With the 2022 Presidential Election approaching, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has recently taken a harder stance on immigration and Islamist radicalism in a bid to divert support from his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen. This change has manifested itself in an ‘anti-separatism’ bill which his Government says will advance laïcité (the French principle of public secularism) and combat Islamist extremism, but which many argue unjustly targets Muslims.
The French Government’s heightened rhetoric against Islamism was exemplified by recent comments from Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who criticised Le Pen’s ‘softness’ on Islam during an 11 February debate. The following week, Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal spoke out against ‘Islamo-Leftism’ in universities, prompting backlash among academics. These statements have further isolated many left-wing supporters of Macron, especially after his previous measures to restrict immigration and widely-publicized crackdowns on migrant camps in Paris and Calais.
We at Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled French citizens on 24-26 February 2021 to learn how they feel about this shift. We found that half of the French public expressed concerns about the state of immigration and laïcité in France.
Macron’s recent actions come at a time when his future as President is in question: half (51%) of French respondents think Macron is unlikely to be re-elected, while a quarter (26%) think it is likely. Among those who voted for Macron in the first round of the 2017 Presidential Election, a greater proportion (47%) thought he was likely to be re-elected, though a considerable 38% thought it unlikely.
When asked specifically about Macron’s recent statements on immigration, there is no clear public stance, as almost equal quarters of respondents said they approve (24%), disapprove (25%), neither approve nor disapprove (27%), or don’t know (24%) It is important to note that our question did not specify what Macron said, which explains the high number of respondents saying they do not know or that they neither approve nor disapprove. Approval was higher among those who voted for Macron (48%) rather than Le Pen (17%) in the first round of the 2017 Election.
While widespread approval (or even awareness) of Macron’s recent comments on immigration is lacking, half (49%) of the French public believes immigration levels are too high in France, a sentiment shared across the country’s regions. The belief is strongest among those aged 45-54, 58% of whom responded there is too much immigration, compared to 33% of 18- to 24-year-olds. Conversely, only 22% of French respondents find the current immigration levels appropriate, while a minimal 7% think there is not enough immigration.
2017 Presidential Election first round voters of Le Pen—who ran on a platform of halting immigration—were far likelier to find immigration levels too high, at 76%. The position formed a plurality among Macron voters, 35% of whom said there is too much immigration. However, a close 31% said it is the appropriate amount, revealing a relatively more favourable view on immigration levels within this group. Among voters of left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the plurality (43%) said there is too much immigration. In fact, it is the leading response among voters of every party, demonstrating that the belief in immigration levels being too high is present across political affiliations, though to clearly varying degrees.
These numbers correspond with our October 2020 poll, in which 53% of French respondents said Europe should be doing more to prevent migrants and asylum seekers arriving on the continent, while 25% said Europe should do more to assist them. The majority view on immigration is thus virtually unchanged: half of French respondents want to see immigration decrease.
Alongside—and often associated with—recent discussions on immigration, the topic of laïcité in France has been hotly contested in recent years. The debate was particularly heightened in the aftermath of the October 2020 beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher who had allegedly shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his class. Some argue the principle of laïcité and related laws governing religious symbols have been weaponized to discriminate against Muslims, while others view the principle as a backbone of the French Republic that must be protected.
When polled on the current state of laïcité, 49% of the French public agree they are concerned that the principle of laïcité is being eroded in France. A quarter (25%) neither agree nor disagree, and 11% disagree that it is being eroded. Unlike on the topic of immigration, however, the level of concern is almost identical among 2017 voters of Macron (53% agree), Le Pen (56% agree), and Mélenchon (53% agree).
With just over a year left in his term, the path to re-election for Macron will be far from easy. This is especially true amidst his unpopular handling of the coronavirus pandemic, of which only a quarter (25%) of the French public approves. Given the significant proportion of the public who share concerns about the level of immigration and erosion of laïcité in France, Macron’s efforts to address these concerns may give him a boost in popularity—but this move could come at the expense of losing support from the left-leaning voters who contributed to his election in 2017.