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France sends emigrants to more countries than anyone else

Global migration isn't just about where immigrants to a given country come from. It also shows where emigrants from each country go.

And the country whose natives have immigrated to the highest number of countries isn't one you might expect:

France nation of emigrants

The yellow and green countries on the map are the countries with at least 1,000 residents who were born in France. In all, according to the Pew Research Center, there are 83 of these countries and territories — meaning France has emigrant populations in more countries than anyone else.

The breadth of the French emigrant population — which totals 2 million people in all — is also impressive. There are substantial French-emigrant communities not only throughout the Western world, but throughout North Africa and much of Latin America. The scale that demographers use to rate how diverse a country's immigrant or emigrant population is goes from 0 to 100; the French diaspora rates a 95 on the diversity scale.

Why France, and not a poorer country?

This doesn't jibe with stereotypes about global migration. When people think of countries that send immigrants to other places — "sending countries" — they think of poorer countries that people would want to escape for a better life. And when they think of richer countries, they think of them as places that receive those immigrants from elsewhere.

That stereotype is absolutely correct — in terms of total number of people migrating from one place to another. The countries that receive the most immigrants are the most developed countries. France, for example, may have 2 million natives living in other countries, but there are about 7.4 million people living in France who were born elsewhere.

Logically, then, it seems like the country sending immigrants most broadly across the globe might be a very poor country, where anywhere else would be a better place to make a living than home. But migration patterns over the last fifty years have shown that's not the case. Immigrants don't go to just any country that's better off than their native land — they go to the very best-off countries. As a result, as migration demographers Mathias Czaika and Hein de Haas have found, "migrants from an increasingly diverse array of origin countries have concentrated in a decreasing pool of prime destination countries." So the countries that send the most migrants, in terms of number of people, aren't sending them to the most places.

A throwback to an earlier era of migration

Why was it that immigrants used to come from a narrower range of countries than they do today, and move to a wider range than they do today? Because up until very recently, immigration hasn't been mostly something that happens from poor countries to richer ones. It's been the other way round.

Historically, immigration has gone hand in hand with conquest — once one country invaded another one, or took it as a colony, people from the conquering nation would have to move in to keep the peace and manage the population. Individual migrants moved all sorts of places, as they do today, but the biggest flows of immigrants from one place to another were from a colonial or imperial power to its conquered lands.

National independence movements of the mid-20th century basically wiped out colonialism. But you can still see the connections between former colonies and their former overlords today — not only in terms of what languages are spoken in African nations, for example, but in migration flows as well. Former colonial powers, like Great Britain and France, still receive a lot of immigrants from their former colonies. And as the map shows, there are sizable French emigrant populations in many former French colonies in North and West Africa — meaning there's still significant migration in the original direction as well.

Obviously, America — with its origin narrative of being "a nation of immigrants" and "the land of opportunity" — is an exception to the rule here. But it's not that Americans don't have any concept of people moving from richer countries to poorer ones. It's just that we don't tend to call them immigrants. Instead, English-speakers use another word: expatriate, or expat.

It sounds perfectly reasonable to call France "a nation of expats" rather than "a nation of emigrants." But they're the same thing.