In an Echo of the U.S. Debate, French President Macron Calls for Tougher Stand on Immigration

By Nayla Rush on October 2, 2019

In a meeting last month with some 200 parliamentarians of the majority and members of government, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a tougher stand on immigration, insisting on the need to "look immigration in the face" and reform the asylum system that is increasingly being misused. Macron's address came shortly before a parliamentary debate on migration policy set to be held next week.

Macron was elected president in May 2017 with 66.1 percent of the vote in the second round, defeating Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right political party the "Rassemblement National" (previously known as the "Front National"). Macron ran under the banner of the "La République En Marche", a centrist political movement he founded in April 2016, marking a turning point from his socialist past. Before that, Macron acted as President Francois Hollande's senior advisor in 2012, and his minister of the economy in 2014. He resigned from the cabinet in August 2016 in order to campaign for the 2017 presidential election.

Immigration is one of four priorities set by Macron for the second half of his term (the other three are ecology, retirement, and employment). "We do not have the right not to face this issue [immigration]," the French president said two weeks ago, adding that the République En Marche — his party that is currently leading the majority — is at risk of becoming the party of the "bourgeois" if it doesn't tackle issues related to immigration. "The bourgeois have no problem with that [immigration]: they do not come across it," he said. "The working class lives with it. The left did not want to deal with this problem for decades. So the working class shifted to the far right. We are like the three little monkeys, we do not want to see." (Emphasis added. He was referring to the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" saying represented by three monkeys with their hands over their eyes, ears, and mouth.)

Macron also reaffirmed his commitment to the principle of asylum while denouncing abusive asylum claims: "Migrant flows have never been so low in Europe and the asylum claims never so high in France." Macron insisted on the "need to reform the right to asylum" since France's asylum laws are being "misused" by smuggling networks and people who manipulate the system:

"I believe in the right to asylum but it is diverted from its real purpose by networks, people who manipulate others. If we do not face this problem, we will suffer from it. This results in what? Neighborhoods where the number of unaccompanied minors is exploding." [Emphasis added.]

Then Macron addressed immigration again last week, when he was in New York for the UN climate summit, reiterating the need to reform France's migration policy: "France cannot welcome everyone if it wants to do it right, to be able to welcome everyone with dignity, we must not be too attractive of a country, I tell you very frankly". In his view, migration policy should be both "humane and efficient", regretting the fact that "today, we are both ineffective and inhumane, in Europe as in France." On asylum rights, Macron asked for an overhaul of the Schengen Agreement (which abolished border checks in much of Europe) and the Dublin rules (which require asylum seekers to apply in the first EU state they enter): "At the European level, we must work together more efficiently in order to have common asylum rules, and a common removal policy."

Macron elaborated on France in particular:

We must give asylum to those who need our protection as quickly as possible. ... We must then integrate those granted asylum much more effectively, with French courses and a stronger employment policy. ... But we must also remove those who have no right to stay on our soil. We must treat and protect all those who are in our country, for themselves and for us. But here, too, do it right, and determine if abuses exist, and I believe they exist in certain categories. Then, remove those who are not entitled to stay in our country because they entered illegally and applied at times for asylum when they had no right to do so. If we can do that, I can tell you that we will be a country that lives up to its values, that welcomes those it can integrate well, which is an economic opportunity while refusing to be a country that adds misery to misery. [Emphasis added.]

Macron's new call to be tough on immigration denotes a definite change of tone on this sensitive issue. The right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro noted this shift, wondering if we were dealing with "the same person" as it revisited Macron's immigration comments over the past few years. The paper noted that in 2015, following the increase in migrant flows entering Europe, Macron's stand on immigration as France's minister of the economy was clearly different; he said at the time, "I think if it's done properly, intelligently, it [immigration] can be an opportunity for us. ... It touches first of all our dignity, but it is also an economic opportunity because we are dealing with men and women who have remarkable qualifications."

The paper continued its review of Macron's past comments by noting that in 2016, presidential candidate Macron said he considered refugees as "a strength". In January 2017, he praised "Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German society as a whole for living up to our [European] common values ... by welcoming refugees in distress." In March 2017, candidate Macron was even clearer on the subject: "Contrary to what some say, we are not confronted to a wave of immigration. ... The subject of immigration should not worry the French population. ... Immigration is part of the world we live in. ... Moreover, immigration happens to be an opportunity from an economic, cultural, social standpoint."

There are three reasons for Macron's recent shift on immigration according to the right-leaning newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

First, asylum claims are increasing in France even as they are decreasing in the rest of Europe. In 2018, there were 123,625 asylum applications in France, an increase of 22.7 percent compared to 2017. Meanwhile, in Europe (EU, Switzerland, and Norway), asylum applications fell to their pre-migrant crisis level, with 634,700 cases (a decrease of 10 percent from 2017), confirming a drop for the third consecutive year since 2015. This drove Macron to call for a reassessment of asylum laws.

Second, Macron's real opponent in the upcoming presidential elections in 2022 is Marine Le Pen and her party, as he reminded the members of his parliamentary majority recently. With this rhetorical turn, the president, already looking forward to the presidential election three years from now, hopes to turn a little more to the right and counter the rise of Le Pen's party by appealing to her base.

Finally, immigration is a subject of concern for the French population. A recent Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll on behalf of the left-leaning French newspaper Le Monde on divisions in French society shows that immigration worries the French: The "level of immigration" ranks number four among the "most worrying subjects" (32 percent), behind the "environment" (52 percent), the "future of the welfare system" (48 percent), and "purchasing power" (43 percent).

The majority of respondents (especially those belonging to the working class) believe there are "too many immigrants", immigrants "do not make the effort to integrate", and most are very critical of the Muslim religion. Specifically:

  • 63 percent feel there are "too many immigrants" (88 percent among the working class);
  • 64 percent "do not feel at home like before" (83 percent among the working class);
  • 66 percent believe that "immigrants do not make the effort to integrate" (83 percent among the working class);
  • 71 percent believe that the Muslim religion is looking to impose itself on others, only 41 percent consider Islam to be compatible with the values of French society (vs. 89 percent for the Catholic religion, and 78 percent for the Jewish religion), and 46 percent believe that "even if that is not its main message, Islam still carries in it seeds of violence and intolerance" (60 percent among the working class).

Behind the scenes, the government is working on a proposal to reform family reunification and on ways to restrict access to free health care to illegal aliens. The "Aide Médicale d'État" (AME) or "State Medical Aid" was put in place in 2000 to give illegal aliens access to free healthcare. Fraud and abuse of this health system have been reported.

At a time when a number of Democrats in the United States are asking for free healthcare for illegal aliens and de facto open borders, France is looking at ways to reduce access to health benefits for asylum seekers and illegal aliens while tightening its borders. France is also getting ready to further reform its migration policy in light of new realities on the ground. Like President Macron said, it is the working class who suffers the most from immigration issues, not the "bourgeois". The Democratic party that is increasingly clinging to its "bourgeois" hat is currently taking the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" stand on immigration while criticizing President Trump for "looking immigration in the face". American voters will have to decide in 2020 which posture to take.