“Inever imagined I would live to see the day when I would be thankful to the Germans,” exclaimed a French woman this week. As Germany opened its borders and welcomed the refugees, that exclamation, and a collective sigh of relief in France, summed up the popular mood here. French President Francois Hollande has bravely offered to absorb 24,000 refugees in the next two years but the figure looked miserable compared to the 8,00,000 that German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to welcome this year.
Merkel’s move has won her the grudging admiration of the French, who agree that it would pay off Germany in the long run. When France needed able-bodied men and workers after the war, it had similarly welcomed ‘refugees’ fleeing Vietnam, Algeria and the colonies in Africa. But now, they would rather the Germans do it. A fast declining population in Germany (birth rate 8.2 per 1,000 compared to 12.7 in France), an aging population, and faster population growth elsewhere in Europe have set alarm bells ringing in Berlin, for there aren’t enough young men to fill up thousands of vacancies. French commentators are quick to point out that the German move is driven as much by idealism as pragmatism.
Merkel is in a happier position with the radical ‘right’ in Germany still hovering on the fringes. But Hollande appears far more vulnerable, with Marine Le Pen gaining in strength and the view of the man on the street being that she could dislodge him in 2017. Opinion polls suggest an overwhelming opposition to an influx of refugees.
While Germany has not faced any terror attack by Muslims in recent years, France has had a series of brushes with violent jehadis in 2015 itself. As a result, security measures are tighter and more intrusive. One can sense an uneasiness about Islamic terror, with mayors in some French cities offering to accept only “Christian refugees”.
There are other factors at work. Unlike in Germany, where the economy is flourishing, it has been sluggish in France. The unemployment rate here is twice as high as in Germany. In recent months, the Russian sanction on EU products has hit French farmers hard: prices of milk, beef and pork plummeted, export prices of wheat took a hit. Not the best of times for the immigrant here.
However, people fleeing war, dictators and religious extremism have a right to asylum in EU countries. France spends nearly twice on refugees than Germany and the UK, reports the Guardian. For years, therefore, immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been turning up in French cities in hundreds, if not thousands.
But the present influx from Syria has largely left France untouched. The language, one suspects, has worked as a more effective barrier than border police. And almost all among the 2,000-odd refugees detained at the port town of Calais seemed more anxious to cross the English channel. They tried to get into the Euro tunnel and hang onto trucks and the Eurostar headed in that direction. In August, British policemen were finally deployed in the French town to help France keep them away. They would happily send them to Germany.
By Uttam Sengupta in Paris