Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 caused a large population movement to the Ukrainian borders as people fled the bombings and attacks by Putin’s government. According to the UNHCR, more than 4.4 million refugees have already fled to neighboring countries since February 24. This situation has required the mobilization of European countries to receive Ukrainian refugees as soon as possible. Between February 24 and April 5, 2022, there were approximately 40,000 Ukrainian refugees in France. The reception of these refugees in France was quickly organized and a surge of solidarity was observed among the population as well as the government. On March 21, 87,000 accommodations were counted by the French prefectures, including 68,000 individuals.
The temporary protection granted by all EU member states to refugees from Ukraine facilitates their integration process as it allows for the automatic granting of a temporary residence permit, which in France, for example, is equivalent to a work permit and access to universal health protection. Elisabeth Borne, Minister of Labor, declared on Friday, April 1, that more than 600 companies have expressed interest in the government platform dedicated to the reception of Ukrainian displaced persons, with “7,000 job offers,” particularly in the high-volume hotel and restaurant sector. On February 28, the Minister of Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, announced in an interview that trains would be free for Ukrainian refugees, thus following in the footsteps of Poland, Germany, and Austria. The telephone company Free announced the launch of a special package for two months, intended for Ukrainian refugees in France. It allows unlimited calls to their country, four hours in France and to Poland, unlimited SMS, and provides 10 gigs of Internet data.
This impulse of solidarity was not only carried by the government and by the companies, but also by numerous citizen initiatives. All over France, people organized themselves to welcome the Ukrainian refugees and help them integrate into French life. Although this solidarity is quite commendable, it has been accompanied by comments from several actors in the political scene showing the unabashed racism that inhabits French political life today. “This is not (…) Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s a relatively civilized, relatively European city (…) where you wouldn’t expect this,” CBS News’ special correspondent in Ukraine, Charlie D’Agata, said Friday. “We are not talking about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime supported by Vladimir Putin,” noted journalist Philippe Corbé on BFMTV, “the first news channel” of France. “We are talking about Europeans who are living in their cars that look like our cars (…) and who are just trying to save their lives,” he said. The editorialist, Christophe Barbier, meanwhile, said that there was “an obvious humanitarian gesture” to have with the Ukrainians, especially because they “are Europeans of culture.” The President of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, described Ukrainian immigration as “a high-quality immigration that we can take advantage of”.
The France of today sees the rise and the trivialization of the extreme right and racism. The case of Ukrainian immigration is thus only a reflection of what is occurring politically in France. There was a striking difference in treatment between Ukrainian immigration and immigration from the Middle East or Africa. This latent racism is not only verbal; it is also reflected in the incredible display of solidarity mentioned above. This treatment had no equivalent a few months ago during the arrival of the Afghan immigrants. Of course, the main argument used is the fact that Ukraine is in Europe, and that the threat is closer than the one in the Middle East, but it always implies racism for what is extra European.
The war in Ukraine revives fear of a new world war, the memory of these events being still alive in Europe. Europeans welcome millions of Ukrainian refugees with open arms. But when Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans recently took the same migratory route, they denounced a new “migrant crisis” and denied their refugee status. When we look at the French migration policy and especially the management of the so-called “Calais Jungle”, it is the complete opposite of what we see with the Ukrainian refugees. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin criticized the UK’s “totally inadequate response” and “lack of humanity” to Ukrainian refugees turned away in Calais, in a letter to his British counterpart Priti Patel. “We have asked (…) to be able to work so that we can increase the number of accommodation places. We can now accommodate up to 100,000 refugees on the national territory, it is a big effort for the state and local authorities,” he said at the end of a meeting of the Interdepartmental Crisis Center dedicated to the Ukrainian issue.
However, we remember the accident of Wednesday, November 24, when at least twenty-seven people died in the sinking of their boat off Calais. The refugee camps in Calais have been dismantled many times by the French police, forcing the refugees to live in deplorable conditions denounced by many associations such as Utopia66.”We have been denouncing and warning about the dangerous situation at the border for years”, estimating that “more than 300” migrants have died on the coast since 1999, commented Charlotte Kwantes, head of the association Utopia56. “As long as safe passage routes are not set up between England and France, or as long as these people cannot be regularized in France, whether Darmanin comes to Calais or not, there will be deaths at the border.” In France, Calais is not an isolated case. The practice of deteriorating the tents of exiles has been noted and documented for several years by field workers, activists, and journalists. The photojournalist Louis Witter has demonstrated this through several reports in the camps of Grande-Synthe. On December 29, 2020, during an evacuation of a migrant camp in the woods of Puythouck, Grande-Synthe (North). And more recently, on November 16, 2021, during an early morning eviction in Grande-Synthe in a camp gathering nearly 1000 people. Thus this double discourse puts the French state in a paradigmatic situation, showing its flaws and especially its ideological shift towards the extreme right.