Back in the late 1970s, Jean Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s then struggling far right party, the Front National (FN), decided to focus his attention on what was seen as the innocuous term “immigration”. It was part of an effort to clean up the party’s image as violent and racist.
While previous French governments had perceived immigration as a purely economic matter to do with the availability of work, the FN re-positioned the issue to channel fears of cultural change. To them, immigration was no longer solely about the practicalities of moving countries, but broader issues of race relations, integration and national identity.
Not only did Le Pen succeed, but four decades later France is still living in the shadow of this rebranding exercise.
On April 23, the French National Assembly passed the first reading of a controversial new asylum and immigration bill. For seven days, French MPs acrimoniously debated the proposed new law, demonstrating how far the current political concern with immigration all over Europe has turned into a debate about the soul of political parties. The bill will now have to be approved by the French senate.
In the current parliament, where President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en marche (LRM) holds a total majority, passing new laws is usually a matter of procedure. Yet the bill caused a commotion as many of the new centrist MPs objected to some of its more repressive measures and sought to alter them. The long debate reflected the determination of parties from across the political spectrum to define themselves through their attitude to immigration.
The bill demonstrated an ambition to address all issues relevant to immigration, mixing categories of general immigration, asylum and integration. Yet in reality, it mainly addressed illegal immigration and asylum procedures. This reflects the current rise in asylum seekers who wish to be recognised as refugees in France.
The government presented it as “centrist” in two ways. On the one hand, its overall repressive character, with a focus on shortening delays in the processing of asylum requests, was justified through the logic of technocratic efficiency. This has been Macron’s strategy so far when initiating new reforms, claiming not to be swayed by ideology, but to promote politics that works. Simultaneously, the government presented the law as a compromise that contained a mixed bag of measures for both the left and right to support and oppose.
Left-leaning LRM MPs and members of left-wing parties welcomed the softening of the so-called “offence of solidarity”, which criminalised people who provided aid to illegal immigrants. They also welcomed the removal of countries that oppress LGBTQ minorities from the list of “safe states” to which people will be automatically returned. But overall, the left-wing parties opposed it because the majority of its articles were seen as repressive.
The FN and the right-wing party Les Républicains (LR), and their voters, welcomed the bill’s aim to make the process of seeking asylum stricter and to better enforce the expulsions of men and women whose refugee status had been denied. Nonetheless, they lambasted the bill for not reflecting a harsh stance on immigration.
Despite the opposition from both left and right, the bill passed with support from the centre. Yet while the government can claim the bill is a successful “compromise” of the centre, in reality it exposes the flaws in the current conversation about immigration.
The debate about the law in the National Assembly reflected a wider shift to the right of discourse about immigration in France, and unison between the right and the far right. Representatives of both the LR and FN tried to outdo one another as they demanded harsher immigration controls. Both parties pilloried the government for its “naivety”, and there was little difference between Le Pen’s statement that “the house of France is open to the four winds” and LR’s Guillaume Larrivé, who lambasted the “apostles of no borders on the far left”.
As a result, the bill, which corresponds to traditional right-wing policy with its general hardening of immigration applications, appeared as a moderate, grownup compromise.
Europe’s focus on numbers
The new law demonstrates the flaw in the way immigration debates all over Europe ignore the experiences of immigration. Its technocratic focus on numbers will seem reasonable to voters interested in a more “effective” system. They will not see the problem with shortening the period required to submit a demand for asylum from 120 to 90 days or with the desire to process asylum demands more quickly.
Yet dry debates on quotas and deadlines ignore the human cost involved with every demand for asylum. Reducing deadlines without investment in staff that are able and qualified to deal with the complexity of these human stories is neither effective nor feasible.
If this bill shows anything, it is that European immigration policy needs to take the human factor of immigration far more seriously. Immigration, asylum and integration all deserve attention, but not through a focus on reducing numbers. In Britain, blind adherence to quotas resulted in the Home Office’s hostile environment on immigration that has caused its own scandal. In France, being the centrist grownup in the room requires the courage to not blindly follow voters’ desires for reassurances by reducing the number of newcomers, but to create a system that takes the word “asylum” seriously and treats immigrants as human beings with complex, human motives.