It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about French politics, but seeing as my day job is now working in immigration law, I can’t help but comment briefly on some recent comments by Emmanuel Macron. Last week, at a meeting of LREM deputies, Macron stressed the need to “look squarely in the face” the subject of immigration heading into the second half of his term. The president elaborated that the question for his young party was “to see whether or not we want to be a bourgeois party. The bourgeois don’t have any problems with [immigration]: they don’t encounter it, while the working classes live with it.”
This is not exactly new rhetoric for Macron. Critics have taken him to task for the harsh treatment of migrants that have occurred under his watch—images of police confiscating or destroying sleeping bags near Calais tend to come to mind. From early on in his presidency, Macron and his interior ministers have sought to avoid appearing laxiste on migration, no doubt anticipating attacks from the far right. And Macron’s letter addressing the grievances of the gilets jaunes this past January—ahead of the grand debat listening tour that began soon afterward—outlined a narrative practically identical to the one he returned to this week: i.e., that a major solution for the outbreak of mass anger during last fall’s gilets jaunes protests is to address insecurity over migration and French cultural values. As Robert Zaretsky recently pointed out, this tack perhaps was intended to deflect attention from other sources of discontent among la France peripherique by bringing immigration into the debate—the gilets jaunes themselves did not raise the issue nearly as frequently as they did fuel taxes, wealth taxes, and participatory democracy.
One description of Macron I’ve long felt was fitting is that he is a politician who can’t resist announcing his own stage directions (a tendency he shares with Donald Trump, despite having much more theatrical experience). What Macron has made clear, then, is that he has every intention of keeping immigration a central part of his political rhetoric in the second half of his presidency. As he sees it, in both his electoral struggle against the far right and his ambition to lose his image as the bourgeois-cosmopolitan président des riches, it is in his interest to signal to the French people that he is concerned about migrant arrivals as a threat to French culture and the French welfare state, and that he is committed to restoring law and order when it comes to questions régaliennes.
Of course, it’s still not clear what exactly Macron intends to do differently on immigration other than talk about it (though talking about it without prompting by those to his right is already a significant choice). His government’s 2018 law on asylum and immigration—which prompted no small amount of concerns from within LREM—already made it easier to expel asylum seekers by reducing the time they have to present their cases. And the CRS under his watch have continued clearing migrant camps, including the “model” camp at Grande-Synthe, where hundreds of migrants received services through a cooperation between the local government and various NGOs.
One significant change since this past winter is the recent change in government in Italy. If Macron remains primarily concerned about his far-right flank within France, he no longer has such a flank across the country’s southeastern border now that Matteo Salvini is no longer in power—at least for now. Salvini’s departure makes it easier for Macron to come out on the European stage as a leader on addressing the challenge of migration (rather than, as Patrick Weil put it last year, providing tacit cover for far-right leaders who at the time seemed to have the upper hand on the European stage). Macron did not wait long after the Lega was ousted from the Five-Star Movement-controlled coalition to announce alongside Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte his support for a renewed system for welcoming migrants across EU member states. At the same time, he has stressed that this must go hand-in-hand with harsher measures to deal with clandestine migration.
We are left, then, with a classic Macron move, the rhetoric of en même temps, on two different levels. First, in terms of policy, Macron is championing expanding some measures to welcome migrants, while also giving European leaders a freer hand to crack down on unauthorized entries. This is in fact a combination that has been attractive to EU policymakers since the 2015-2015 migrant crisis. And in terms of politics, Macron once again is claiming to stand for solidarity with European partners in welcoming desperate migrants, while at the same time returning to hardline rhetoric on law and order and national values in the leadup to France’s national elections. As is so often the case with the politics of en même temps, we can likely expect in each arena the promises on security and expulsions to prevail over the rhetoric of solidarity.
Photo Credit: OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, President Emmanuel Macron at the OECD, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.