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The Nation Resurgent, and Borders, Too

At the heart of the rapid rise of the nationalist right, with its view of immigrants as a direct threat to the essence of France, there appears to lie a growing feeling among many French people that they are no longer at home in their own country.

That feeling, a vague but potent malaise, has many elements. They include a sense of dispossession, of neighborhoods transformed in dress and habits by the arrival of mainly Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and of lost identity in a fast-changing world. The National Rally, whose anti-immigrant position lies at the core of its fast-growing popularity, has benefited from all this.

“No French citizen would tolerate living in a house without doors or windows,” Jordan Bardella, the smooth-talking 28-year-old symbol of the National Rally’s advance to the brink of power, told France 3 TV this past week. “Well, it’s the same thing with a country.”

In other words, nations need effective borders that can be sealed tight.

This message, echoed by rising nationalist parties across Europe, and a central theme of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States, has proved potent. In France, it propelled Marine Le Pen’s National Rally to victory over President Emmanuel Macron’s party in voting for the European Parliament this month.

So rattled was Mr. Macron by the defeat that he threw open the country’s political future with a risky bet. He called for legislative elections, the first round of which is June 30. France may have a nationalist far-right government with Mr. Bardella as prime minister before the Olympic Games begin in Paris on July 26.

The unthinkable has become thinkable. Almost a decade ago, Angela Merkel, then the German chancellor, immortalized the words “Wir schaffen das,” or “we can do this,” as she admitted more than one million Syrian refugees to Germany. Today, her embrace of immigration seems otherworldly, so completely have attitudes changed in Europe and the United States.

A similar gesture of “Wilkommenskultur,” or welcome culture, these days would sound the death knell of most Western politicians.

Once the core theme of the xenophobic right, the push to control or stop migrants has moved toward the center of the political spectrum. The view of immigrants as diluting national identity, freeloading on social safety nets and importing violence has spread, often fed by thinly veiled bigotry. The once absolute French taboo against the National Front, now the National Rally, has collapsed.

Centrist leaders, including President Biden and Mr. Macron, have been obliged to shift from openness on immigration to a harder line to try to steal the thunder of nationalist movements. They have had to recognize that many conservatives, with nothing “far right” about them, identify with Mr. Trump’s words during a visit to Poland in 2017: “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?”

Early this year, Mr. Macron’s government passed an immigration bill that removed deportation protection for certain foreigners residing in France who engaged in a “serious violation of the principles of the Republic.” It imposed immediate expulsion for rejected asylum seekers. It attempted to revoke the automatic right to citizenship for children born in France to foreign parents, before the Constitutional Council struck that down.

If the intent of these and other measures was to dent the rise of the National Rally, the legislation backfired. For the left, it was a betrayal of French humanist values; for the right, it was too little, too late.

In a similar way, citing a “worldwide migrant crisis,” Mr. Biden, for whom the United States as a nation of immigrants has been a consistent refrain, temporarily closed the southern border to most asylum seekers this month. It was a drastic reversal, and many Democrats accused him of embracing Mr. Trump’s politics of fear. But Mr. Biden’s decision reflected the fact that many Americans, like many in France, want tougher policies in the face of record numbers of migrants entering the country.

Why this shift? Western societies of ever greater inequality have left many people behind, fueling anger. In France, a social model that worked well for a long time has been unable to resolve the problems of lost hope and poor schools in suburban projects where many immigrants live. This feeds further frustration. Tensions flare regularly between Muslims and the police.

“The government always protects the police, a state within the state,” Ahmed Djamai, 58, said last year during a protest. For him, to be Arab or Black, even with a French passport, was often to be made to feel second-class.

Immigration, in this context, easily becomes a dog-whistle theme. “This French sense of losing their country to immigrants is in many ways delusional,” said Anne Muxel, the deputy director of the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po University in Paris. “It’s tied to disorientation, lost control and life getting harder. The National Rally gets that in its DNA, whereas it’s not in the DNA of Macron.”

The cultures of the United States and France differ profoundly. One is a nation formed through immigration with a self-renewing core; the other, France, is a more rigid country where the integration of “visible minorities,” a term mainly referring to Muslims, has challenged the nation’s self-image.

Still, many people in each country, to some degree, fear a loss of identity, an anxiety on which leaders like Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Trump can play. In the United States, it is the specter of non-Hispanic white America becoming a minority by midcentury. Americans’ sense of the sanctity of the law is offended by the illegal entry of millions of migrants. The French focus on a threat to their way of life, a feeling compounded by repeated acts of Islamist terrorism over the past decade.

The consensus that “the situation with Muslim immigrants has become insoluble” is now so entrenched across the political spectrum that “there is no serious debate on immigration although it’s at the center of the campaign,” said Hakim El Karoui, a prominent consultant on immigration issues.

Ms. Le Pen has worked hard for over a decade to normalize her father’s fringe racist party. She expunged its antisemitism, reversed calls to exit the 27-nation European Union and adopted a generally moderate tone.

Still, the party’s core view that immigrants dilute the national body — held up as a glorious and mystical thing — endures. She has said that the party, if elected, will seek to ban use of the Muslim head scarf in public.

She and Mr. Bardella embrace the idea of “national preference” — essentially systematic discrimination between foreigners and French citizens when it comes to access to jobs, subsidized housing, certain health benefits and other social assistance.

Mr. Bardella said this past week that immigrants legally in France “who work, pay their taxes and respect the law have nothing to fear from my arrival at Matignon,” the residence of the prime minister. This was intended to be a reassuring pitch for the top job.

But the unemployment rate in France is 7.5 percent, with 2.3 million people jobless. The rate is higher among immigrants, around 12 percent in 2021, according to a study last year by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. Many of them could be vulnerable.

About 140,000 migrants applied for asylum last year, according to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and the Stateless. That is double the number of a decade ago. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, estimated last year that there were 600,000 to 900,000 illegal immigrants in France.

“An assault on personal freedoms by Le Pen and Bardella is likely,” said Célia Belin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.

At a Bardella rally in Montbeliard, in eastern France, Laurent Nansé, 53, who runs a funeral home, said he had recently inherited a family house and had been looking through albums from his youth. “There were no veiled women, nobody from the Maghreb, no Africans,” he said. “Now at Ramadan, the supermarkets are full of advertising for that. I don’t see any advertising for Lent.”

He said he believed that Mr. Bardella has what it takes to lead the country. “I am so sick of Macron’s little of this, little of that,” he said.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Macron seemed to grapple with his own failures. He linked the rise of the “extreme right” to “doubts about what we are becoming, existential anxiety.”

In response, he said, it was essential to stand firm. He cited his immigration bill and called for “cutting illegal immigration,” but acknowledged that “our efforts in this area have not been sufficiently seen, felt or understood.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Macron accused the new left-wing New Popular Front alliance of Socialist, Green and far-left parties of being totally “immigrationiste” — a word often used by Ms. Le Pen’s party to describe politicians who encourage uncontrolled immigration. In the past, the National Rally has called Mr. Macron an “immigrationiste.”

All of this is clearly an attempt by Mr. Macron to stop the march of the National Rally to power by hardening on immigration and security. The problem is that just as Mr. Trump has occupied the anti-immigrant political terrain in the United States, that ground is taken in France by Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Bardella.

Mr. Macron has tried over seven years in office to hover in the middle of a virulent debate. Mr. Biden offset his closure of the border to asylum seekers by announcing soon after that he would protect 500,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens from being deported and provide them a path to citizenship.

It is not clear that such carefully dosed navigation around an explosive issue will work. The atmosphere in France today is restive. “We tried everything,” Ms. Muxel said. “We need to try something new — that is what’s in the air.” It was in the air in the United States in 2016.

Of course, it was precisely the measures taken to construct and preserve a homogeneous society that lay at the core of the most heinous crimes of the last century. A core postwar insight in Europe was that borders should be dismantled to save Europe from its repetitive wars. Ever-closer union meant ever-expanding peace.

Those ideas, however, appear to have faded. This is a time of the nation resurgent, whatever the perils of that.

A cartoon this past week on the front page of Le Canard Enchainé, the satirical newspaper, showed a Frenchman in his beret, with a baguette and a bottle of wine, pointing a large-caliber shotgun with “National Rally” emblazoned on it at his head.

“We’ve never tried it!” said the caption.

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