After Calais, migration still major battlefield for French presidential candidates
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.