November 6, 2019 / 11:19 AM / 6 days ago

France, under pressure from right wing, toughens stance on immigration

PARIS (Reuters) - France is to clear out some migrant tent camps, impose quotas for migrant workers and deny newly-arrived asylum seekers access to non-urgent healthcare, in a drive to show voters President Emmanuel Macron is heeding their concerns about immigration.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants carry their belongings after the dismantling their makeshift camp near Calais Port, France February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

“We want to take back control of our immigration policy,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a Macron appointee, told reporters as he unveiled a package of measures on immigration.

“That means when we say yes it really means yes, and when we say no, it really means no.”

Opinion polls show voters are worried about the issue, driving support for far-right leader Marine Le Pen, likely to be Macron’s main opponent in the next presidential election in 2022. Le Pen dismissed the new measures as political posturing.

“If I was in a bad mood I would say this is a political swindle. As I am in a good mood I say this is smoke and mirrors. This is an electoral move,” she told Europe 1 radio.

Polling shows Le Pen’s popularity is rising with voters while Macron — though still in the lead — is slipping.

Macron’s centrist administration has so far resisted pressure from right-wing rivals on immigration, in part because many of his own liberal supporters are uncomfortable with any measures they feel are pandering to xenophobia.

But in announcing the new measures, France joins other European states, among them Italy, Britain and Sweden, that have opted to take tougher approaches on migrants since the outbreak of the Syria conflict in 2011 triggered a migrant crisis across Europe and fueled populist right-wing parties.

NOT NAIVE

The French prime minister said the 20 new measures on immigration his government unveiled on Wednesday were the mark of a “France that is open but is not naive.”

“I think we have found the right balance between reassuring our citizens and not giving ground to populism,” he said.

The prime minister said that migrant tent camps in eastern Paris would be razed by the end of this year, but he did not say what would happen to similar camps in other parts of the country.

At the same time, thousands of new homes would be made available for asylum seekers, he said, so that they could live in dignity.

Philippe also said the test for acquiring French citizenship would be made more exacting, and that the government would aim to process asylum applications within six months.

Ministers said quotas would be set for people moving legally to France from outside the European Union to work, but without saying what the ceiling would be.

Addressing concerns that France’s free health system was attracting illegal migrants, Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said asylum seekers would have to wait three months before being entitled to healthcare. She said the restriction would not apply to children, or emergency care.

LE PEN CLOSING GAP

In the second quarter of this year, France received 28,575 asylum applications, or 426 per million inhabitants, according to Eurostat data. That is above the EU average of 291 asylum applications per million inhabitants, and puts France in eighth place overall in Europe.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attends a news conference on immigration at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, November 6, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

France has the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe, and a large proportion of its immigrant population comes from Muslim countries.

Some French people say practices found among immigrant communities, such as Muslim women wearing full-face veils, are at odds with traditional French values, including the official secularism of the French state. Others say such concerns are used to justify racism and xenophobia.

When he was elected in 2017, Macron beat Le Pen nearly two-to-one in a runoff. An opinion poll conducted late last month by pollster Ifop showed the gap narrowing: if a runoff were to be held now, Macron would get 55% while Le Pen would have 45% support, the poll showed.

Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont, Dominique VidalonWriting by Benoit Van Overstraten and Christian Lowe; Editing by Peter Graff

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