After Calais, migration still major battlefield for French presidential candidates

Sunday 20/11/2016
A worker removes tents as migrant makeshift camp is dismantled in a street near Stalingrad Metro station in Paris, November 4th.

Paris - The demolition of the so-called Calais Jungle refugee camp has been completed but migration remains a major battle­field for presidential candidates ahead of next year’s elections.

In the week following the demoli­tion, thousands of migrants set up tents on the pavement around Stal­ingrad Metro station in Paris. Vio­lent clashes erupted when riot po­lice demolished the illegal camps. Paris subsequently saw the estab­lishment of the first official refu­gee camp within its city limits, a former bus shelter close to the Gare du Nord Eurostar hub in northern Paris that will house a few hundred refugees.

French President François Hol­lande, who has been accused by ri­vals of being too soft on migration, has sought to present a more hard-line approach in his handling of the crisis. “We are going to carry out the same operation as in Calais,” he promised about the Paris camp ahead of the operation in which an estimated 3,000 refugees were dis­placed from the capital.

In comments made in Septem­ber and facing mounting public pressure over Calais, Hollande an­nounced that the camp would be demolished by the end of the year. He made good on that pledge de­spite a clearly rushed operation to meet the deadline. The operation, however, left thousands of refu­gees, including hundreds of mi­nors, in limbo.

After the demolition, Hollande stressed that migrants would not be allowed to resettle in the camp. “We had to rise to the challenge of the refugee issue. We could not tolerate the camp and we will not tolerate any others,” he said during a visit to a reception centre in west­ern France.

Hollande has also made increas­ingly strong statements on Britain’s culpability for the crisis, particular­ly following the Brexit vote, calling on Britain to shoulder its responsi­bility to the thousands of unaccom­panied minors who remained in France seeking entry to the United Kingdom.

“Their transfer to Britain is ur­gent. We ask you to take your re­sponsibilities and assume your moral duty by immediately organ­ising their arrival,” Hollande added.

Even this stronger rhetoric from the embattled president pales in comparison to statements by for­mer president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Ju­ppé, both of whom are expected to compete in next year’s presidential elections.

Juppé, who leads in opinion polls, said he would push for a complete renegotiation of the Le Touquet ac­cord between France and Britain. It keeps border checks on the French side of the English Channel.

Speaking before the destruction of the camp, Juppé described Calais as intolerable and spoke of the “se­rious economic and security conse­quences” for France.

“So, the first thing is to denounce the Le Touquet accords. We can­not accept making the selection on French territory of people that Brit­ain does or doesn’t want. It’s up to Britain to do that job,” Juppé said in Paris.

Sarkozy, who announced his presidential bid in August, has is­sued similar statements, calling for the “re-establishment of borders” during a September 21st visit to Cal­ais. “France should not be the Cus­toms service of Britain,” he said.

However, Sarkozy, who signed the Le Touquet accord in 2003 as Interior minister, has not gone so far as to call for the renegotiation of the deal, but has said that he would prefer to send migrants to a centre in British territory where asylum claims can be assessed and Britain would be in charge of repatriating those not granted legal status.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen has made immigration her pri­mary issue. Well-positioned in the presidential polls, she is campaign­ing for France to leave the Euro­pean Union and can be expected to take a far stronger stance than her rivals on the issue.

The latest opinion polls indi­cate Juppé is comfortably ahead over Sarkozy. Both are seeking the nomination of the centre-right Re­publican Party. Hollande’s support continues to falter and most polls show that if he does run as the left’s candidate, he would come third be­hind the far-right Le Pen.