On immigration, Macron’s words and actions do not always match

One of Macron’s policies has been to grant police greater power to prevent refugees from gathering in French streets.
Monday 29/01/2018
Invisible problem. French police intercept migrants inside the fenced off ring-road area of the ferry port in Calais, last September. (AFP)

Emmanuel Macron’s elec­tion as president of France in 2017 was accompanied by a wave of optimism. He had defeated the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, and rejected her anti-immigrant platform. Macron spoke of France’s moral responsibility to those who had left their homes for better lives or safety.

Less than a year into his term, Macron’s immigration and refugee policies are coming under heavy fire by those who believe his rhetoric — directed at a European audience that except for Germany has largely failed to effectively handle the refugee flows from Africa and the Middle East — has not been reflected in his policies.

Macron has said he wants to get refugees “off the streets [and] out of the woods” but activists have complained that his policies are taking refugees out of the public consciousness by removing them from visible areas and preventing them from gathering in groups on Parisian streets.

Macron is implementing the “worst immigration policy since the second world war,” Yasser Louati, a French human rights activist, said. “France has had right-wing govern­ments on multiple occasions but he has actually outdone their policies by asking hospitals to denounce undocumented immigrants and ask­ing for the distinction between those with documents and those with­out. Unfortunately, that is possible because of a shift to the far right in French public opinion.”

One of Macron’s policies has been to grant police greater power to prevent refugees from gathering in French streets.

“Macron has done a good job of making the problem invisible,” said Alberto Bialla, an Italian student who works with the volunteer group Solidarithe to provide blankets and information to refugees.

Macron’s professed policy is to speed up the resettlement process so those who receive refugee status can start their new lives in France and those who are denied refugee status can be returned to their home coun­tries. But human rights organisations have often criticised the standard for who is labelled an “economic migrant.”

Macron has said victory over Le Pen was a sign that France disagreed with her beliefs. His own rhetoric at the time was welcomed by some members of the European com­munity, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who felt abandoned by the rest of the European Union when she welcomed large numbers of refugees in 2015.

“I see the line he’s taking as very closely tied with his vision on put­ting France at the centre of the EU,” said Susi Dennison, a senior fellow and director of the European Power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Macron and Merkel had an agreement… so I see [that as the reason behind] the in­creased activity coming out of Paris.”

On a European level, Macron’s pro-immigration rhetoric is wel­comed. He’s spoken of immigration as a beneficial cultural exchange but his message to Europe does not seem to line up with his domes­tic policies, which are similar to those of other European countries and may become even more so as right-wing governments have won elections in a number of central and eastern European countries over the last year.

“I would distinguish the role he plays in the EU debate and his poli­cies at the national level,” Dennison said. She said Macron’s rhetoric, while arguably not going far enough, is still an effective counter to that of xenophobic government coalitions in Austria, Poland, Hun­gary and the Czech Republic.

“I think Macron at the EU level is arguing that migration has a positive impact for the EU from an economic and cultural perspective,” Dennison said. “He also emphasises that there is a moral obligation and a historical responsibility on the EU side and not just a legal obligation… that is impor­tant in the context of a very toxic EU debate around [immigration].”

This toxic debate has come about from a strong rightward shift in French and European attitudes towards immigration largely caused by the 2015 refugee crisis and a large increase in new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa. Le Pen and her cohorts across Europe may have lost general elections in France, Ger­many and the Netherlands but they have succeeded in reforming the debate around immigration in their own terms.

Louati said Macron’s lack of previ­ous political experience is to blame for his policies that negatively affect the lives of France’s refugee com­munities.

“Emmanuel Macron does not have an ideological or political back­ground,” Louati said. “He will say whatever his advisers ask him to say and whatever the majority of French public opinion wants.”

In fact, an old law sometimes used under the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy regarding “crimes of solidarity” in dealing with refugees has been utilised under Macron, with Louati saying he’s seen activists driven to court for providing help to undocumented immigrants.

“This was done under Macron,” he said. “not Marine Le Pen.”