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WordFrames: ‘Migrants’ and ‘refugees’ in French media

Atelier convention: chiffres

Asylum Seekers Workshop at 1st French Convention On Welcoming Migrants, Grande-Synthe, March 1, 2018. Photo: Suzanne Lehn. Used with permission.

The WordFrames series explores media conversations around related word groups, comparing and contrasting their use and possible meaning in public discussions.

La crise des migrants en Europe compromet la survie de l'espace Schengen”
– Christine Lagarde, directrice générale du FMI [IMF], Davos, 23 janvier 2016

Nous ne pouvons pas accueillir plus de réfugiés
– Manuel Valls, Premier ministre français, Munich, 12 février 2016

(from the Asylum Seekers Workshop slide in the image above)

The migrant crisis in Europe compromises the survival of the Schengen space”
– Christine Lagarde, IMF executive director, Davos, Jan 23, 2016

We cannot take in more refugees.
– Manuel Valls, French Prime Minister, Munich, Feb 12, 2016
From the Asylum Seekers Workshop Slide…

As we can see from the quotes above, it has become more commonplace for many people to talk about an immigration “crisis”; however, the reality is that immigration is nothing new in France. So we wanted to get a sense of how this very large issue is currently framed in French media.

Our exploration first brought us to the term immigrant, or a person entering a country or area for a long-time stay or with the intention to settle there. We then looked at the term migrant and migration which describes the movement of individuals or groups from one place to another — something as old as humanity itself. Finally, we also looked at the words asylum seekers and refugees. 

As we looked deeper at this topic, we wanted to know: Can we learn more about this so-called crisis through an exploration of how the media discusses immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees?

A longer view of immigration in France

In broad terms, France became a country that welcomed immigration after the end of World War II in 1945. During the years of post-war reconstruction, France was experiencing a serious labor shortage and the government was eager to attract workers from all over the world.

Before and after Algeria's independence from France, Algerian workers contributed to the growth of the French economy and were allowed to bring along their families which contributed to the growth of a thriving Muslim community. At the end of the 1970s, France also rallied to welcome over 100,000 Vietnamese boat people who had fled their country after the collapse of the US-supported South Vietnamese regime.

However, in its more recent history, some feel that published immigration statistics in France are thought to lack detail and transparency. The government seems reluctant to provide developed statistics and there are continued disputes over the actual number of deportees — something the government considers to be a significant indicator of the efficiency of its immigration policies. Some of these deportees are repeatedly coming back, such as Romanians (who happen to be E.U. citizens.) However, once we take a closer look at the immigration issue in France, we can see some surprising facts — such as the fact that Albania was the first country of origin for asylum seekers in 2017. This uneasy relationship to facts has created a persistent gap between rhetoric and reality, leading to fueled suspicions, distrust, and the exploitation of xenophobic sentiments. This, unfortunately, can be seen in the language that some political figures use to discuss issues around immigration.

For example, compare the shifting statements of former socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, now an independent MP supporting President Macron's ruling party.

In September 2016, while he was PM, Valls stated the following:

Manuel Valls a appelé jeudi à “éviter toute déclaration à l'emporte-pièce” sur la question des migrants, estimant que si la France doit prendre sa part dans leur accueil, elle est “loin d'être submergée”.

Manuel Valls called on Thursday to “avoid piecemeal statements” on the issue of migrants, saying that while France must play its part in welcoming them, the country is “far from being overwhelmed”.

After taking on the role of MP again, Valls spoke at a radio station on January 21, 2018:

“We do not need another immigration”

Some may see the move from France being “far from overwhelmed” to “we do not need another immigration” as a testament to the change in rhetoric towards a more hardline stance on immigration from many sectors of the political sphere.

However, this closed door approach to immigration is not new, as we can see from a 1989 speech to parliament by former socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard:

Il y a, en effet, dans le monde trop de drames, de pauvreté, de famine pour que l’Europe et la France puissent accueillir tous ceux que la misère pousse vers elles.

There are, in fact, too many tragedies, poverty and famine in the world for Europe and France to take in all people pushed towards them by misery.

His words were later simplified into the mantra “France (and Europe) cannot take in all the world's poor”, a catchphrase that has been subsequently reused by politicians of all stripes to claim that the immigrant tolerance limit has been reached or exceeded. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, defending his asylum policies in November 2017, referred to Rocard's comment:

“La France est un pays généreux, mais elle ne peut pas prendre toute la misère du monde, comme disait Michel Rocard. Je ne peux pas tenir un discours démagogiquement dangereux sur ce sujet.”

“France is a generous country, but it cannot take in all the poverty of the world, as Michel Rocard said. I can't use demagogically dangerous language on this issue.”

In recent years, the issue of immigration and migrants has gained more and more glaring visibility — think of Calais and its infamous “Jungle” — which has fueled the rising electoral success of right-wing populist political parties all over Europe and elsewhere.

The rhetorical divide: “accepted” asylum seekers versus “turned away” economic migrants

What is Media Cloud?

Media Cloud is an open source platform developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Media Cloud is designed to aggregate, analyze, deliver and visualize information while answering complex quantitative and qualitative questions about the content of online media.

To begin our exploration, we used the Media Cloud data analysis tool (see box) to search for topics related to immigration and migration in several French media collections.

To try and look at how French media is representing the issues related to France itself, our first search looked at the use of immigration (and its associated word immigrants) as well as migration (and its associated word migrants) in sentences alongside the word “France” in the French media collections.

We started with November 2017 but ended up tightening the timeframe from 2018-01-01 to 2018-03-21, which provided 146 stories related to immigration and immigrants and 707 stories related to migration and migrants.

In the following word cloud we can see the associated keywords (in order of prevalence) that the term “immigration” had in common:

Word Cloud search results using the term “immigration” from 2018-01-01 to 2018-03-21. Translation of highlighted terms: law; bill; asylum; accepting; fact; should; asylum-immigration; smugglers; anti-immigration; Europe (and European).

Below we can see the keywords visualized into a bar graph. The keywords most frequently associated with the search terms “immigration” and “migration” were law, bill, Minister, asylum, presentation, migrants, right (legal sense), Muslims, take in:

Word Nb 1

Terms most frequently associated with “Immigration”. Translation of words: law, bill, Minister, asylum, presentation, migrants, right (legal sense), Muslims, take in. 

Search results show that some key themes are related to law, asylum, migrants, and Muslims. As we delved deeper and began to analyze the articles associated with the words, one example stood out in particular: The “asylum-immigration” bill.

The major provisions of the “asylum-immigration” bill, which was submitted to the Cabinet in February 2018, are intended to expand maximum detention periods and to restrict the possibilities of appeal. To “balance” this goal, the government has made provisions for an “integration” component, including some measures which might be added to the bill later on.

As we can see from the articles below, this bill is a contentious issue within France and has lead to raucous cries both for and against its implementation. Those speaking for the bill have mostly been government and ruling party representatives, while those speaking against it are mostly made up of NGO's and human rights groups:

Asile et immigration : “Il faut être ferme parce que l'on ne peut pas accueillir tout le monde” Europe1, 19 février 2018 : Interview de la députée LREM qui sera rapportrice du texte à l'Assemblée Nationale :

“Je crois qu'il était important d'avoir ce texte qui nous permet de mieux accueillir, de mieux intégrer […] et puis aussi d'être plus efficace, d'être plus ferme sur les reconduites”, développe l'élue. “L'objectif est de montrer que l'on a une identité en France, qui est celle du droit d'asile. On va la préserver et l'améliorer”, assure-t-elle.

“You have to be firm because you can't accept everyone.”Europe1 Radio station, Feb 19, 2018, Interview with the MP from ruling party LREM who will report for the bill in Parliament:

“I think it was important to have this bill which allows us to welcome better, to integrate better […] and then also to be more effective, to be firmer on the returns”, the M.P. explains. “The objective is to show that we have our identity in France, which is that of the right to asylum. We will preserve and improve it,” she assures.

Loi asile et immigration : “Une logique de contrôle, de tri et d'expulsion” Europe1 20 février 2018, Interview du président de la CIMADE, ONG de défense des droits des migrants:

“[…] le projet qui sera présenté demain est un projet de loi résolument répressif, dont le centre de gravité penche considérablement vers une logique de contrôle, de tri et d'expulsion des personnes migrantes”, déplore le responsable associatif. “Il serait tout à l'honneur du gouvernement d'assumer cette logique répressive et de ne pas nous enfumer avec, soi-disant, des textes équilibrés”

Asylum and immigration bill: “A logic of control, sorting and deportation” Europe1 Radio station, Feb 20, 2018, Interview with the President of NGO Cimade, defender of migrants’ rights:

“The draft that will be presented tomorrow is a resolutely repressive bill, whose centre of gravity is leaning considerably towards a logic of control, sorting and expulsion of migrants,” deplores the head of the association.

Here we are introduced to the crux of the issue — whether or not it is right to sort incoming migrants, creating distinctions between the type of migrant that will be accepted into the country.

The tensions become clearer when dominant themes are grouped together:

3 words Immigration

3-word combinations associated with “immigration”. Translation of terms, top to bottom: could/should take in refugees; all economic migrants; Muslim community Europe; law-asylum-immigration

The translation of the three-word combinations from top to bottom are as follows: could/should take in refugees; all economic migrants; Muslim community Europe Combos; law-asylum-immigration Combos. These combinations help us to understand the keyword terms in context as they show the words that most often precede or follow the keyword in a sentence.

When we look at the combinations themselves, we can see interesting points of conflict: “could/should take in refugees could be interpreted as a tension point between France as a so-called humanist state and defender of human rights and its actual closed-door immigration policy; and “all economic migrants” could be seen as a tension point between ‘accepted’ refugees and all others who must be denied access.

This idea of whether or not France should take in more migrants who are seeking to change their economic future can be seen in Minister of Interior Gérard Collomb's defense of the new “asylum-immigration” bill:

Collomb se dit “obligé de faire” un tri entre les migrants
L'Express, 11 février 2018

“On ne peut faire de manière exponentielle un accueil vis-à-vis de tout le monde, comme un certain nombre de gens le voudraient. Ils disent ‘on n'a pas besoin de faire un tri, on ne doit pas choisir entre ceux qui ont besoin de l'asile et les migrants économiques’ . Si ! On est obligé de le faire parce qu'à un moment donné, nous ne pourrons pas donner un avenir à tout le monde

Collomb says he is “compelled” to make a selection between migrants
L'Express, Feb 11, 2018

“We cannot exponentially accept everyone, as some people would like us to. They say ‘we don't have to sort, we shouldn't choose between those in need of asylum and economic migrants’. Yes, we do! We have to, because at some point we won't be able to give everyone a future.”

In this passage, we see Collomb making an arguing for the need to select people — separating those that are escaping wars and threats (they can prove) and those who are trying to find better jobs.

So, is a person's right to freedom of movement all in the name we give them?

From ‘migrants’ to ‘exilés': the human dimension

In order to erase the rhetorical divide between “accepted” asylum seekers and “turned away” economic migrants, and generally promote a human vision of individuals with a name and a fate, a number of NGOs and human rights groups are pushing to use the word “exiles” instead of migrants.

An “exile” is a person who was compelled by whatever reason (by choice or by force) to leave his/her home country and to settle in a foreign country. We added this term in our second search alongside the term “migrant” to see if the word “exile” brought out any interesting insights into the perception of migrants within the French context.

Word Cloud for “Exil* Translation: [deposed Catalonian president] Puigdemont ; [poisoned] Russian [ex-spy]; Belgium; dead; London; migrants

Exil* pulls up keywords that appear in recent news which still primarily applies to ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont (203 mentions in 2 and a half months), who escaped arrest by the Spanish government and fled to Belgium; and an ex-Russian spy found allegedly poisoned in the UK (89 ‘Londres’ and 84 ‘mort’ mentions), whereas “Migrants” has 56 mentions.

Word Cloud for Migrant* Translation of highlighted terms: Calais; between; NGOs/charities; Macron; taking in; Libya; dead; African(s); wounded; violence

The word cloud Migrant* produces Calais; associations (disagreements with state policies and police violence); Macron; and many references to vocabulary related to law, and legal/bureaucratic practices instituted by the state.

This Word Cloud reflects the fact that during the the time-slot of our search, the town of Calais (mostly a transit area for migrants bound for Britain) was repeatedly under the spotlight, mainly because of ‘rixes‘ (brawls) and ‘violence‘ ‘entre‘ (between) migrants/refugees who are ‘entre la vie et la mort‘ (between life and death), which left several ‘mort‘ (dead) and ‘blessés‘ (injured). Smugglers are at the roots of those territorial fights over control of parking lots where migrants, who are helped by smugglers, climb and hide into the haulers on their way to the U.K.:

France: cinq migrants entre la vie et la mort à Calais après des affrontements RFI, 1er février 2018

« Le conflit entre Afghans et Africains a toujours été sous-jacent. C'est malheureusement un schéma classique » de voir des affrontements entre eux, a commenté une source préfectorale.

France: five migrants between life and death in Calais after clashes RFI TV, Feb. 1, 2018

“The dispute between Afghans and Africans has always been underlying. It is unfortunately a classic pattern” to see confrontations between them,” commented a source from the prefecture.

The relationship between the government and associations (charities and NGOs) also soured:

Migrants à Calais : Macron dénonce les “mensonges” de certaines associations L'OBS 16 janvier 2018:

La rupture entre le milieu associatif et l'exécutif est consommée depuis plusieurs semaines, notamment après la décision du ministère de l'Intérieur d'autoriser des équipes à vérifier la situation légale des migrants dans les centres d'hébergement.

Migrants in Calais: Macron denounces the “lies” of some organizations L'OBS, Jan 16, 2018

The split between the voluntary sector and the government became effective a few weeks ago, notably after the Ministry of the Interior decided to allow [his] teams to check the legal status of migrants inside emergency accommodation centres.

We see that references to Calais don't appear in our search for “exiles” which makes it seem that the media isn't framing people in Calais as exiles but rather migrants or people who are on the move. This concept of migrants or migratory people is one that often implies that action should be taken to prevent  “fixation” and “appel d'air” or take-ins which supposedly attract more and more newcomers.

This chart of 3-word combinations gives us interesting clues about “migrants”, showing the prevalence of administration/bureaucracy concerns:

Trigrams Migrants

3-words combinations associated with “Migrants” Translation of words, top to bottom: should/could take in everyone; intolerable denial of humanity; bill/law asylum-immigration; clashes/brawl between migrants; all economic migrants; meals migrants Calais; between life death; non-profits helping migrants; census migrants shelters; emergency shelters.

Briefly summarizing our search results, the most prominent words framing the issue of immigration and migrants can be characterized as generally negative — the use of terms that imply a crisis, restrictions by law, or danger for overwhelmed countries of destination as well as for the migrants themselves abound.

Concluding thoughts

As we look back to the global stage, there does seem to be a crisis when it comes to forced displacement and the trend is likely here to stay now that numbers of “climate refugees” are projected to grow. But is France doing enough to use the country's full welcoming potential?

For some media outlets, public figures and experts, the answer to this question is “no”. In fact, some are tirelessly working to set the facts straight, to raise awareness about violations against migrant rights and to denounce state violence against vulnerable populations. Some are beginning to acknowledge that media coverage of immigration/migrants has some substantial gaps and are working to fill them. We can see this with the recent March 2018 French Convention Nationale sur l'Accueil et les Migrations, a meetup of various players in defense of migrant rights.

For some, the point is this: Calling people “migrants” is a way to characterize them as people on the move which defines them as people who should keep moving, as people who don't belong in “our” territory.

French sociologist and blogger Eric Fassin explains the power that the names we give to people have in the context of immigration:

“L’émigré, c'est celui qui est parti, l'immigré, c'est celui qui est arrivé, le migrant c’est celui qui n’a pas ‘vocation’ à être ici, ni nulle part : il ne fait que se déplacer”

“The emigrant is the one who has left, the immigrant is the one who has arrived, the migrant is the one who has no ‘purpose’ to be here, nor anywhere: he's just moving about”

In this case, solutions to the situation require us to change the very terms of our reporting. As long as the word “migrants”, which is devoid of any legal significance and therefore cautioned against by the U.N. and NGOs, is used to frame the situation, robust remedies to the crisis are difficult to foresee.

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