WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Almost lost amid the media buzz around the NATO summit, France's prestigious national planning commission (Commissariat general du Plan) published last week a stunning report on immigration that challenges the conventional wisdom that low European birthrates will require massive immigration in the future.
"There is no demographic issue that justifies the encouragement of mass immigration in the coming years," says the conclusion of the report of the highly respected state research body known in France as the Plan.
"Immigration will resolve neither the problem of an aging population nor the foreseeable deficits of our pension system," it goes on.
The report, titled "Immigration, Labor Markets and Integration," carries no policy recommendation. It simply lays out the available facts and their implications for French employment in the future, says Francois Heran, chairman of the Plan's study group that produced the report. (He is also the director of France's National Institute of Demographic Studies.) But the conclusion can hardly be more clear.
"It is necessary to fight against the claim that immigration is a solution to the problem of an aging population," Heran told France's Le Figaro daily.
The report may bring some cool sense and reflection into Europe's anguished immigration debate. In recent months, anti-immigration parties in France, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Britain have scored unusual successes at the polls. A central factor in their political rise -- and in their propaganda -- has been the growing consensus that Europe's aging population would need mass immigration in the future.
That consensus stems in large part from last year's report by the Population Division of the U.N. Secretariat, called "Replacement Migration." It said fertility rates of 61 nations had fallen so far below replacement levels that their populations were becoming "dangerously unbalanced," and would soon have too few workers to fund their pension systems.
The U.N. report focused on eight countries in particular, including Italy, Japan, Britain, the United States and Russia, and predicted that Europe's population will fall from 722 million to 600 million in the next decade, Japan's by 20 million. The solution for Europe, the U.N. report went on, would be to import well over 100 million new immigrants. France alone would need to import some 500,000 immigrants a year -- five times more than the country currently absorbs.
France's counter-report from the Plan says that the demographic trends are not nearly so gloomy, and that France in particular has large reserves of unemployed, underemployed and prematurely retired who could easily make up any shortfall in the labor market. At most, France might need to increase its immigration by 10,000 to 20,000 a year.
Moreover, the Plan team stress that their survey of immigrants workers in France suggests very strongly that they do not provide the kinds of skills that the French economy will need in the future, and that the relatively low economic performance of immigrants suggests that they are unlikely to be net contributors to the welfare and pension system.
"Working immigrants are concentrated at the bottom of the ladder," the report finds. "They are twice as likely to be unemployed as the national average, and twice as likely to have no vocational qualifications. They are three times more likely to remain in jobs earning the minimum wage, without promotion. Manual and semi-skilled workers account for only 25 percent of the French labor force, but 48.5 percent of all manual workers are immigrants."
Unemployment is running at 9.8 percent in France, but at 21 percent among immigrants. Immigrants with jobs are almost twice as likely to be in part-time or seasonal work, or to be employed in the construction industry or in the less-skilled parts of the wholesale and retail trades.
With some exceptions, like hospital and sanitation staff, these are not the kinds of immigrants that the French economy needs, is one clear implication of the Plan report, which gives a statistical endorsement to the French government policy of rationing work permits to immigrants with high qualifications.
But there is a second implication of the report, suggesting that discrimination may be part of the problem. On average among 29-year-old children of French manual workers, only 4 percent are likely to be unemployed, a figure that rises to 15 percent for the child of an Algerian worker of the same age. Children of North African immigrants find it much harder to get qualifications or to improve their situation in life, while children of Spanish or Portuguese immigrants are as socially mobile as the French. Heran says the fact of discrimination is "unarguable -- but not easy to prove in the statistics."
If the Plan group is right -- and their reputation rests on their success in crafting France's economic strategy since 1946 -- Europe's real task for the future is less to import more immigrants than to make a better job of absorbing and educating and finding work for those they already have.