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France unveils steps to 'take back control' of immigration

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Paris (AFP)

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe vowed Wednesday to "take back control" of the country's migration flows by imposing quotas on certain categories of skilled migrants and cutting back benefits available to asylum seekers.

President Emmanuel Macron has for months been talking up a tougher approach to immigration, arguing that France must end its "lax" approach to prevent voters from drifting to the far right.

But he has also expressed support for facilitating more skilled migration in sectors where French businesses are struggling to fill jobs.

"We want to take back control of our migration policy," Philippe said at a press conference, unveiling a series of measures which he said aimed to strengthen France's "sovereignty".

Philippe confirmed that parliament would in future set annual sectoral "goals or quotas" on skilled migration from non-EU countries, similar to the systems in place in Canada and Australia.

The quotas will be based on a list of professions in which employers would be exempted from having to prove that the job cannot be filled by a French person.

But a government statement detailing the reforms made clear that the new caps on economic migration, which accounted for only 33,000 of the 255,956 residence permits awarded in 2018, "will not be restrictive".

- 'Smokescreen' -

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen dismissed the measures as a "smokescreen", saying they would in fact lead to more immigration.

But the plans were welcomed by the main employers' federation MEDEF.

The government also announced plans to curtail access to healthcare for asylum-seekers.

Those seeking refugee status will have to wait three months before accessing free, non-urgent medical care, and those turned down for asylum will be allowed continued access to free healthcare for just six months from 12 months currently, the government said.

Macron's critics accuse the pro-business centrist of aping the discourse of the National Rally on immigration ahead of next year's municipal elections and the 2022 presidential vote.

"France cannot host everyone if it wants to host people well," Macron said in an interview in September, pointing to a sharp increase in asylum claims since 2017.

"In order to be able to welcome everyone properly, we should not be too attractive a country," he said.

He has repeatedly warned about the country's asylum laws being "misused" by people posing as refugees in order to avail of French healthcare.

French officials point to Albania and Georgia as examples of two countries considered safe which provide a large number of so-called "medical tourists" masquerading as asylum-seekers.

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