Mainstream French politicians keep level head on migration

Divided public opinion explains why French politicians emphasise rules and the repression of traffickers as much as humanity

Yesterday's debate in the National Assembly regarding Europe's migration crisis was surprisingly tepid, considering that immigration is the most explosive issue in French politics.

That was because the extreme right-wing National Front (FN), which has crusaded against immigration for three decades, was not represented.

The FN leader Marine Le Pen this week compared the half a million migrants (according to Frontex) who have reached Europe in 2015 to the barbarian invasions of the fourth century. Such statements were not heard in the debating chamber, but they are heard across France.

Before 71 Syrians were found dead in a lorry in Austria, and before three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was photographed dead on a Turkish beach, only 36 per cent of French people wanted France to welcome migrants. That rose to 49 per cent in a September 3-4 poll.


Divided public opinion explains why French politicians emphasise rules and the repression of traffickers as much as humanity and solidarity. "We must have a heart, of course, but an intelligent, firm heart, a lucid heart," said prime minister Manuel Valls.

Costs of crisis

Mr Valls went into great detail regarding the costs of the migrant crisis: €1,000 will be paid to local governments for each refugee who is given shelter. Aid to migrants will total €279 million by the end of 2016. An additional €334 million will be spent on migrants in 2017,

Le Figaro

quoted the prime minister’s entourage.

Speaking for the opposition party Les Républicains, Valérie Pécresse asked: “What good are the €1,000 you’ve promised when the Cour des Comptes [government auditor] estimates the cost of an asylum seeker at €13,000 annually?”

Mr Valls admitted that the situation in France is totally different from that in Germany, because only 65,000 people seek asylum in France each year, and that number is decreasing.

“France is no longer a host country,” said the communist deputy André Chassagne. “It takes too long to get housing. The bureaucracy is too complicated. The police harass migrants.”

France accepts only 21.7 per cent of asylum applicants, compared to a 41.6 per cent acceptance rate in Germany and 76.8 per cent in Sweden. France has promised to receive 24,000 refugees over the next two years.

“This figure is ridiculous,” Mr Chassagne said. “It represents only 0.6 per cent of four million Syrian refugees.”

There were differences regarding a special status for war refugees, and the future of the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement within Europe.

Sent home

In a recent interview, the former president

Nicolas Sarkozy

, now head of Les Républicains, said war refugees should be sent home when the conflict ends, a position reiterated by Ms Pécresse. Mr Valls noted that such a provision already exists in European and French law. But, he added, “Obtaining temporary protection in no way deprives one of seeking asylum. And those who obtain it can choose to remain in France because they have made their life here.”

Mr Valls said France “will not hesitate” to reimpose border controls temporarily in coming days or weeks, as allowed by the rules of Schengen. But, he added, Schengen is “a fundamental acquis of European construction” which must be strengthened.

Ms Pécresse said: “The naïve vision of Schengen, which gives the same freedom of movement to Europeans and non-Europeans, is no longer tenable.”

Without naming the countries of the former east bloc, Mr Valls said their "a la carte solidarity" was "unacceptable". The socialist deputy Bruno Le Roux said he was "ashamed" of statements by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

“I was ashamed for Europe, for the face she showed to these exhausted people who came knocking at her door.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor