Since at least a decade, migration has remained a hot-button issue in European politics, providing fodder for parties on the right of the ideological spectrum. With a steady increase in its migrant population from 8.5 percent in 2010 to over 10 percent in 2022, the situation is no different in France where the issue has long presided over French politics.
Just after the European Union (EU) reached an agreement on Migration and Asylum in December, the French Parliament passed a law to reform its approach to immigration while combating illegal immigration. After the outright rejection of President Emmanuel Macron’s previous more lenient version of the immigration bill that was painstakingly drafted for 18 months, the version that eventually passed through Parliament was significantly toughened to appeal to the far-right.
With a steady increase in its migrant population from 8.5 percent in 2010 to over 10 percent in 2022, the situation is no different in France where the issue has long presided over French politics.
Even while granting temporary residence permits for work sectors plagued with labour shortages, the bill introduces tough controls. These include stricter conditions for immigrants to bring over family members, annual quotas for immigration, preferential access to state subsidies and welfare benefits to French citizens in a country traditionally known for its generous and inclusive welfare system, additional visa fees for foreign students, stripping crime-accused dual nationals off their French citizenship, diluting the right to automatic citizenship for those born in France, and installing an easier process to expel undocumented migrants.
Unlike France’s controversial pension overhaul that was non-democratically imposed in March 2023 by bypassing Parliament and invoking special constitutional powers, the immigration bill was voted on in the lower house. The toughened legislation received 349 votes in favour and 186 against, where many in Macron’s own Renaissance Party and his centrist coalition either abstained or opposed the bill. On the other hand, all 88 members of the far-right voted in favour of the bill, lending their strong endorsement and backing. Many in the French media labelled this move as far-right Opposition leader Marine Le Pen’s “kiss of death” after the initial impression that her party the National Rally would either abstain or vote against the bill.
Even though Macron managed to democratically pass legislation that was central to his second mandate, the optics of the compromise could not have been poorer.
While France’s health minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned from his post, the Greens’ Yannick Jabot referred to the bill as the arrival of Trumpism in France.
The results of a poll demonstrate that while 70 percent of the French population including 87 percent, of Macron’s own supporters support the new bill, 73 percent assumed that the bill was inspired by Le Pen’s ideas, leading to the outcome being touted as a massive “ideological victory” for Macron’s contenders on the far-right. Le Pen’s surprise coup and the strict measures that the bill contains also enraged Macron’s coalition members on the left, accusing him of caving into pressure from the far-right and risking the French Republic’s fundamental values. Moreover, the bill, through its incorporation of the beliefs of the far-right, has alienated supporters who voted for Macron as an alternative to the far-right, and are now accusing him of becoming their “stepping stone” rather than repelling their ideas. While France’s health minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned from his post, the Greens’ Yannick Jabot referred to the bill as the arrival of Trumpism in France. Furthermore, the process has exposed the governance difficulties associated with Macron’s weak mandate from the 2022 election, which led to a loss in parliamentary majority. The whole affair has prompted a government reshuffle and the resignation of French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne with the hope of focusing on fresh priorities, ahead of EU elections scheduled for June where eurosceptic parties are leading the charge.
In their endeavour to assuage voter concerns amidst hardened public opinion on immigration, parties across the board have found themselves in a bind to tackle the issue of migration, which the far-right has successfully fed upon. Thus, the centre’s co-opting of the talking points of the far-right is a phenomenon being observed throughout European politics, whereby the mainstream is mainstreaming and legitimising the politics of the far-right.
The ball is now in the hands of France’s constitutional court to examine whether the law complies with the constitution or requires amendments.
For Macron too, this is not the first time that he’s accommodated or imitated far-right rhetoric for political survival as evident in his increasingly hardline rhetoric on Islam in 2023. In September last year, Macron’s then-Education Minister Gabriel Attal, who has recently been appointed as France’s new Prime Minister, announced a ban on wearing the Muslim abaya in schools in the interests of secularism.
The ball is now in the hands of France’s constitutional court to examine whether the law complies with the constitution or requires amendments. In addition, the caveat that while European countries, including France, crack down on immigration, they are simultaneously facing declining populations and need migrant labour, is inescapable.
As France moves to the right on immigration, Macron may have managed to democratically pass a law on the most contentious issue in French politics. But his own image, as a defender of liberal democracy and a centrist alternative to the far-right, remains in tatters.
Shairee Malhotra is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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Shairee Malhotra is Associate Fellow, Europe with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her areas of work include Indian foreign policy with a focus on EU-India relations, ...Read More +