From the mid-1980s, French writers – social scientists, journalists, senior figures in the bureaucracy – began writing about a disjuncture between the principles and traditions of rights in French political culture as they applied to refugees, and the increasingly exclusionary tendencies in policies of admission and protection. These years marked what was generally called a ‘crisis of asylum’, because neither state policies nor the institutions created for the protection of refugees could assure the human rights promised in the post-war refugee regime. Refugees were increasingly classified as ‘asylum-seekers’, ‘economic refugees’, or simply illegal immigrants (clandestins in French), new classifications, in other words, that denied the legitimacy of their claims to protection and their ‘right of asylum’ as refugees. This paper will examine the contexts in which this ‘crisis of asylum’ took shape and how it affected the nature of refugee protection, the conception of refugee rights, and the role of the state as the guarantor of these rights. It will trace how the historical legacies of refugees and asylum – both key features of France’s post-war republican political culture – stood as guiding principles against which this ‘crisis’ could be judged.