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Eight key takeaways from landmark French immigration study

How many immigrants are there in France? Where do they come from? How has immigration shaped their lives?

A photo of shadows of people walking on a road coloured in a French tricolore flag

10% of the population in France is currently an immigrant, defined as someone born with non-French nationality in a country outside of France, Insee said Pic: Robsonphoto / Shutterstock

A major new demographic study has explored immigration into France for the first time in a decade. 

The dossier, by the French statistics bureau Insee, was published on Thursday (March 30).

It mainly used data from 2021, the most recent available. 

Here we look at its main findings.

Read more: Nationality, visas, asylum: Why immigration rose in France in 2021 

1. One-in-ten people in France is an immigrant

The study found that there were an estimated seven million immigrants living in France in 2021, equivalent to 10.3% of the population.

The study defined ‘immigrant’ as someone who was “born with a foreign nationality in a foreign country”.

2. More than a third of immigrants acquired French nationality

The study found that many immigrants become significantly integrated into France, especially those who have children (second-generation) and grandchildren (third-generation), in the country.
It also found more than a third (36%) of people who arrived in France as immigrants acquired French nationality.

3. Nearly half of immigrants in France come from Africa

The study found that 50 years ago, most immigrants in France had come from southern Europe. This has now changed.

In 2021, they were more likely to come from north Africa (the Maghreb region), Africa, or Asia.

  • In 2011, there were 882,000 immigrants to France from Spain and Italy
  • In 2021, this had dropped to 543,000
  • In 2011, there were 1.63 million immigrants from the Maghreb 
  • In 2021, there were more than 2 million immigrants from the Maghreb

Overall, almost half of the immigrants in France come from Africa (3.31 million of a total of 6.96 million).

4. More than half of the immigrants living in France are women

Challenging the stereotype that most immigrants are single men, the study revealed that 52% of immigrants living in France are women. 

This has risen from 44% in 1968.

As with the immigrant population in general (see below), women are particularly likely to be “estranged” from the world of work, even though they are likely to have similar, if not higher, levels of education than immigrant men. 

Insee said: “{Women are] nine times’ more likely to be inactive and three times less likely to be in full-time employment than men.” 

The bureau said that while this could be partly because many immigrants make their journeys for family reasons, “including, often, the goal of raising a family,” this alone did not explain the gap.

“The probability of being inactive rises with the number of children, and whether they live with a partner,” Insee said.

5. Immigrants are more likely to be affected by unemployment

In 2021, 13% of immigrants were unemployed, compared to 7% of the general population in France.

Immigrants are over-represented in certain jobs, such as at-home carers and maternelle assistants for women, and the construction sector for men. 

They are more likely to be in interim and temporary contracts compared to the rest of the population, and “often are in less-skilled jobs, associated with lower pay and more difficult working conditions”.

Insee said that 39% of immigrant men in employment are unskilled workers, compared to 29% of men who are neither immigrants themselves nor descendants of immigrants.

Insee suggested that lower employment levels among immigrants could partly be due to “hiring discrimination”. It said that it had tested the difference between immigrant job applications and non-immigrant applications. 

“Similar candidates with a suspected Maghreb origin receive 32% fewer callbacks than those without the suspected origin, even though both say that they have done all of their education, diploma, and work, exclusively in France,” it wrote.

The lower employment levels could also be due to employers not recognising foreign qualifications, and also due to immigrants tending to have lower levels of French language skills. 

This is especially the case for refugees, who are less likely to be from French-speaking countries (30%) compared to other immigrants to France (67%).

6. Immigrants are more likely to be poor

Immigrants are twice as likely as the rest of the population to suffer from financial poverty, especially those from Africa and Asia.

In 2019, at least half of immigrants earned less than €1,417 per month; 15% less on average than immigrant descendants, and 26% less on average than people without any recent immigrant background.

Insee said: “19% of immigrants born in Africa cannot have a personal car for financial reasons, versus only 3% of immigrants born in Europe. 47% of those from Africa cannot have a week of holiday away from home, compared to 22% of immigrants from Europe.”

Immigrants are also more likely to be in poor health. Insee found that 10% of immigrant men are likely to be in “bad or very bad health”, compared to 7% of the non-immigrant population, and 5% of descendants of immigrants.

7. Descendants of immigrants have high social mobility

Despite these challenges, the study shows that descendants of immigrants tend to have upward social mobility in terms of education and work.

Insee said: “The level of diplomas among immigrant descendants is very close to the non-immigrant and non-descendant-of-immigrants population.” This shows a strong rise in education levels and social mobility from one generation to another.

“A third (33%) of descendants of immigrants, whose father was an unskilled worker, go on to become managers or have a semi-skilled profession,” the study states. 

This is higher than the figure (27%) for those who are not descendants of immigrants.

Around 32% of immigrants have higher-education qualifications, which rises to 38% among the descendants of immigrants, compared to 41% of the non-immigrant population.

8. Immigrants are more likely to be religious

Immigrants in France are more likely to be religious than the wider non-immigrant population. 

In 2019-2020, 51% of the general population aged 18-59 in metropolitan France said they did not have a religion. 

This rises to 59% among people with no recent (within three generations) immigration background. 

In contrast, only 19% of immigrants who arrived in France after age 16 say the same, rising to 26% among descendants of immigrants.

  • 29% of the immigrant population said they were Catholic
  • 10% said they were Muslim
  • 9% said they were another form of Christianity

Among descendants of religious families: 

  • 91% of people raised in a Muslim home follow their parents’ religion
  • 84% of people raised in a Jewish home do the same
  • As do 67% of people raised in a Catholic home
  • And 60% among other forms of Christianity

Insee said: “The fact of having grown up in a family of mixed religious or Catholic background is decisive when it comes to the secularisation of immigrant descendants.”

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France to develop ‘more demanding immigrant integration process’
French tests, more workers: France’s immigration bill begins debate
Language test, new residence permit: ministers share immigration plans

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