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From the Field

Immigration in the French Countryside

Diverse Origins and Destinations

What place do immigrants occupy in the French countryside? By examining detailed data from the last five decades, Julie Fromentin shows that while there has been moderate growth in their numbers over this period, there has above all been considerable diversification in terms of their countries of origin and the places in which they settle.

Since the 2000s, French society has been marked by growing social and territorial inequalities (Lambert and Cayouette-Remblière 2021; Fleury et al. 2012). This trend is not unique to France and is part of the dynamics of globalization, which socially differentiates and polarizes territories (Sassen 1991; Veltz 2014). While intra-urban inequalities have long been the focus of scientific, media and political attention, since the 2010s the focus has shifted to inequalities between large cities, where populations and higher service sector activities are concentrated, and the rest of the territory, which is said to be outside these dynamics. In France, this idea is embodied in debates around "peripheral France" (Guilluy 2014) and the "territorial divide" (Davezies 2012), which is said to be one of the main dividing lines in contemporary society. According to these readings, the economic, demographic and social trajectories of a large part of the French countryside are increasingly diverging from those of the more cosmopolitan and diverse metropolises.

However, as in the big cities, the settlement of the French countryside—whether periurban or far from the influence of the cities—is tending to diversify, particularly from the point of view of international migration: immigrants are increasingly numerous, their geographical origins increasingly varied, and their geographical distribution less and less restricted to the productive, agricultural and industrial countryside of the south and east of the country. A diachronic, multiscalar analysis of the changing geography of immigration in these areas, based on population censuses from 1968 to 2015, [1] shows that immigration to the countryside is both a long-standing and evolving phenomenon, contributing to the demographic renewal of these areas and the diversification of their population.

The contribution of immigrants to the demographic renewal of rural France

Since the end of the Second World War, the immigrant population—defined as all people born abroad and permanently resident in France—has grown in numbers and relative weight in the French population. Whereas in 1968 there were 3.2 million immigrants in France, representing 6.6% of the resident population, there were 6.5 million at the 2018 census (9.7%). Compared with France’s periods of high immigration—the second half of the 19th century, the interwar period and the Trente Glorieuses (France’s postwar boom years, from 1945 to 1975)—this growth in the immigrant population remains modest (Noiriel 2006). It concerns all types of area, albeit in varying proportions and at different rates (Figure 1).

The first observation is that, on the whole, the countryside follows the major national trends: significant growth in the immigrant population until the mid-1970s, then a period of slowdown following the suspension of labor immigration, before a new upturn at the turn of the 2000s. Far from being isolated from the dynamics of migration, the countryside has a long history of immigration, which is neither linear nor static.

Figure 1. Change in immigrant population between 1968 and 2015 by type of area

Source: INSEE, population censuses, 1968–2015, primary and supplementary analyses. Data presentation: Julie Fromentin, 2022.

Scope: All communes (municipalities) in mainland France, grouped by type of space. [2]

Interpretation: Between 1968 and 1975, the average annual rate of change in the immigrant population of all municipalities located in a major urban center was 3% per year.

The different types of countryside did not evolve in the same way: while it’s true that the agricultural and industrial countryside (yellow in Figure 1) or low-density, ageing areas (green) saw their immigrant population decline during the 1970s and 1980s, this was not the case for the densely populated urban countryside (dark blue), which from the 1980s onwards saw a recovery in line with the periurbanization phenomenon that characterized this period. During the 1990s and 2000s, it was once again in the periurban countryside (densified by cities) and above all in the low-density, low-income, presential and agricultural aged countryside (light green) that the rates of change were the highest, up to +5% per year. These dynamics are part of a broader trend of demographic growth in certain French rural areas, which is particularly marked during this period and is based, not on natural growth, but mainly on residential migration, both national and international in scope.

Finally, the most recent period (2008-2015) has seen a slowdown in migration. However, two types of rural areas stand out: “densified urban countryside” and “diffuse urban countryside.” This shows the importance of the contribution made by immigrants to the process of periurbanization since the late 2000s, which has extended to the outer suburbs of large conurbations and the outer suburbs of medium-sized conurbations. This attests to the new residential practices of these populations, who are increasingly settling in these periurban areas, in particular to access home ownership (Lambert 2015). More broadly speaking, immigrant populations have been contributing to the various facets of the demographic renewal process in the French countryside since the 1990s (Pistre 2011).

From the diversification of immigrant origins to the diversification of territories

Immigration to the countryside is generally associated with a few specific profiles: we think, for example, of South European or Moroccan immigration to the agricultural sector in the south of France (Crenn 2013; Crenn and Tersigni 2013), or of British immigration to the isolated rural areas of western France in the 2000s (Buller and Hoggart 1994; Cognard 2011). However, these few figures do not exhaust the diversity of immigrant profiles in the French countryside. Figure 2 shows the evolution, since the late 1960s, of the number of immigrants from the fifteen countries of birth most represented in the French countryside at the 2015 census. At that date, these countries accounted for almost 80% of the immigrant population in the countryside, compared with 95% in 1968. A series of breaks and continuities in the changing composition of the immigrant population are thus observable.

Figure 2. Change in the number of immigrants in the French countryside between 1968 and 2015, by country of birth and type of countryside

Source: INSEE, population censuses, 1968–2015, primary and supplementary analyses. Data presentation: Julie Fromentin, 2022.

Scope: All immigrants living outside urban centers in mainland France.

Interpretation: To make the graphs easier to read, the scale of the ordinate axis varies from one graph to another. For example, while the immigrant population from Madagascar may appear to be larger in 2015 than that from Spain, the ordinate values on each axis must be taken into account: the immigrant population from Madagascar numbered 12,355 in the French countryside in 2015, compared with 82,409 for the immigrant population from Spain.

First of all, current immigration is largely based on the legacy of past migratory waves which, while gradually being replaced by others, continue to structure the settlement of the countryside. This is the case of former immigrant groups, which are declining both in absolute and relative terms, although some remain very important in absolute terms (Spain, Italy). Other groups have continued to play a structuring role (Portugal), or have acquired (Turkey, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Romania, Madagascar) or regained (Algeria, Tunisia, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany) importance recently as a result of new internal or international migrations, so that today’s immigrant population in the countryside is the result of this mixture between the heritage of old waves and contemporary reconfigurations of migratory flows.

In addition, different groups of native-born people do not settle in the same types of countryside at the same times. For a long time in the 20th century, it was the industrial or agricultural countryside that saw large numbers of new arrivals, particularly European immigrants who constituted a significant workforce (Poland, Belgium, Italy, etc.). Since the 1960s, rural areas closer to major cities have been preferred settlement areas for certain groups (Algeria, Portugal), but since the 2000s they have also seen new arrivals via the residential mobility of individuals from cities to their outskirts at different stages in their life course (Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey) or through cross-border periurban mobility linked to the development of the Geneva conurbation (Switzerland). Lastly, while some groups have only recently established themselves in very specific areas, such as immigrants from the UK and the Netherlands, who are attracted by the living environment and attractive real estate and land prices in the sparsely populated countryside of western France, other emerging groups (Romania, Madagascar) are characterized by a more homogeneous distribution across the country, linked to a diversity of residential and professional practices. In the case of immigrants from Romania, for example, EU accession in 2007 accelerated labor migration to France, which has been recomposed in the dual direction of more permanent and more dispersed settlement across the country, in line with the diversification of their professional activities (farming, construction, etc.).

This diversification in the geographical origins of immigrants on a national scale has effects on a local scale, leading to the emergence of territories that are themselves increasingly diverse (Figure 3). Thus, we have moved from a binary configuration, with territories of very low immigration (Class 1) and rural areas marked by high North African and South European immigration (Class 2), characteristic of massive labor immigration in the south and east of France, to much more complex configurations. Between 1975 and 2015, new classes of catchment areas emerged, characterized by higher levels of immigration and/or greater diversity in the geographic origins represented.

Figure 3. Increasing diversity in the French countryside

Source: INSEE, population censuses, 1968–2015, primary and supplementary analyses. Data presentation: Julie Fromentin, 2022.

Scope: All sparsely populated “living zones” [3] in mainland France, excluding Corsica (n = 1,404).

Note: Typology obtained by a CAH performed on the first seven principal components of a principal component analysis (78% of total variance). The method and neighborhood profiles are detailed in chapter 8 of the thesis (Fromentin 2021).

Much of the countryside in the south-west has specialized in immigration from Northern and Western Europe (Class 4). While immigrants represent a sizeable proportion of the population (7% on average), only a few origin groups are strongly represented, mainly immigrants from the UK and the Netherlands.

However, this configuration is not the dominant one, and most catchment areas have experienced some form of diversification of their immigration. In the Paris basin and near the Swiss border, the diversification dynamic is very marked, with the transition from areas of South European and North African immigration (Class 2) to catchment areas characterized by significant immigration (over 9% of the population) and highly diversified populations in terms of geographic origin—immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia (Class 5). This spatial configuration also applies to small towns, particularly in western France, where accommodation facilities for exiled populations have been opening up since the mid-2010s. This diversification is even more pronounced in the French part of Greater Geneva, where the highly internationalized social and economic environment attracts a wide variety of profiles, both on the highly-skilled labor market—in international organizations, for example—and on the low-skilled labor market—in the hotel and catering sector, for example—so that immigrants account for over 17% of the population (Class 6).

Finally, a large proportion of the catchment areas characterized by low immigration and low diversity in 1975 have become territories of "low immigration but high diversity" (Class 3). This result illustrates a low-key yet major change in the way the French countryside is populated: while some areas are still only marginally affected by the dynamics of migration, they are nonetheless traversed and inhabited by individuals with increasingly varied profiles and trajectories.

Figure 4. Dalanda at INSTEP, where she attends her compulsory French lessons (in Foix, Ariège, southwestern France), 2019

© Céline Gaille/Hans Lucas for Camigri, a project financed by the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche – French National Research Agency) and Nouvelle-Aquitaine Regional Council.

The social diversity of the French countryside

Contrary to many representations of rural and periurban areas as socially homogeneous spaces, particularly in terms of their link to population migration, it can be argued that the French countryside as a whole is increasingly diverse in terms of the geographical origins of the population that makes it up. The process of diversification appears to be an overall characteristic of the countryside. More precisely, it is now the most common method of increasing the immigrant population in the countryside. While these trends are linked to the global reshaping of migratory flows to France, they are also closely linked to the reshaping of the countryside - the strengthening of its residential and recreational function, changes in representations and the positive value attached to natural amenities, changes in production systems (restructuring of industry, strengthening of productivist agriculture, rise of subordinate wage-earning in the tertiary sector), etc. Finally, these analyses call for greater attention to be paid to the social diversity of the French countryside, and for their links to migration to be taken into account in the analysis of social divisions of space, in the same way as other socio-demographic variables.


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To cite this article:

Julie Fromentin & translated by Oliver Waine, “Immigration in the French Countryside. Diverse Origins and Destinations”, Metropolitics, 27 February 2024. URL :

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