Macron denies tilt to the far-right despite divisive immigration bill
21st December 2023

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Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron has defended a bill to toughen immigration laws despite an embarrassing parliamentary vote that put his ruling alliance on the same side as Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement national party.

The legislation, approved by both houses late on Tuesday, was initially good news for the centrist president, who made the migration bill a key plank of his second mandate and might otherwise have had to shelve it.

“It’s the fruit of a compromise”: French President Emmanuel Macron.Credit: AP

But the support of Le Pen’s opposition party for the bill surprised Macron, prompting him on to accuse her of political opportunism and to add in a television interview: “That was a shoddy move”.

Just six months before European Parliament elections in which immigration will be key, the bill’s adoption could boost Le Pen who called the rejigged bill “a great ideological victory” for her far-right party.

Macron contested that, calling it “a defeat for the Rassemblement”. He said Le Pen’s party “plays with fear”.

Rassemblement has become a political force, with 88 MPs in the lower house.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.Credit: AP

An Elabe poll for BFM TV showed 70 per cent of the French backed the new bill, including 87 per cent of Macron supporters.

But in a sign Le Pen had won the battle of narratives in public opinion, the same poll showed 73 per cent thought her party’s ideas had inspired the bill.

Macron will refer the bill to the Constitutional Council for checks on whether it complies with the Constitution before he can sign it into law. The council could strike down some of the tougher measures if it deems them unconstitutional.

The conservative Les Republicains, who partnered with his ruling alliance on that bill and have over the years hardened their discourse closer to that of the far-right, also claimed victory, saying the bill was essentially theirs.

The bill underscored Macron’s difficulties governing without a parliamentary majority, which he lost last year, as well as the rightward shift in much of Europe as governments try to curb the rise of the far-right by being tougher on immigration.

“This bill will help us fight against what feeds the Rassemblement national,” Macron said. “Our fellow citizens tell us we don’t control illegal immigration well enough.”

“It’s the fruit of a compromise.”

He said there were measures in the bill he didn’t like, such as the fact foreign students would need to present a refundable deposit. He said that could be reworked. “My work here is not done. I still have 3½ years ahead of me. I can assure you, I won’t stop now.”

The tougher rules – including migration quotas, making it harder for immigrants’ children to become French citizens, and delaying migrants’ access to welfare benefits – were added to the bill to win the support of right-wing MPs.

The bill makes it easier to expel undocumented migrants, while watering down plans to loosen curbs over residency permits for workers in labour-deprived sectors.

Those conditions caused unease among Macron’s more left-leaning MPs, and dozens either abstained or gave it the thumbs-down in the vote.

Health Minister Aurelien Rousseau resigned in protest over the immigration bill. “It’s not possible for me to defend this text,” Rousseau, a former Communist, told Le Monde.

The rebellion within the government seemed to be contained as all the other left-wing ministers were present at a weekly cabinet meeting that Rousseau skipped and no other resignation had materialised by Wednesday evening.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne rejected talk of a crisis in Macron’s camp.

“We’ve done our job, we wanted a text with useful measures that our citizens were calling for,” she said, adding: “Now let’s move on.”

But Brittany MP Jean-Charles Larsonneur told France Bleu radio he was leaving the centrist Horizons group, part of Macron’s alliance, saying the law breached “republican values”.

Even the lower house of parliament’s president, Yaël Braun-Pivet, who voted in favour of the bill, told BFM TV she was “terribly bothered” by some of its content, in particular delaying access to welfare benefits for migrants with children.

The rebels in Macron’s party could further weaken his hold on parliament and complicate the rest of his five-year mandate.

Macron won his two presidential mandates in 2017 and 2022 after voters rallied behind him to bar Le Pen from winning, and left-wing MPs said the rejigged migration bill was a betrayal of promises made to fend off right-wing ideas.

According to statistics office INSEE, the immigration share of France’s population has been growing steadily.

The number people living in France but born abroad stood at 5 per cent in 1946, 7.4 per cent in 1975 and 8.5 per cent in 2010, to just over 10 per cent of the population, or 2.5 million people, in 2022. About a third have become French citizens.

Hard-left MP Mathilde Panot, president of the France Unbowed party, urged Macron not to turn the bill into law, calling the text a “full-scale attack on fundamental rights”.

Advocacy organisations have criticised the bill as a threat to the rights of migrants.

Migrants’ rights group Cimade called it “the most repressive and abusive immigration bill drawn up in the last 40 years” in a statement on X, formerly Twitter.

Other governments across Europe have also opted for tougher migration policies. The European Union itself reached an agreement on Wednesday to reshape its migration and asylum rules with the aim to limit the number of incoming migrants.

In the Netherlands, the far-right’s Geert Wilders topped elections last month after the previous government collapsed over immigration. In Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing deep divisions within his party over asylum policies.

Reuters, AP

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