The French Senate starts on Monday to debate a hugely controversial immigration bill that the government says will bolster security for legal migrants, but which opponents see as new evidence of a lurch to the right by President Emmanuel Macron.
Left-wingers reject the draft law’s bid to expel more people and toughen conditions for irregular migrants, while conservatives bristle at provisions to regularize the situation of undocumented workers in sectors with labor shortages.
It is the right flank that poses the biggest obstacle to Macron and his minority centrist government passing the legislation.
Conservative MPs’ votes will be needed to get the bill through the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, while the right has a majority in the upper house, the Senate.
“This text is about firmness,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Sunday, drawing on language meant to appeal to the conservative Republicans party.
He vowed to “find a way to get (the bill) through parliament”, hoping to avoid using an unpopular constitutional hammer to force it through on a vote of confidence, already used by Macron to get a widely disliked pension reform on the books.
But several attempts to bring the Republicans on board over the past year have fallen flat and there is little sign that this time will be different.
“We can’t have a bill that wants both to expel more people and regularize more people,” Bruno Retailleau, the leader of the Senate conservatives, told AFP.
Republicans’ leader in the National Assembly Olivier Marleix told broadcaster Europe 1 that Darmanin was “delusional”.
Macron on Sunday proposed broadening constitutional rules governing the type of social issues like immigration that can be put to referendum.
Intended as a bone thrown to the right, the proposal has so far had little visible effect on rhetoric around the immigration bill.
‘Remove and integrate’
As elsewhere in Europe, right-wingers claim that France’s asylum system mainly attracts people looking for better economic conditions.
The number of people seeking asylum reached over 137,000 last year, up 31.3 percent year-on-year and just shy of a 2019 record.
Expulsions have also been stepped up, to almost 15,400 last year,15 percent higher than in 2021.
But Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Monday rebuffed claims that regularizing undocumented workers would create a “pull effect” and increase migration.
Only “people who’ve been on our territory for years, who are well integrated,” would benefit, she told broadcaster France Inter.
The bill aims “to more quickly remove those who shouldn’t be here and at the same time to better integrate those who should remain,” Borne said.
She nevertheless revealed continuing divisions within government when she opposed removing state medical aid for undocumented people, calling it “a question of public health”.
Interior Minister Darmanin has said he plans to “eliminate” the aid, replacing it only with cover for emergencies, calling it a step towards “a good compromise” with the Republicans.
Such talk, along with plans for annual migration quotas set by parliament and restrictions on allowing people to rejoin their families already in France, has drawn opposition from aid groups and left-leaning politicians.
Around 150 people gathered outside the Senate building in Paris’s touristic left bank district Monday to protest against the bill.
If passed, it would “do nothing but criminalize us,” said Aboubacar Dembele, a 31-year-old undocumented worker.
“This bill generalizes suspicion, administrative harassment, insecurity and fear,” said Camila Rios Armas, a member of two migrant aid groups, in a joint statement signed by dozens of charities including Amnesty International.
Debate around immigration was stoked in France over the summer by mass arrivals in Italy and a visit by Pope Francis to the southern French port city Marseille, where he urged people to welcome migrants.
Last month’s killing of a teacher by a Russian migrant with apparent jihadist beliefs has further ramped up the pressure.
The government believes public opinion is on its side, with 87 percent in favor of changing immigration rules according to an Opinionway survey for daily Le Parisien.
Meanwhile the far-right National Rally (RN), formerly the National Front, of Marine Le Pen sees opportunity in its pet theme dominating political debate ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections and in the long climb to the 2027 presidential poll, when Macron cannot stand again due to term limits.
The immigration law was “a botched job,” RN vice-president Sebastien Chenu told broadcaster RTL on Sunday, while saying the party’s 88 MPs could vote for it in the hope of “small results”.