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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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French prime minister comfortably survives censure vote

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne avoided parliamentary censure in an early morning vote on Saturday after she forced the government's budget plan through the National Assembly without a vote.

French prime minister comfortably survives censure vote

The motion to censure Borne — the 18th levelled at her since she assumed the office — was brought by the left-wing Nupes alliance after the prime minister activated Article 49.3 to adopt the public finance bill without a vote.

The motion received just 193 of the 289 votes needed to succeed, an unsurprising outcome in light of the lack of support from the centre-right.

Its rejection constitutes the adoption of the 2023-2027 budget programme, which now moves to the Senate, the upper house of the French parliament.

The speaker for Nupes, socialist Philippe Brun, accused the government of “favouring with the greatest servility a very well-endowed minority of the French” despite “an immense inflationary crisis”.

President Emmanuel Macron had “tried to make parliament disappear with his repeated (use of) 49.3”, Brun added.

The far right had supported the left’s motion of censure, accusing Borne of the “repeated and abusive use of 49.3”.

Borne, for her part, hit back at both factions, saying “demagoguery is your only budgetary course”.

The government also resorted to Article 49.3 earlier this year to push through unpopular pension reforms, sparking violent protests.