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France shifts abruptly on welcoming refugees. Why?

President Hollande said France would admit 24,000 refugees over the next two years. Several factors appear to play into a changing public attitude.

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President François Hollande announced at the Elysee Palace in Paris Monday that France would accept more refugees.

Francois Mori/AP

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When France agreed yesterday to take in 24,000 asylum-seekers over the next two years, it was an abrupt reversal for a country that just recently was pressing Italy to shut its borders to stop migrants en route to France, and assigning hundreds of more police to patrol its porous border with Britain at Calais.

President François Hollande invoked national values as he made the announcement, saying that “asylum is a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution ... we need to act with humanity and responsibility.”

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Equally eye-catching has been the growing support for stronger humanitarian action across France, which had seen a surge in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment in recent months. Mayors from a dozen cities agreed last week to create policies to accept more refugees. The non-profit Singa organization is working to create an Airbnb-type system to connect refugees with French hosts. And over the weekend, 10 cities planned gatherings in support of migrants, including Paris, where several thousand people met on Republique square holding signs reading “Europe wake up” and “Open the border.”

Behind the "remarkable" shift, says Paul Vallet, an independent international relations expert based in Geneva, lies the psychological impact of the death of the three-year-old Syrian, Alan, whose body washed ashore last week as his family tried to reach Europe. He also cited the expanding profile of the people, particularly Syrians, risking everything to reach Europe. 

“People are leaving their home countries out of desperation and we have a moral obligation in Europe to welcome and help people,” said protester John Gillespie, holding up a sign with a photo of Alan. He, like many people in France, distinguishes between a refugee fleeing war and an economic migrant. “There’s a big difference between migrants and refugees. We have a moral obligation to help people leaving home out of desperation, but I’m not in favor of letting people just come in to cash in on our benefits.”

Traditionally conservative

Yet celebrating France's newfound tolerance could be premature. An Oxoda poll last week showed that 55 percent of respondents were against easing the rules for people seeking refugee status, including Syrians.

France has traditionally remained conservative on the migrant – and immigrant – question. It has seen a growing populist movement in recent months, primarily led by Marine Le Pen’s National Front party. The country saw a 70 percent increase in anti-Islamic attacks after the assault by Islamist militants on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher grocery store in Paris in January, according to the French Council against Islamophobia. Seventeen people were were killed in the two attacks, which were seen as an assault on French values and the Jewish community.

In April, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that racism and hatred toward Muslims and foreigners had increased to an unbearable level in France.

But playing a role in the shifting outlook could be another factor: regional competition with longtime rival Germany. France, which touts itself as a global human rights leader, has until now been reluctant to agree to the EU Commission's plans to redistribute refugees or to take the lead on the migrant crisis. Meanwhile, Germany is expecting some 800,000 migrants in 2015 and has thrown open its border with Austria to help deal with the influx of migrants coming through Hungary. Over the weekend, images flooded the Internet of hundreds of Germans welcoming migrants with balloons and signs at a Munich train station.

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Mr. Vallet says aligning with Germany could have added benefits for France’s left-wing government.

“When it comes to the migrant situation, we’re not facing a different problem at all to what happened a few months ago, but there is obviously some internal political calculation going on here,” says Vallet. “A hard policy of keeping borders shut generates bad press for the government down the line, especially with the presidential elections on the way.”

While the current pro-refugee sentiment in France appears to be genuine, many are waiting for concrete moves. Ministers from EU countries, including France, are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Sept. 14 to decide on measures to better deal with the flow of migrants.

“If the government’s declarations are sincere, they have to be followed up by actions,” says Louise Carr, actions coordinator for uprooted people at Amnesty International France. “I hope that when EU countries meet in Brussels on Sept. 14, they will open legal and safe routes for refugees to come safely to Europe.”