BORDEAUX, France—The economic crises gripping Portugal and Spain have sent a new wave of job-seekers to southwestern France, following in the footsteps of past generations of Iberian immigrants.
The bleak situation in Portugal, which has been in recession since late 2010, helped drive 50,000 people abroad last year, an annual rate that rivals that of the massive emigration wave of the 1960s and 1970s, when some 1.5 million Portuguese left the country.
France has more immigrants from Portugal than from any other European country – more than half a million – but the number of arrivals had been on an almost steady decline since the 1990s, according to the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED).
Now that trend appears to be changing.
Alves Martinho, a 27-year-old Portuguese man who runs a masonry company in the French city of Bayonne, said not a day has gone by this year without a phone call from a fellow Portuguese national looking for work.
“A lot of calls come from Portuguese who were working before in Spain,” Martinho said.
But Spain – itself in recession since the end of last year, and facing an unemployment rate of 24 percent – has little room for job-seekers from its neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula.
Faced with a minimum wage of 432 euros ($543) a month in Portugal and an unemployment rate of 15 percent, many people there are now turning to France.
“I didn’t have any choice,” said Silvia Goncalves, a 22-year-old nurse who in March left her family in the central Portuguese city of Coimbra to go work in a retirement home in the French city of Bordeaux, leaving behind a job that paid four euros an hour.
Vanessa Leal, a 39-year-old museologist, seized the chance of a European professional development grant to move to Bordeaux after growing weary of stringing together short-term jobs in Lisbon.
“I wanted to try my luck,” she said.
Ana-Maria Torres, a Bordeaux city councilwoman, said the profile of Portuguese immigrants has changed since the last great wave, when northern Europe’s economies were booming and Portugal was an economically stagnant dictatorship.
“Forty years ago, the Portuguese who emigrated didn’t have any professional qualifications. Today, everyone is emigrating,” said Torres, who is in charge of the southwestern city’s relations with Portugal and Spain.
Torres said many Portuguese are driven abroad by heavy burdens of consumer and housing debt. The proximity of France makes it an easier destination than Britain or the booming former Portuguese colonies of Brazil and Angola, she said.
Portugal, which already had a consulate in Bordeaux, has reopened a consular office in Bayonne, two hours to the southwest, to accommodate the influx.
Spanish citizens are also increasingly looking abroad.
At the Spanish consulate in the French city of Pau, an official said that while a net 62,611 Spaniards left southern France last year, there have been more requests from Spanish citizens for information on job opportunities in France.
“Spaniards are traditionally attached to their country, but they are crossing back and forth,” said the official.
Pedro Luis Marin Babon, a 35-year-old butcher, is one such commuter, traveling between Bayonne and his native Valladolid in northern Spain.
“Working conditions are bad in Spain. Last year I was making 1,200 euros a month and had a 55-hour work week. It’s enough to make you cry. This year, they wanted to cut my salary to 1,000 euros,” he said.
In France, he earns around 1,300 euros and has a 35-hour work week, making it easier to meet his steep mortgage payments, he said.
“Here you can earn a little and live with dignity,” he added.
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