Macron Defends Migration Policy in France, Walking a Fine Line
Posted January 16, 2018 4:25 p.m. EST
CALAIS, France — President Emmanuel Macron of France on Tuesday came to Calais, the port city at the epicenter of France’s migrant problem, to defend his policies as a mix of benevolence and firmness against critics who have accused him of inhumanity.
With France receiving a record number of asylum claims — 100,000 last year — Macron has been under increasing fire, especially from the left, for betraying France’s values.
His interior minister has been criticized for promoting searches of illegal migrants in emergency shelters and stepping up deportations. Police have been accused of ripping blankets away from freezing migrants.
Even members of Macron’s own cultlike political movement, La République en Marche, have expressed uneasiness with their leader for the first time.
On Tuesday, Macron fought back. But typically for the French president, he sought a middle ground, doling out favors and brickbats on both sides.
He vowed that Calais, the bedraggled port that is a focal point for migrants hoping to reach England, would never again be a dumping ground for them.
“Under no circumstances will we allow the Jungle to come back,” he told the officers, referring to the squalid encampment that once housed over 8,000 migrants near here, and that was torn down by Macron’s predecessor in the fall of 2016.
He chastised charitable organizations for encouraging “these men and women to settle, in an illegal status.”
There are still some 600 migrants — mostly young Eritreans, Sudanese and Afghans — in and around Calais, camping out in the underbrush and scattering at the approach of the police. Still, they are invisible in the struggling town itself, where before knots of two or three were ever-present.
But Macron, at times sounding defensive, seemed most at pains to reassure his critics on the left in his speech Tuesday, in a frigid and drafty hangar at a windswept police barracks in Calais.
The president is not used to being accused of inhumanity, but that has been the tenor of a weekslong barrage in the media here. His face appeared on the cover of this week’s widely read magazine L’Obs encased in barbed wire; inside, a host of well-known writers took savage aim at him.
In Le Monde on Tuesday, leading intellectuals, including a one-time top adviser and the head of a top think tank, accused him of having “broken with the humanism you advocated.”
So on Tuesday, Macron’s most pointed words were for the police officers who listened to him in stony silence, and did not applaud him at the end.
The unspoken message to them: be gentle. It was an unusual admonition in the French context — a head of state chiding national law enforcement, with which a French president usually tries to closely identify.
“These are human beings to whom we have a duty of humanity,” the French president said Tuesday. “You need to be exemplary, and you need to respect the dignity of each individual,” he said.
Don’t allow people to have “the idea that you are practicing physical violence,” Macron said. “If there are failings, they will be sanctioned, proportional to the confidence we have in you,” he warned.
A Human Rights Watch report last summer was severely critical of police treatment of migrants at Calais, pointing to the systematic use of stinging spray and destruction of migrants’ goods. Macron, without endorsing the letter of that report Tuesday, appeared to acknowledge its spirit.
His government is in the midst of preparing a new policy, focused on distinguishing between those who seek to establish themselves in France for economic reasons — the overwhelming majority, especially among those from Africa — and those fleeing persecution.
He wants to send those in the first category home, and indeed such returns were up 16 percent last year.
Still, the overwhelming majority of migrants stay in France, dispersed across “welcome centers,” waiting months for their applications to be decided on, or simply fleeing from them — some 37 percent.
His rightward drift on the issue has been strategic, outflanking the far-right National Front as well as the more traditional right.
The National Front has made illegal immigration its signature issue, and Macron knows that its constituency in France remains large, if dormant for the moment.
Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, has been less critical of Macron than the left has on the subject of migrants. But the president’s warnings to the police Tuesday may give her an opening.
A Franco-British summit on Thursday is certain to take up migrant issues, as Macron suggested Tuesday — especially the thorny one of unaccompanied minors trying to reach Britain and stuck in Calais.
Pushing back at his critics on the left, Macron insisted Tuesday that considerable resources were being devoted to the hosting of migrants, “a reality behind these figures, a budgetary commitment,” including 20,000 housing units for refugees.
On Tuesday he went a step further, saying the state would “take on” the feeding of migrants at Calais, long a sore point for the charitable associations that now perform the task. Earlier, Macron had met with migrants at a reception center in the small town of Croisilles, south of Calais. He engaged in an almost tender exchange with one, a young Sudanese man named Ahmed, as reported by a pool reporter for Agence France-Presse who was allowed to witness the scene.
“Have you made friends here?” the president asked Ahmed, according to the pool reporter.
“It takes a lot of willpower to try to learn French,” Ahmed said.
“We are going to help you,” Macron said, putting his hand on Ahmed’s shoulder. “And I believe that what you have said so far speaks to a case requiring asylum,” Macron said.
At which Ahmed smiled.