Is France taking the lead on EU asylum policy?
While hundreds of thousands of people were reaching European shores and heading towards Germany and Sweden in 2015, France was late to take into consideration the scope and nature of the challenges the European Union was facing. At first, France did not realize that what was at stake was not primarily an issue of irregular migration but first and foremost one of international protection of refugees. Moreover, France finally understood that the core foundations of the EU were endangered. Despite the degrading situation of migrants in the slums of Calais and on the streets of Paris, France remained relatively shy in front of a phenomenon that little affected its soil. At best, it showed polite support to Germany during EU meetings.
However, France was not seen as a reliable partner, due to Manuel Valls’ criticisms of the German welcome policy in Munich and the lack of enthusiasm shown by Paris for a permanent quota-system within the EU. As a matter of fact, France was not involved in the design of the deal with Turkey in March 2016, a non-legal decision that is nevertheless perceived as the matrix of the future of EU asylum and immigration policies.
Emmanuel Macron’s election in May 2017 marks the return of France on the European scene. As a candidate, Macron’s platform on immigration and asylum was in line with the former governments’ policy. The main dividing line between the candidates in the race for the French presidency was related to their position towards the EU. Macron distinguished himself in unambiguously standing for Europe. It is in that context that the refugee situation was mentioned, when he praised Merkel’s policy and the Germans solidarity with refugees.
Under Macron France is more concerned with migration……
Today, Europe is one of the main priorities of the French authorities. Therefore, Macron is trying to take the lead on many topics, including migration and asylum. He is taking advantage of the German elections that left room for French diplomacy to take over. Moreover, France feels more concerned with the migration inflows to Europe. Considering the drift of migrants’ arrivals from the Eastern to Central Mediterranean, France is now on the second line after Italy. Besides, the links between France and many African countries are motives for more involvement and for slowing down German and Italian moves in the area.
France’s military presence in the Sahel area in the context of the fight against terrorism provides a further ground for enhanced cooperation with these countries on migration matters. Hence, Macron convened with Germany, Italy, Spain, Chad, Niger and Libya in Paris late August, and subsequently declared that France will resettle 10,000 refugees, including 3,000 from Chad and Niger. He thereby anticipated the European Commission objective to resettle 50,000 refugees within the EU by October 2019. France is showing proactiveness and a sense of initiative that contrast with the previous government. However, when it comes to the content, France’s positions have not substantially evolved, as was shown by its reluctance to implement an automatic relocation scheme within the EU and the recast of the Dublin Regulation.
'While president Macron promotes a humanist and open approach, his Minister of Interior Affairs compares migrants to a “cyst”’
Of course, the domestic situation matters. Even if migration issues were not discussed during the campaign, the migration situation surfaced right after the elections, mostly in three “hotspots” illustrating the challenges the new government has to face. First of all, the French-Italian border has de facto become a Schengen border within the EU since France has been undertaking migration control under the state of emergency declared after the Paris attacks of November 2015. Second, the number of migrants living on the streets of Paris keeps growing despite efforts of the City Council to provide initial accommodation. Finally, the plight of migrants in Calais is still of concern to the extent that the national Ombudsman described the situation on the spot as “breaches of human rights of an exceptional and unprecedented level”.
….. although there is ambivalence in addressing it
French authorities are addressing the migration situation in an ambivalent manner. Whereas president Macron promotes a humanist and open approach, his Minister of Interior Affairs compares migrants to a “cyst” and calls for a better procedure to decide who is entitled to remain in France and who is not. This double rhetoric sets the driving force of French migration policy based on a simplistic distinction between refugees and economic migrants. This distinction is at the very core of the roadmap on migration presented in July 2017 and of a forthcoming new immigration bill that will focus on speeding up the asylum process, on more lengthy detention and efficient return policies. Finally, the simplified distinction between refugees and economic migrants shuts the door for any debate on legal economic migration except for (a limited number of) highly qualified migrants.
The issue of legal pathways for people in need of international protection is trapped in this paradigm. On the one side, France’s commitment to increase resettlement programmes is a positive step towards more support to the global refugee protection regime. On the other side, one cannot ignore that France – and the entire EU for that matter – is not seriously addressing the plight of the 1.2 million refugees in need of resettlement according to the UNHCR, particularly in an international context where Donald Trump is cutting half of the US resettlement scheme. Besides, in the European debate, legal pathways for refugees are framed as the other side of the coin of stricter border controls and externalisation of migration management in third countries. But Europe is not an island like Australia. In that perspective, this policy might lead to another failure and increases the lack of trust in the ability of the EU to deal with immigration in a humane and efficient way.
Matthieu Tardis is a Research Fellow at the Center for Migration and Citizenship of IFRI, the French Institute of International Relations. His research expertise includes asylum, integration, international migrations and their impact on European policies.