In my French classes this semester we have been discussing l'étranger in France and a lot of terms have come up that all seem to refer to immigrants in one way or another. Can you please help me to soft through the nuances? I've included my working understandings of each of the included terms.

immigré: someone who has come from another country but is well-established there now.

immigrant: someone who has only recently arrived in the country.

sans-papier: someone who has come to the country with no official documents, that is, passports or visas. May or may not be clandestin

migrant: someone who has come to the country from another country. Relatively connotation-neutral, and carries no real information as to the manner in which the person came to the country.

clandestin: someone who has come to the country surreptitiously.

Please correct me if any of these are incorrect! Cheers.

  • I’m not sure if this applies to “clandestin/e” as a noun in French, but the English adjective “illegal” has been hijacked and “elevated” to the status of a pejorative/offensive noun by those who would like to blame all their nation’s woes on “outsiders,” whether documented or not and if undocumented, without regard to the circumstances surrounding their lack of documentation.
    – Papa Poule
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 13:53

1 Answer 1


"Migrant" is a term englobing "immigré" and "émigré". It's similar to english, see this page :

Emigrate means to leave one's country to live in another. Immigrate is to come into another country to live permanently. Migrate is to move, like bird in the winter. The choice between emigrate,immigrate, and migrate depends on the sentence's point of view.

"Clandestin" means someone trying to hide his illegal situation. It's probably the case if you don't have immigration papers ("sans-papier"). With "sans-papier" you're just describing the situation. "Clandestin" put more emphasis on the fact that the person is deceiving or hiding from the state.

  • Let's be clear : "migrant" in french is a brand new word that appeared since the syrian refugees started coming in Europe (and France especially) to flee from the war. It is a wannabe "neutral" word for refugees.
    – JeanBlaire
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 8:15
  • @JeanBlaire I had no idea it was so recent. When you say "wannabe neutral word", is there a word that is more appropriately neutral?
    – blue
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 1:53
  • @JeanBlaire : Do you have a source for that ? According to the CNRTL "migrer" was used in 1558 by Rabelais, migrant in 1951.
    – Jylo
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 7:52
  • OK I ll try my best : migrer is originally a word employed for animals, namely birds going to africa during winter. Now when you're talking about people changing countries there is no "neutral" word to my knowledge (maybe "migrant" existed before but it was absolutely never used in any media or whatsoever). There are a lot of words to say a migrant tho : réfugié, immigré, émigré, clandestin but each one requires you to define the situation of the person while migrant is used since syria war started to avoid defining the situation of the people coming (legal/illegal?Asylum seeker?)
    – JeanBlaire
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 8:01
  • migrant was used by Rabelais to define a fluid or birds, which is absolutely OK, never people. I cant provide sources for migrant never being used about humans though.
    – JeanBlaire
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 8:05

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