France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen did something out of character when Russia invaded Ukraine: she advocated welcoming refugees fleeing the war.

“They are neighbours, they are Europeans, and we must shelter them from the war as long as it lasts,” she said.

Her stance on Ukrainian refugees broke a taboo in the far-right movement her father founded that has long put opposition to all forms of immigration at its centre.

The war has also shifted the focus of the election campaign away from fiery rhetoric about immigration and supposed threats to French identity. Voters now tell pollsters they are far more worried about cost of living issues, as petrol and energy prices continue to rise.

Immigration will still loom large in the last days of campaigning, especially since Le Pen looks set to make the run-off against incumbent Emmanuel Macron in what would be a repeat of the 2017 poll.

But the figures disprove the dark picture painted by rightwing and far-right politicians such as Le Pen who say immigration is out of control. Most of France’s neighbours have more foreign-born people as a proportion of their population, and immigration is growing at a slower rate than in other wealthy European countries.

“The obsession of France with immigration has more to do with unsettled issues related to its history and persisting difficulties regarding the socio-economic inclusion of immigrants and their descendants, rather than to the actual scope and reality of the phenomenon,” said Jean-Christophe Dumont, who heads international migration research for the OECD.

Many of the candidates in France’s two-round election have laid out proposals to limit immigration.

Conservative Valérie Pécresse would set quotas by nationality and reasons for arrival.

Far-right newcomer Eric Zemmour has called for “immigration zero” to bring arrivals down to a minimum, and warned that France’s very survival was at risk from the “great replacement”, a conspiracy theory which posits that Muslim immigrants will overwhelm Europe’s native inhabitants.

Even the centrist Macron has pledged to do more to ensure that people whose asylum applications are rejected actually leave the country.

In keeping with her campaign slogan “Give the French their country back”, Le Pen’s programme includes rewriting the constitution to give France new powers to tightly control its borders and cut off immigrants from housing subsidies and healthcare.

She also wants to end birthright citizenship and the policy of “family reunification” that allows foreign-born French residents to bring over their children or spouse, the most common reason for residency permits to be issued.

About 13 per cent of people in France in 2020 were born elsewhere, which is only just above the 12 per cent EU average, and lower than the OECD average of 14 per cent.

Since 2007, the share of foreign-born people in France has increased by 1.7 percentage points, slower than in Germany (+6.5 percentage points since 2009), Spain (+3.2 since 2007) and the UK (+3.1 since 2009) — all of which have larger shares of foreigners.

“France used to be a country of mass immigration, but this has not been the case for many decades,” said Dumont.

Where France does differ is that it has a higher proportion of children of immigrants than the EU average — a consequence of both a postwar policy to import large numbers of labourers to work in industries such as carmaking and construction, as well as its history as a colonial power in Africa.

Although France stopped importing workers en masse in the 1970s as growth slowed, Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front around the same time. Now known as the National Rally (RN), its influence on French politics has turned immigration into a poisonous subject ever since.

Politicians on the far-right and some of their supporters often group immigrants and their descendants together, implicitly questioning their loyalty to the republic — especially if they are Muslim. Both Le Pen and Zemmour want to ban women from wearing the veil in public.

Macron’s rightwing rivals have criticised his government as too lax, pointing to how many who are subject to deportation orders do not leave the country.

A government official said this happens because their home countries refuse to accept them, blaming a “lack of co-operation” from countries such as Algeria, Mali, Morocco or Senegal.

“There is a consensus in France that we have lost control over immigration,” said Patrick Stefanini, Pécresse’s campaign manager and author of a book on the topic.

Yet Le Pen seems to have realised that welcoming the refugees could help her politically, said Christèle Lagier, an expert on the far-right at Avignon University.

“She has been working on detoxifying her party for decades and this is yet another step in that direction,” said Lagier.

Soon after the war began, Louis Aliot, Le Pen’s number two in the RN, chartered buses to Poland and brought back 113 Ukrainian refugees to Perpignan where he is mayor. He documented the “humanitarian operation” on his Facebook page.

Another far-right mayor, Robert Ménard, even apologised on television for his past opposition to helping refugees from Syria.

“There are not two kinds of victims,” he said. “The European Christian ones that we should defend and other ones from the Middle East who are Muslim that we were right not to accept back then. This attitude was wrong, and I regret it.”

About 21,000 Ukrainians have received temporary visas to stay in France. Polls show that 85 per cent of the public are favourable to helping them, compared with only 43 per cent in favour of welcoming Syrian refugees in 2015, according to pollster Elabe.

Asked why the RN had changed tack on refugees and was more open to helping Ukrainians than Syrians, Aliot said: “These are women and children fleeing bombs, but with the Syrians it was all men and there was the risk that the convoys would be infiltrated with potential terrorists.”

Aliot added: “The moment there is a ceasefire, the Ukrainians will all want to go home.”

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