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OPINION: Immigration may force Macron to finally abandon his ‘both sides’ approach

There's a showdown looming in France over Emmanuel Macron's new immigration bill, writes John Lichfield, and it might be the issue that forces the president to abandon his long-held policy of trying to find a middle ground in an increasingly polarised political scene.

OPINION: Immigration may force Macron to finally abandon his 'both sides' approach
France's President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough fight over his immigration bill. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

From one minefield into another.

Having emerged, battered but victorious from the national psychodrama over pension reform, President Emmanuel Macron is determined to push through a new law on immigration this Autumn.

Or maybe early next year.

Immigration has, it seems, become the new test of Macron’s minority government’s ability to govern.

A “hard-cop-soft-cop” change in French migration law (the 30th change in 40 years) was proposed almost a year ago. There have been nine false starts and changes of direction since then.

READ ALSO What’s happening with France’s new immigration law?

The draft law was chopped in two, then glued back together. An amended version emerged from the Sénat but was never presented to the National Assembly.

The government says that a new text will be presented to parliament before the end of the year. There have been insistent rumours that President Macron is ready to strip the draft law of its soft-cop elements in an attempt to seduce the 62 swing votes of the centre-right.

If he does so, the government could be confronted with a serious split in its own centrist coalition. Left-leaning Macron supporters are ready to make immigration the battle-ground in which they – as they see it – prevent a slide of the governing alliance towards the Right.

Macron’s opponents sometimes accuse him of an “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other hand” attitude to solving problems. The immigration bill is a case in point.

The original draft law toughened procedures for the expulsion of illegal migrants and failed asylum seekers. It also promised work permits to some “sans papiers” (undocumented workers) in industries where labour is short.

Both parts addressed real issues.

Few of the illegal migrants or failed asylum seekers expelled from France leave the country. The government has little way of knowing whether the 120,000 people each year who are served with expulsion orders or OQTF’s (obligations de quitter le territoire français) go away or not.

The proposed law would change that.

At the same time (to use Macron’s allegedly favourite phrase), thousands of illegals already work secretly in France and do not pay taxes or have rights. Many more would like to find jobs.  

The proposed law would allow them to work legally in industries like construction and hospitality and eventually qualify for permanent residence.

The centre-right Républicains, the swing seats in a blocked parliament, have made it clear that they will vote against any law which includes work permits for illegals. If Macron uses his emergency constitutional powers to short-circuit the Assembly and impose the law, they say they will support a vote of censure and bring down Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s government.

According to media reports or deliberate leaks last month,  Macron is therefore ready to yield to the centre-right and dump the work-permits. On Monday of this week, the left-leaning part of the President’s coalition fought back.

Several senior Macronist parliamentarians signed an open-letter in the newspaper Libération with independants and moderate leaders of the Left. They called for the government to end a “hypocritical” and “Kafkaesque” situation in which France depends on the work of many thousands of illegal workers but refuses officially to recognise their existence.

Hypocrisy is the correct word. The anti-migrant discourse of the French Right and Far Right (increasingly indistinguishable) ignores the contributions of legal migrants to the economy and society. Illegal ones are portrayed as murderers, rapists or, at best, spongers.

At the same time (there I go again), all European countries do have to find some way of regulating the wave of clandestine migration and asylum-seeking from suffering countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The Far Right and the Right speak of France being “swamped” by “uncontrolled” and “mass” migration.

Swamped? Really?

Official net migration is under 200,000 people a year, including one in three from other EU countries. Those figures have increased only slightly in the last decade.  

Illegal migration, by its nature, is hard to quantify. Estimates given to a parliamentary committee this year suggest that as many as 200,000 people are entering France illegally each year. Some are sent home; others go on to other countries, including by small boat to the UK; many stay.

The permanent “illegal” population of France is put at between 400,000 (interior ministry) and 900,000 (former senior interior ministry official). This is hardly the “swamping” of a country of 68,000,000; but it does place a severe strain on some already struggling inner-suburbs of Paris and other French cities.

It therefore makes sense to allow some of the illegal residents already here to contribute to an economy which is desperately short of labour (on building sites, in care homes, and in restaurants).

No, say Les Républicains. That will only attract more clandestine migrants.

Yes, say the centre-left part of Macron’s centrist coalition. Unless you take a more “humanist” approach and recognise the contribution which illegals can make (and already do make) we will not support the “hard-cop” section of your draft law.

Result: an impasse.

Macron and Borne may decide to use their emergency powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution and push through the draft law in its “balanced” form. That would be a big gamble.

The weak and divided Les Républicains have much to lose from  bringing down the government and risking early legislative elections. And yet they have decided under their hard-right leader Eric Ciotti that the only way to recover their former glory is to match the anti-migrant rhetoric of the Far Right.

Macron has started a hare running about a possible change in the constitution to allow a referendum which could vote on another change in the constitution to toughen rules on immigration. That will go nowhere fast.

The blockage of the hybrid bill leaves two genuine problems unsolved. Failure to pass any kind of migration law will be a vote-loser against Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in difficult European elections next June.

The chances are that Macron and Borne will delay a showdown (again) until early next year in the hope that something will turn up.

It won’t.

At some point, President Macron is going to have to decide whether to abandon his own centre-left; abandon the law; or call the Républicains’ bluff and take a punt on Article 49.3.

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For members


GAME: Build your own coalition in France’s parliament

As France's political deadlock continues, the French newspaper Le Monde has developed a tool that allows people to attempt to build their own coalition majority in the Assemblée Nationale.

GAME: Build your own coalition in France's parliament

More than a week after France’s snap elections the parliament is still deadlocked and politicians seem more interested in fighting each other than building alliances.

Therefore France’s newspaper of record Le Monde has suggested that its readers might like to have go instead, creating a ‘build your own coalition’ game.

Following the snap parliamentary elections on July 7th, the left-wing coalition, Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) got the largest number of seats (193) but fell far short of an absolute majority (289 seats out of 577). They were followed by the centrist bloc with 164 seats and the far-right Rassemblement National and allies in third place with 143. 

Moving forward, there are a few options for how parliament could be governed, with a broad coalition being one of them. However, this possibility remains complicated, as the three major blocs (the left, the centre and the far-right) seem disinterested in working with one another.

READ MORE: Does France have a government right now?

Le Monde has developed a tool that allows users to attempt to build their own coalition, piecing together the individual parties and groups in order to try to create an absolute majority.

Maybe one of their readers will find the solution that is evading the politicians. 

You can test it out for yourself HERE.

When playing, you will be given the option to click on several parties, watching them populate the chamber until you reach (or fail to reach) an absolute majority.  

Once you have reached a majority, you will see a green tick and the message ‘majorité atteinte‘ – you can then begin governing France (we think that’s how it works anyway).

Example of a successful coalition in the French parliament.


In order to play, you will need to know each of the different groups and their political positions

The left

On the left of the political spectrum we have the various members of the Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP), coloured purple in the game. 

NFP – PC: The communist party. Greatly diminished from its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the party remains a force at a local level, but only won 9 seats in the Assemblée. Led by Fabien Roussel.

NFP – LFI: The largest party within the group is La France Insoumise, with 74 seats. Translating as ‘France unbowed’ this is the party furthest to the left in the NFP. Founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

NFP – EELV: The green party, part of NFP. Previously Europe Ecologie Les Verts, sometimes still referred to as EELV or Les Verts. They hold 28 seats.

NFP – Géneration.s: Formed in 2017, a splinter party from the original Parti Socialiste. They hold 5 seats, and are part of NFP.

NFP – PS: The centre-left party. One of two that dominated French politics in the post-war period, producing presidents François Mitterand and François Hollande, these days it is much reduced. Current leader – Olivier Faure. They hold 59 seats.

NFP – Rég: MPs representing primarily individual French regions and identities, left-leaning. They have two seats.

NFP – Divers gauche: Other left-wing MPs aligned with NFP. 13 seats, including people like Danielle Simonnet and Alexis Corbière who were previously members of the LFI group.

The rest of the left

Although almost all of the left-wing MPs are part of the Nouveau Front Populaire group (at least for now), but there are some exceptions.

Divers gauche: Non-affiliated left-wing MPs, coloured red in the game;

The centre

Centrist candidates are mostly part of the Ensemble group, which includes Emmanuel Macron’s party and which is coloured yellow in the game.

Ensemble Modem: The original centrist party headed by François Bayrou, now part of the Ensemble alliance with Macron’s party. They hold 33 seats.

Ensemble Horizons: The new centrists founded by Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe, who is strongly tipped to be the centrist candidate in the 2027 presidential elections when Macron himself cannot stand again. Also part of the Ensemble alliance, for now. They hold 25 seats.

Ensemble Renaissance: Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, spearheading the Ensemble coalition. They were previously named La république en marche (LREM) and before that En Marche. For the sake of convenience, they’re often referred to simply as Macronistes. They hold 102 seats.

Ensemble UDI: Members of the centre-right group that chose to join with the Macronists. Two seats.

Ensemble Divers: Other centrist MPs in the Ensemble group. Six seats.

The rest of the centre

UDI et divers centre: Members of the centre-right group founded in 2012, as well as non-affiliated centrists. Six seats.

The right

The politicians on the right of the political spectrum have not, so far, managed to create any kind of unified alliance so remain within individual parties.

Divers droite: Non-affiliated right-wing MPs. 14 seats.

LR: Les Républicains are the second of the two parties that dominated post war politics (party of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac and political heirs of Charles de Gaulle) this party too is greatly diminished. Originally centre right, it has moved sharply to the right in recent years under leader Eric Ciotti. Ciotti created an electoral alliance with the far-right Rassemblement National which horrified many party members and resulted in a split. The LR designation denotes the part of the party which is not affiliated with far-right Rassemblement National. They hold 46 seats.

LR-RN: The group that is part of the Ciotti/RN alliance is known as Les Républicains à droite or Les amis de Ciotti. 17 seats.

RN: The far-right Rassemblement National. Founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen under the name Front National, the party changed its name to Rassemblement National (national rally) after Le Pen’s daughter Marine took over. She remains the party’s presidential candidate but the party leader – and RN prime minister if the party wins a majority – is Jordan Bardella. They were expected to win a majority of seats, but instead came in third place with 126.

READ MORE: Ask the experts: How far-right is France’s Rassemblement National?

Régionalistes, autres: Other non-affiliated MPs and members of regionalist parties.