French issues (#1)
 Economic and social issues   What are the French good at?

Some basic facts about recent immigration

  • France has always been a country of immigration. The most recent waves are the Poles and the Italians before WW2, the Spaniards and Portuguese in the 1950s-1960s, the North-Africans in the 1960s, the Asians in the 1970s and the West-Africans in the 1970s-1980s. (see figures). In 1999, 23% of French citizens had at least one parent or grandparent who had been an immigrant to France (source : INED).

  • Conversely, the French have never emigrated in large numbers, except for the Huguenots at the end of the XVIIth century.

  • In the 1960s, in a booming economy, French manufacturers (for example in the car industry) were in desperate need of a work-force : they attracted hundreds of thousands of Moroccans and Algerians who stayed in France and were the first to be laid-off in the 1980s when the economy slowed down. This created major social and psychological problems for their children and, now, their grandchildren.

  • In West-Africa, villages would traditionally send their most courageous young men to France to work hard ; they would in turn send most of their salary to their family and come back to their village after having lived twenty years in France. Later, and especially with the Left Wing in power in the 1980s, there was a big movement of compassion for these poor men, living alone for years, far from their children and a policy of "Regroupement Familial" (family regrouping) was set up (law of 29/4/1976) under the principle that " it is a right for each person to have a normal family life". This policy has dramatically changed the immigration pattern : women came from their village speaking no French and with no experience of European life and little capacity to adjust, polygamy is becoming a major issue with some countries (Mali), and (according to French law) all children born in France are automatically French citizens. In 2004, out of 173,390 new resident cards to non-European, 110,619 were related to "regroupement familial".

  • In 1962, at the end of the Algerian war of Independence, the French transfered to France as many Algerian soldiers of the French Army, the "harkis" with their family, as they could (most of those who remained there were slaughtered). Their life and the life of their children is as difficult as the life of all other immigrants who, in addition to that, look down at them as traitors.

  • Many students from Western-Africa traditionally choose to go to University in France (even if American universities are catching up : see figures). Most of them stay in France.


What's good in France, what is successful, etc. i.e. is there anything good Americans can learn from the French ? For most Americans and for the entire US press, the answer is probably very conventional : apart from food, fashion and the art of not working, the answer is likely to be " Not much ". Let's try to look at facts : I see four fields where France does well, possibly better than the USA! Before you get upset and click out of this site, read what follows !

  • Health policy : by all standards the French health system compares very favorably to the US system (even after Obama's 2010 reform). It is based on a moral and political consensus that protecting the health of citizens, and keeping them from what can be avoided in the trauma of illness and death, is one of the major responsibilities of the Society as a whole. Therefore, the State ensures that everybody is protected and people consider it to be in charge of controlling the quality of the health system and of regulating all its private and public players, employees and employers mustboth contribute to it. The results : 100% people covered (see CMU), for a cost 30 or 40% inferior to America's (11,8% of GNP vs. more than 17,4% in the US) and with better results (see comparative ratios and more ratios : life expectancy, infantile mortality, obesity, etc). The French are astonished when they are told that more than 40 million Americans have no health coverage (and even more no dental coverage). Being worried about the health bill does not exist in France. The social consensus is : "it is sad enough to be sick and one must not have an additional money problem about it". Saying "it is socialized medecine, therefore bureaucratic and inefficient" is ridicululous and wrong : look at the facts! See the WHO ranking : France comes first and read a column in the IHT ("French Lesson"), read my (chauvinistic) point of view about it and my column "socialized medicine : give me a break"..

  • Food culture : not the food itself (which is not bad....) but the relationship with food. In France, food is fun and food is interesting : food is not something you ingest when you are hungry. Basically : the French have structured meals where they enjoy the food and talk together, they do NOT eat between meals, eat more vegetables, less fast-food and do not drink too much soft drinks, etc... This education starts at school (see the menu in a Primary schooll in Paris). The result : much less heart disease and diabetes, much less over-weight people and more pleasure! Read about "the ugly American eater" and more about food.

  • Energy policy : France is the country which is the least dependent on the price of fossil fuel (gas and petrol), due to the very ambitious nuclear policy of the 1970s (see figures) ; electricity is cheap and France exports it to other European countries ; in addition to that, its energy-saving programs are efficient : cars use much less fuel (the average European car gets 40 miles to the gallon, far more energy-efficient than US cars), houses have better thermal insulation, etc... Why? Again the strong role of the State with a consistent policy, no petrol lobbies, etc.... Result : 2 to 3 times less energy per capita. The country is less vulnerable to energy prices and in the long term to a shortage in fossil energy. More about environment in France.

  • Illegal immigrants (mostly from Western-Africa) keep pouring into Europe, mostly through Spain and Italy. The total number is of course unknown but could be as high as one million a year; many of them have very difficult conditions of life. France, like all the other European countries, is trying to control the flow and to expell some of them, to dissuade more to come, but in vain. It is particularly difficult and painful because, by law, it is not required to be legal to have acccss to the education and health systems. Therefore, many kids in school are under the threat of being expelled to a country they don't know : their parents's.

  • Most immigrants to France come from former colonies (West Africa and North Africa). Read about the history of the French colonial empire.

  • The circulation of the Roms, from Romania, into the whole Europe, including France, creates a serious problem (social, political and ethical). Read more about the Roms.

  • Census numbers (2010) :
    • Total population of France : 64,6 million
    • French citizens : 60,8 m.
      • including : born (French or not) in France : 58,5 m.
      • born outside France : 2,3 m.
    • Foreigners : 3,8 m.
      • including : born in France : 0,6 m.
      • born outside France : 3,2 m.
    • The total number of immigrants is : 2,3 + 3,2 = 5,5 million (i.e. 8,5% of total population)
    • They come from Europe (38,4%), Northern Africa (30,4%), Asia (13,4%), Western Africa (12,8%), Americas-Oceania (3,9%).
    • The number of illegal immigrants is estimated between 200,000 and 400,000
  • Thankfully, there are more and more examples of very successful second-generation immigrants : in politics (like Rachida Dati), in business (too many to cite), in the show-business (like Jamel Debbouze and many others) ; see singers, movie-makers and writers

  • The opinions about immigration in the USA and in Europe are not as different as one would expect (see a poll) but the European society seems surprisingly more open, and France is often far from the average European figure.

What were the reasons for the riots in November 2005?


  • Basically an economic problem : unemployment is high in France (over 9%) and very high for the less qualified workers.

  • Racism : Black and Arab youngsters (the "beurs") from poor areas are the first victims of racism to find a job and, if they can afford it, to rent an apartment ; they have a life of constant frustration and humiliation. However (and contrary to what is considered a fact if you read only the US press), there are French racists, as in any country, but it is not true to say that France is a racist country. Read the section on anti-Semitism. Regarding immigration, all studies show that the French are more positive about immigrants than other major countries, including the U.S.A. : in a recent study, 32% of the French (vs. 67% of the British) think there are too many immigrants. See detailed figure.

  • A serious urban problem : In the 1960s, the French government developed huge public housing programs in the suburbs of most cities ; the architecture was ugly but it was an emergency with the arrival of many immigrants, including almost one million "Pieds-Noirs " (French people living in Algeria and expelled in 1962). Progressively all the people who could afford to live somewhere else have left and it led, forty years later, to large urban areas where everybody is poor, unemployment reaches 20% or more, buildings are poorly maintained and vandalized. Since 2005, after the riots, around 50 billion $ have been spent by the State and local authorities in urban renewal programs : a positive step but not the whole solution.

  • A cultural problem : the entire French vision is based on the idea that all French citizens must be equally treated. It is therefore unthinkable to design special provisions for the education of immigrants. The consequence is that, in many cases, and especially if their family does not speak French and does not value school, these students frequentlty drop out of the school system. The legal system being very strict on labor, "small jobs" do not exist and they are left with nothing to do.

  • Contrary to what the US press erroneously reported ("Muslim Riots in France"), there was never a religious aspect in the Nov. 2005 riots. They were social riots, and very serious ones. As compared to UK, French Muslims feel more French than British Muslims feel British : see identity figures.

  • See a list of strengths and weaknesses of France in 2005 and read a column about it.
  • Mathematics is probably another one of the (few) fields where France can challenge the USA. Math is the most important subject in French education (read more) : you cannot escape it and it is the key to be selected for the best cursus ; it is very hard  to do anything in the French higher education system if you are not good in math. In high school, the level is maybe one year ahead of the US system and much more theoretical (no calculus and if you use a theorem, you must definitely be able to demonstrate it) : look at a French textbook to see the difference in approach. The result : 
    - French research is very good in this field (see the world ranking in math of French universities and the number of Fields Medals
    (and Abel Awards) including one of the last ones, Cedric Villani)
    - After a tough selection, a few French students do well in certain fields (computer science, econometric models...)
    - This taste for math illustrates the French preference for general and theoretical ideas, as opposed to pragmatic, empiric and action-oriented ideas (more about French values)
    . This excellent result (for the best students) is not contradictory with the more disappointing results (in average) as illustrated by international comparative studies : read more about PISA studies.

DID YOU KNOW THAT . . . ? The Mecca of French mathematicians is the IHES (Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques) in Bures-sur-Yvette (SW of Paris), in the Vallee de Chevreuse, what the French often call « the French Silicon Valley »  ! Created in the 1920s, it attracts some of the best mathematicians in the world : among its 10 « permanent professors »  since its creation, 7 obtained a Fields medal while they were at IHES.

  • There are a few other fields where French companies or the French society do well, but do not count on the US press to mention it ! See an example about fast trains (in France : TGV).

  • Anything else ? Read about the strengths and weaknesses of France and about some French specificities!











Psychological issues

  • These days, the national mood is not good in France and the French are very pessimistic, much more than the other Europeans (source : Eurobaromètre 2006/CAS, le Monde 28/10/2007):
    • worried and afraid of the future : to the question " Are you afraid of becoming poor ? " : more than 75% answer Yes when in most European countries the number is around 50% ; only Latvia and Hungary are as pessimistic ; even more surprisingly, to the question : " Are you afraid to become homeless ? " 13% answer Yes (Latvia 16% but UK 8% and most European countries are around 5%) ; young people are particularly afraid and only 25,6% consider their future as promising (one of the lowest % in advanced countries : see a comparative poll).
    • distrustful : " Do you trust other people most of the time ? " : France 22% (Sweden 64%, European average 30%)
    • they have no objective reason for their pessimism : whatever way you measure it, their social system (health, unemployment benefits) compares very favourably to the other countries', economic unequality between people is smaller than elsewhere and if income dispersion grows, it does so less than elsewhere, health conditions and life expectancy are excellent, etc.... Read more about what the French are good at and compare favourably to the US.
    • why such low spirits ? A few tentative answers re-what's wrong in France?:
      • the political life is very disappointing : based on constant criticism on one side and constant self-satisfaction on the other side, with no other solution than emphasizing whatever is negative.
      • The media love bad news : newpaper headlines and TV news focus every day on what's wrong. Lay-offs, particularly, are detailed every day when positive news do not make good headlines (for instance, the 2007 Nobel Prize to a French physicist was hardly mentioned.
      • The French like to grumble and protest more than any other people and it becomes contagious. Read about the many French revolutions.
      • more to come...
  • another French paradox : there are more and more French, less and less Germans ! Everybody knows that when a country is depressed, its demography is weak. Not for the French whose natality is the highest in Europe : it represents more than two third of the total European population increase (not including immigration, 2006 figures) : France +290,000, UK +155,000, Spain +90,000, Italy +25,000, Belgium +18,000, Hungary ­33,0000, Germany ­167,000, others near zero)
 Islam and France    The French : more and more depressed ?

A very interesting comparative study on Muslims in four European countries (France, UK, Germany and Spain). The main results are :

  • France has the largest Muslim population (over 5 million), mostly of Algerian and Moroccan origin ; in Germany most Muslims come from Turkey, in England from Pakistan and in Spain from Morocco
  • The proportions of Muslims in European countries are much higher than in the USA : 8% in France, compared to 0,55% in the USA.
  • French Muslims express globally the same opinion as other European Muslims about :
    • fear of unemployment : 84% (vs. 78 to 83% in the three other countries)
    • concerns about their future : 38% (vs. 28 to 48%)
    • unfavorable rating of the U.S. : 69% (vs. 65 to 76%)
    • unfavorable rating of Americans : 51% (vs. 46 to 54%)
    • opposing US war on terror : 78% (vs. 62 to 83%)
    • sympathies for Palestinians : 76% (vs. 50 to 75%)
  • French Muslims differ strongly from other European Muslims about :
    • Favorable attitude toward Jews : 71% (vs. 32% in UK, 36% in Germany and 28% in Spain) ; for this question, the answer of the whole population of the country is 86% in France (vs. 77% in the USA and, not unexpectedly, 2% in Egypt, 17% in Indonesia, 6% in Pakistan, 1% in Jordan and 15% in Turkey. Anti-semitism in France is not what the US press says : read more about it.
    • Seeing themselves surrounded by hostile natives : 39% (vs. 51% in Germany, 42% in UK but 31% in Spain) but 37% report having had a bad personal experience (vs. 19 to 25%). They feel (relatively) welcome.
    • Fewer of them see a natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society : 42% consider themselves a national citizen first (and not a Muslim first) vs. only 7% in UK, 13% in Germany and 3% in Spain. In Muslim countries it ranges from 6% in Pakistan to 39% in Indonesia. It seems that Muslims living in France are indeed absorbing the secular ways of their countrymen, among which 83% self-identify with their nationality rather than their religion. Read more about " laïcité " (secularism). However, see a few examples of infringement on secularism in the name of Islam.
    • A larger majority want to adopt national customs (rather than being distinct) : 78% compared to 41% in UK, 30% in Germany and 53% in Spain. They agree with the French attitude against communautarism : read more about it.
    • As concluded by Pew : " All in all, one might conclude that, despite their problems ­prime among them joblessness among youth generally, not just Muslim youth- the French need to take no integrationist lessons from their European neighbors. " (Source : Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., 2006)
  • No data ! One important thing about these issues : in France, it is difficult to use reliable numbers about anything ethnic or religious since it is forbidden, by law, to collect data about race, ethnicity and religion : read more about it.
  • A comparative study (France and Germany) in 2016 showed a significant deterioration of the image of Islam in both countries after the 2015 terrorist attacks. See the numbers.

  • Today's French thinkers and philosophers wrote some of the most popular books on the subject of the French "decline" and "declinism". Among them, Alain Finkelkraut ("The Unhappy Identity"), Michel Onfray ("Decadence"), Michel Houellebeq ("Submission"), Nicolas Baverez ("Chronicles of French Decline"), Robert Frank ("The Fear of Decline : France from 1914 to 2014"), Eric Zemmour ("The Frenche Suicide") to name a few.

  • The mood of the French is not very good. Actually, the number of people who see the future with pessimism has been consistently larger than the number of optimists. TNS-Sofres has carried out the same poll since 1972 and I have designed a graph to represent it (source : Le Monde April 2008). It shows, globally, a negative tend with recently an improvement 197-2002 (better economic situation), a collapse 2002-2007 (the second term of Chirac) and a (momentary) improvement in 2007 (the hope generated by Sarkozy).
  • When asked about the most frightening/reassuring words, the French answer (Dec.2008) :

    • most frightening : Bush (!), lay-offs, unemployment, etc... (and of course all the words associated with the current crisis)
    • most reassuring : Obama, Europe, euro, etc... (and globally all the words related to the role of the protective State)
    • see more details.
  • Young (and educated) French people tend to emigrate more and more ;

  • More about French attitudes and low spirits.

  • The French are said to be reluctant toward change : read why. 

A TENTATIVE ANSWER .... Why are the French so negative and the French mood so low ? The answer may be in the way the French look at the world :
- a negative look at the world : for them the rest of the world is evil (and dangerous) and unhappy (famine, emigration etc.)
- but the loss of preeminence : France is now too small to be able to change it
Therefore : "they are depressed to feel useless!" (Pascal Lamy, former Director General of the World Trade Organization, trying to answer the question Aug.29, 2014)


Islam and the French society ...

The studies on this subject are always controversial and their numbers can be challenged and such surveys are difficult in a country where statistics on race and religion are illegal, howerver it is a fact that, in France in the past few years :

  • the number of incidents in the workplace associated with religious behavior has increased enormously (see a recent study about it)

  • if most Muslims are fully integrated in the French society, a very high percentage of Muslims think that if there is a conflict between the Republican law and their religious law (the charia), the charia must prevail (see a recent study about it).

  • more to come ...

For more details about political campaigns in France, click here.   Integrating minorities : a French challenge

How to become French ? (as of today Dec.2009)

  • Children born in France to foreign parents ("naturalisation par filiation") : automatically at age 18 if they ask for it

  • Spouse of French citizen ("naturalisation par mariage") : automatically by simple request after the marriage

  • Foreigners living legally in France ("naturalisation par décret") : you have to apply ; approx. 80% of applications are accepted, after a process which can take several months or years ; reasons for refusal are mostly "not enough links to France" (does not live in France, does not speak French, ...) or (rarely) "incompatibility with French values" (religious extremism : about 20 cases a year)

  • Overall, more than 100 000 applicants receive French citizenship every year, (the highest proportion in Europe) ; most of them from North Africa (see detailed figures) ; the proportion of immigrants who apply for and get French nationality is estimated at 41% (same % as in the USA)

  • You must be a French citizen for many jobs of civil servant (justice, army, foreign affairs, etc) ; most of the others are accessible to European citizens and few to non-European.

  • More to come....


DID YOU KNOW THAT....? In France it is prohibited by law to create and collect any statistical data concerning race or religion. Therefore, questions such as "How many Blacks in France?" ,"How many Protestants?" , "What is the number of people of Arab origin?" or "Where do French Jews live?" have no statistically official answer. It is prohibited, under heavy penalty, to keep any such individual data on a computer file and the CNIL (Commission Nationale Informatique et Liberté) has huge powers to investigate it. The reason for this is in the vision the French have of their own identity : anybody born in France is (automatically) French and becomes identical to all his/her compatriots, whatever his/her origin. No discrimination can be made, based on the color of the skin or religious beliefs and no such community can be officially acknowledged (read more about anti-communautarisme).



It is widely said that France failed the integration of its immigrated minorities. This is largely true and the 2005 urban riots proved it. A better integration of minorities is clearly a strong social demand and the country and its leaders (political, business, ) still have a long way to go to meet this demand. However, the situation is not as bad as it may appear (from the US press for instance) and there are reasons for hope of a positive evolution. Among many examples :

  • The government of Nicolas Sarkozy included several ministers from North-African or West-African origin, in high positions (Justice, Urban Affairs, Human Rights) and himself has a Hungarian father and a Greek-Jewish mother.
  • The constant French policy to avoid communautarism is illustrated by the law which forbids the Islamic veil in school in 2008 and the burqa in all public places in 2010 : nothing against regious freedom, it is a law for integration (note that in April 2010, the Belgian parliament passed a law prohibiting the burqa, without arousing indignation from the US press! : more about French-bashing and read my column about a ridiculous article in the NY Times.
  • Many famous actors, singers, writers, etc .... are second-generation immigrants (see the list of Most Loved French Personalities, and French songs, movies and literature)
  • France refuses the concept of affirmative action, in the name of equality and anti-communautarism, but in fact many new programs to facilitate access to higher education to children of immigrants are implemented under the supervision of a "Haut Commissaire à la Diversité et à l'Egalité des Chances" (Yazid Sabeg, a successful businessman of Algerian origin, appointed Decembert 2008 with the rank of a minister in the cabinet)

  • Among them, a special track of access to the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), the very nest of high ranking civil servants

  • 200 mosques are under construction

  • more to come.

DID YOU KNOW THAT.....? Burning cars is a very frequent form of "minor criminality" in French poor suburbs. In 2005, 45,288 were burned (+30% on 2004). About a third are stolen cars, another third insurance fraud attempts. For the last third, it is remarkable to observe that it is a particularly stupid crime since the perpetrators (typically, kids aged 10 to 12) burn the cars of their own parents who need them to go to work and can't afford to replace them.


To related pages : more issues (#2), ev ents, as reported by the French media, French society, try my French Quiz, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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