The release of national data on immigration counts. Now more than ever.


September 2019 - On September 16, President Emmanuel Macron set the tone for the rest of his mandate - and the next election alike - regarding immigration, after he declared that “[t]he question is whether we want to be a bourgeois party or not. The bourgeois do not have a problem with it : they do not see it. The working class lives with it”. This immediately generated backlash and launched a divisive debate at the national Assemblée among left and right representatives, which will resume on October 9.

This shows the fear the executive has of a face-to-face with extreme-right Marine le Pen in the upcoming ballot, as was the case in 2017. It echoes how immigration played a central role in the Brexit movement, and has generally been the favorite motto of anti-globalists, eurosceptics, nationalists and anti-immigration political parties alike who wish to harden Europe’s borders.


More importantly, it underlines how hard facts count to prevent the excesses of constructed narratives about immigration. Such is the effort behind the regular release of data by the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (INSEE). The National Statistics Bureau released a timely dataset with methodological explanations about immigration in France, a few days after the President’s declaration.


And this data release counts more than ever. A recent New York Times article underlined how myths about migrants are shaping political attitudes (NYT, June 20, 2018). Numbers matter in order to counter myths, particularly in countries where actual numbers are often exaggerated, feeding populist fears across several cities that somebody might be losing demographic ground to immigrant groups. To illustrate this, the NYT article referred to a Harvard set of large-scale transatlantic surveys and experiments in six countries [Alesina et al., 2018] which used the release of similar immigration data to underline how, comparatively, there was an average 15% gap between actual immigration numbers, and popular misperceptions about immigration. 


The same argument was developed by a set of Paris School of Economics macro-studies on European immigration trends, derived from Eurostat and OCDE datasets for years ranging from 1985 to 2015 [d’Albis et al., 2018]. Transparency and availability of data allowed these researchers to go beyond descriptive statistics, and engage in causal analysis that could potentially counter beliefs about the negative impacts of migration trends on local job and housing markets. Statistical significance can indeed be a first step towards debunking certain myths about immigration.


This also counts because France is the country par excellence where accessing data on ethnic and racial makeup is quite tricky, since it is forbidden by law to collect statistics on race, ethnicity, or religion. Immigration data is the only accessible type of demographic data there is to embrace how minorities fare across French cities. Such statistics parallel other efforts to map all documents about migrants produced by major national and metropolitan institutions like ministries, Mayor’s offices, court houses, hospitals, unions, associations, libraries and museums, which were started by the 2003 ‘Archives et immigration’ database project at the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration.


Additionally, immigration data is the only available data that supporters of a careful positioning of the country on the topic of immigration can invoke during this week’s debates at the Assembly. It is the only available data that allows to qualify fears by reminding that if extra-European migration in France averages annually 189,000 people, the portion of migrants in the total population grew from 4.4% in 1946 to only 7.1% in 2018 [6.5 million people], especially when Marine le Pen chants in the Assembly Chamber: “Yes or no to the ius soli? Yes or no to family reunification? Yes or no to controlling our borders again?”.

We know by now that transparent data allows to orient political decision making, and better inform public policy decisions. Now more than ever, France illustrates that data is politics. It also illustrates that we need hard facts against the nonsense of migrant quotas that were put on the table this week, which representatives of migrant and refugee organizations working on the ground across cities in France are already trying to mobilize against.