence, by associating the naturalised person with his foreignness, we are expanding “the gulf […] between the French by birth and immigrants”. According to the same demographer, that expresses “an increasingly crude dichotomy: us and the rest”, a division between national and foreign based only on a logic of figures (the fear of invasion), with no regard for the history of humanity and nations, the dialogue between cultures, political rationales and the way the world works. The naturalised French citizen remains an immigrant confined to his otherness, counted as such to the detriment of human and… republican dynamics.

Main characteristics of immigration today

The share of ordinary immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing since 2006. Immigration from North Africa has remained stable and represents almost one third of all immigration originating from Africa. In 2020, 47.5% of the immigrants living in France were born in Africa. 32.2% were born in Europe. The most frequent countries of birth of immigrants are Algeria (12.7%), Morocco (12%), Portugal (8.6%), Tunisia (4.5%), Italy (4.1%), Turkey (3.6%) and Spain (3.5%). Half of immigrants come from one of these seven countries (49%).
Women were slightly in the majority among new arrivals in 2019 (52%). Their proportion is even higher among immigrants coming from Russia (66%), China (61%), Brazil (57%) or Algeria (56%).
Almost 60% of newly arrived immigrants are under 30: one quarter are minors and one third are aged between 18 and 29.
24% of immigrants who arrived in 2019 aged 15 and over do not have a high school or other diploma (cf. 20% for the population as a whole), and 43% (cf. 30%) have a college-level degree. A larger number of women have diplomas than men, and the level of training of all immigrants is increasing from generation to generation, especially for immigrants coming from Asia.

Sources :

  • Insee
  • Hervé Le Bras, L’Invention de l’immigré, Éditions de L’Aube 2012

Mustapha Harzoune, 2022