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France debates immigration as rebels in Macron's party break ranks

Yoan Valat, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe at the Élysée presidential palace in Paris, on December 10, 2018.

When French President Emmanuel Macron last month announced a tougher stance on immigration, he immediately faced a backlash from within his own party. Since then, Macron has tried to present a united front ahead of Monday's parliamentary debate.

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In the past few weeks, Macron’s centrist government has pulled out all the stops to try to smooth over the divisions that appeared within the president’s La République en Marche (LREM) party after the French leader in September announced a tougher stance on immigration, saying France “cannot host everyone”.

The announcement didn’t go down well with some of the party’s more left-leaning members and resulted in a rebellion, of sorts. In a bid to muster up a united LREM front ahead of an October 7 debate in the National Assembly (lower house), Macron and his ministers have hosted numerous working seminars, parliamentary group meetings and even a working breakfast at the prime minister’s offices.

The first cracks in the LREM party armour appeared a day after Macron made his announcement on September 16. An open letter signed by the party’s left-wing members began to spread on social media, underscoring the advantages and benefits of the successful integration of immigrants.

F24's Clovis Casali reports on France's contentious debate over immigration

“The question is not about how many people we can host but how we can better integrate them,” they wrote, noting that “every study, from the OECD to INSEE (the French statistics office), shows that immigration has a positive impact on a country’s economy”.

The signatories insisted that the parliamentary debate on immigration should not be hijacked by those trying to profit off “fantasy immigration-Islam-crime links” and by fuelling “hatred against all Muslim citizens”.

A day later, a second open letter, signed by 35 left-leaning LREM members, was published. But this time the lawmakers wanted to shoot down any suggestion that the country's cherished healthcare system was the reason why France has experienced such a steep rise in the number of asylum demands. France received 122,743 asylum requests in 2018, up 22 percent from the year before.

“To let people think that the benefits of our healthcare system are the reason for why we are seeing such an influx in immigration is a mistake,” they wrote.

It’s important to uphold our values, because co-opting the talking points of the [far-right] National Rally will not cause them to lose any support among voters,” Jean-François Cesarini, an LREM lawmaker who signed both of the open letters, told FRANCE 24.

Reining in the rebels

In light of the strong reactions within his own party, Macron and his government have gone all out to try to rein in the most rebellious of the LREM lawmakers. While the interior ministry hosted a working seminar, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has assisted in a number of parliamentary group meetings and hosted a working breakfast in his Matignon offices.

Meanwhile, the LREM has created a parliamentary discussion group on immigration and asylum. According to a source close to the matter, the group was set up to take advantage of the current divide within LREM, where “those on the left will work on integration issues and those on the right on tougher rules for the right to asylum”.

Addressing the National Assembly on Monday evening, Philippe told lawmakers that the government does not seek to crack down on immigration “as a whole” but rather to simplify some processes and improve the situations of those who’ve moved to France legally. He did, however, say that France wants to crack down on human traffickers and illegal migration.

“I’m not afraid of considering quotas," he said, adding that authorities must remain in control of the process.

"We must fight abuses and fraud, and make the criteria more strict where necessary,” said Philippe.

The French senate will debate the issue of immigration on Wednesday.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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