September 7, 2015 / 9:25 AM / 2 years ago

Hollande opens French doors to refugees despite opposition

French President Francois Hollande attends his news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) - France is ready to take in 24,000 refugees as part of European Union plans to welcome more than 100,000 in the next two years, French President Francois Hollande said on Monday, dismissing opinion polls showing public opposition to the move.

Hollande said he and German leader Angela Merkel wanted the 28-country EU to back a “permanent, mandatory system” under which each country would be obliged to take its fair share of a total of 120,000 migrants.

“This is a crisis, and it is a grave and dramatic one. It can be brought under control and it will be,” he told a news conference.

Asked about polls showing 55 percent of French people oppose admitting more refugees or easing asylum procedures to cope with the EU’s migration crisis, Hollande said public opinion was fickle but asylum was a constitutional right and a moral duty.

France’s image and standing in the world were at stake, he said.

He also urged Britain to take its fair share of the burden, linking the issue implicitly to London’s bid to renegotiate its relationship with the EU before a referendum due by end 2017.

“Everyone must understand: you can’t ask for solidarity when there’s a problem and then exempt yourself from doing your duty when there is a solution,” Hollande said after pointing to Franco-British cooperation to cope with migrants trying to storm the Channel Tunnel to reach Britain.

The Socialist president said France was ready to take 1,000 refugees immediately from among those flooding into Germany, to show solidarity with its closest European partner.

But he stressed his country of 65 million would not be able to absorb migrants on the same scale as Germany because it faced neither the demand from asylum-seekers nor the same demographic and economic situation as Berlin.

France was also determined to deal with the causes of the refugee exodus from the Middle East, Asia and Africa by stepping up action against Islamic State militants who have captured swathes of Syria and Iraq, he said, and hosting an international conference on supporting refugees nearer to their homes.

The French air force, already part of a coalition waging air strikes against IS in Iraq, would start reconnaissance flights over Syria this week that could lead to strikes in that country too, Hollande said, ruling out sending in ground forces.

Britain is also considering joining U.S.-led coalition bombing raids on IS in Syria.

FIERCE DEBATE

The numbers of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and the Balkans in search of sanctuary in Europe has sparked fierce debate in France, with far-right, National Front leader Marine Le Pen leading opposition to opening the borders.

“Our country has neither the means, nor the energy, nor the desire to be more generous than it can be toward the world’s misery,” she told a party conference on Sunday ahead of regional elections in December in which she hopes to make big gains.

“We can no longer take in anyone. That’s the reality,” said Le Pen, whose party opposes immigration and EU membership. She also accused Germany of seeking to recruit low-wage migrant “slaves” to replace its aging workforce.

Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the conservative opposition Republican party, called at the weekend for detention camps to be set up in neighboring countries under EU control to filter refugees before they crossed the Mediterranean.

He also repeated past calls for an end to the EU’s Schengen zone of open border travel.

However, thousands of people demonstrated in cities around France on Saturday carrying banners such as “refugees welcome”. More than a dozen towns, mostly with left-wing mayors, have offered to take in Syrians.

France’s chief rabbi joined Pope Francis in urging followers to open their hearts and homes to the refugees.

French volunteers are collecting clothing and individual offers of accommodation, and more than 60 celebrities including actress Isabelle Adjani published an appeal on Sunday urging the French to open their arms to the refugees.

“Have we learned nothing from the comfortable cowardice of the past and from tragedies that we preferred to look away from?” they asked.

Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont, Brian Love and Gerard Bon; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Janet McBride

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