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French police officers evacuate a migrant during an operation to dismantle makeshift migrant camps in Paris. French police officers evacuate a migrant during a large operation to dismantle makeshift migrant camps in the north of Paris, Nov. 7, 2019 (AP photo by Francois Mori).

Migrants in France Are Paying the Price for Macron’s Hard Line on Immigration

Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019

French President Emmanuel Macron has maintained a frosty rapport with the national media since taking office in 2017, giving just two press conferences and accusing journalists of “no longer seeking the truth.” So it was a bit out of character when in late October he sat down for a lengthy interview with the magazine Valeurs Actuelles, to outline his priorities for the second half of his five-year term. Immigration—notably, how to reduce it—was chief among them.

Valeurs Actuelles isn’t mainstream or widely read. It’s a conservative weekly magazine known for alarmist tropes against migrants and Muslims, so it seemed like an odd pick for a president who ran as a “radical centrist.” But for Macron’s critics, his decision to talk immigration with a publication closely associated with France’s right confirmed what they had been saying all along: That the young reformer is pushing an increasingly right-wing agenda on immigration, using it to distract from his unpopular economic reforms and to hedge against an ascendant far right.

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Sure enough, in early November, his government rolled out strict new reforms that fundamentally change the face of incoming immigration to France. They are designed to both discourage asylum-seekers from attempting to reach France and encourage skilled foreign workers to apply for visas. One provision requires asylum-seekers to wait three months before they are eligible to receive non-urgent health care; another states that, as of 2020, the government will implement annual quotas for skilled immigrants. Last week, the Labor Ministry announced measures it says will make it easier for businesses to recruit foreigners, calling current levels of red tape “dissuasive.” According to an Interior Ministry official, “the goal is to give a stronger place to professional immigration.”

But the recent shift has revived concerns among left-leaning members of Macron’s own party who had already spoken out against a restrictive new immigration law that the president pushed through in 2018. The law, which took effect in January, made it more difficult to obtain asylum in France and increased detention periods for new arrivals.

The latest immigration measures unveiled in November also maintain the government’s pledge to raze the migrant camps scattered throughout major cities in France. It’s not the first time the French government has forcibly cleared the encampments that line peripheral boulevards and damp underpasses, and are home to some 3,000 migrants and asylum-seekers around Paris alone. Advocates for migrant rights say that each camp demolition worsens already difficult conditions for thousands of people, including families with young children, who find themselves on the streets or in legal and administrative limbo. France, they allege, is exploiting the European Union law known as the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum-seekers must file their requests in the country where they arrive. Southern European countries like Greece and Italy have long denounced the system, which they say puts them at a disadvantage. France has relied on it as a way to legally deport new arrivals who seek to settle in France or another country in Western Europe, but whose applications were first processed elsewhere. “You have 200,000 to 250,000 people who are being sent back and forth in Europe like Ping-Pong balls,’’ Pierre Henry, the director of France Terre d’Asile, an advocacy group, told The New York Times.

As France faces record asylum requests—124,000 in 2018, a 23 percent spike from the previous year—a new government report argues that many asylum-seekers are exploiting the country’s medical system, a phenomenon it calls “medical tourism.” Allowing the system to thrive, Macron’s backers say, only bolsters the far right’s claims that migrants, not citizens, benefit from the French welfare state.

Many on the French left see Macron’s rightward slide on immigration as an attempt to win over supporters of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party.

But migrant advocates disagree. “It’s false to say that a significant number of people migrate for medical reasons,” Carine Rolland, who works with the humanitarian organization Medecins du Monde, or Doctors of the World, told Le Monde, noting that “few cases of fraud have been documented.”

“All systems are subject to abuse,” Yann Manzi, the co-founder of the Paris-based migrant support group Utopia 56, said in an interview. But Macron’s response, he insisted, isn’t the solution. “In the world’s sixth-largest economy, revoking health care from the most vulnerable will worsen public-health conditions,” he said, calling the measure “deplorable.” The recent demolitions of migrant camps have overwhelmed makeshift shelters around Paris and pushed “hundreds of families onto the streets.” He sees the new measures as a “communications strategy,” and their timing comes as no surprise: Unions are calling for a massive strike on Dec. 5 to protest the president’s new reforms to the pension system, the latest resistance to Macron’s neoliberal economic policies that haven’t gone over well with a population accustomed to a robust social safety net. “The most vulnerable populations become his scapegoat,” Manzi said.

Macron also has his eye on upcoming municipal elections in March, widely seen as a critical precursor to the next presidential vote in 2022. Many on the French left see his rightward slide on immigration as an attempt to win over voters whose anti-immigrant views would make them natural supporters of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party whom Macron faced in the second round of the 2017 presidential election. They say that his campaign slogan of “en même temps” or “at the same time”—his lofty promise to maintain progressivism and boost economic performance, while governing neither from the “left nor right”—has given way to a right-wing presidency that betrays the country’s stated commitment to human rights. In a scathing editorial, Le Monde said it was a lose-lose strategy that “affirms the link between immigration and fraud and unemployment and erodes France’s humanitarian tradition,” without convincing the far-right voters who will always find politicians that “sow hatred ... preferable to these discrete, symbolic gestures.”

Indeed, with Le Pen enjoying strong approval ratings, Macron may well believe that tacking right on immigration will attract his rival’s supporters. In September, he admitted as much, and said his toughened immigration stance would be a boon for the working class. “The middle class doesn’t have a problem with [immigration]. They don’t run into it,” he claimed. But “the working class lives with it. The left hasn’t wanted to look at this problem for decades, so working-class people have moved to the extreme right.” And in an interview with the newspaper Les Echos, one of his aides confirmed that taking a harder line on immigration was political, saying the president hopes to “avoid a radicalization of public opinion,” by dislodging the far right’s monopoly on immigration issues.

Parroting the far right’s tactics on immigration—Le Pen has been calling for an end to medical services for asylum-seekers for years, for example—has become a preferred tactic for European centrists struggling to recover from the nationalist backlash that followed the so-called migrant or refugee crisis of 2015. But extensive evidence indicates that it’s a bad electoral strategy for centrists, who will never go far enough to satisfy far-right voters and, in lurching to the right, risk pushing anti-immigrant policies into the mainstream.

For Manzi, those uncertain political gains have serious humanitarian consequences on the ground. “Macron is skilled at political communication,” he said, “and in the meantime, it’s the migrant population that pays the price.”

Karina Piser is a journalist based in Paris. She was a 2017-2019 recipient of the Institute of Current World Affairs fellowship, focusing on French debates over national identity. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and The Nation, among other publications. She was previously an associate editor at World Politics Review.

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