World News

New French Plan Aims to Keep Migrants, and Far Right, at Bay

Posted February 22, 2018 4:46 p.m. EST
Updated February 22, 2018 4:48 p.m. EST

PARIS — European countries from Poland to Italy and Britain are shutting borders, stepping up deportations and making unsavory deals with warlords in Libya to restrict migrants. Now comes France’s turn.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron this week put forward a draft law that even some of his own supporters said was too harsh. Human rights groups say it is intended to make it easier to expel would-be asylum-seekers.

But in presenting the proposal this week, Macron’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, made no bones about its other aim: to head off the political challenge of the far right.

The migrant issue “is a problem that can lead to difficulties” — meaning political difficulties — he told reporters Wednesday, before getting into the details of the law.

The new law, while limited in scope, would make it somewhat tougher for those who enter France illegally. They would have less time to apply for asylum and half as much time to appeal if their application is rejected.

The measure is almost certain to win approval after debate in April, given Macron’s large parliamentary majority. More than 60 percent of French people say there are too many immigrants in France.

The law is the offspring of two pressing realities in French politics. Last year, the country saw 100,000 asylum-seekers, a record. And the runner-up in the presidential election was Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, whose theme was immigrant bashing.

The National Front has not gone away, although it is much weakened, and it is still singing the same song. Its spokesman, Sebastien Chenu, called the law a “fraud” this week and said “the government is organizing migratory subversion.” It promised something much tougher.

Macron knows that his principal political challenge in the years ahead will come from the millions of discontented voters who opted for Le Pen last year. He is trying to use the momentum of his still-young presidency to deny the far-right its favorite issue.

But the reaction on the left and among immigrant aid groups was equally strong, which suggests that Macron may have hit his target.

“It’s a law that will mean a very sharp setback for human rights,” said Jean-Claude Mas of Cimade, a leading refugee-aid organization in France. “Above all it is aimed at greater control of, and expulsion of, humans.”

The proposed law is likely to toughen the lives of would-be asylum-seekers.

“It multiplies the cases in which detention is possible,” said Marie-Aimée Peyron, head of the Paris bar, in an interview.

Others agreed.“We’ve got to get over this ‘Le Penization’ factor,” said Olivier Faure, head of the Socialists in Parliament, in a Facebook post. “Fear has had the upper hand over reason for too long.”

The rhetoric may not match the text, however.

Those who enter France illegally would now only have 90 days to apply for asylum, instead of the current 120.

If the demand is rejected, asylum-seekers would have only 15 days to appeal, instead of a month. Those deemed ineligible and ordered to leave France could be held in “administrative detention” for 90 days, with extensions possible, instead of the current 45 days, before being expelled.

Applications for asylum would be treated in six months by French authorities, instead of the current 14 months.

Collomb, the interior minister, insisted the new law was “balanced and completely aligned with European law,” pointing out the similarities between the French proposal and legislation elsewhere in Europe.

“We will have the same types of procedures as other European countries,” he said.

But France doesn’t see itself in the same way as its European neighbors. “If the fatherland of the rights of man doesn’t vigorously oppose this law, I just don’t understand anything anymore,” said Peyron.