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Macron Puts Immigration Controls on the Table

Week nine and the gilet jaunes remain at the center of French political life. The populist protest has endured the scorn of the French media, unfair and scabrous attacks by French President Emmanuel Macron, and efforts by far-left rioters to use its demonstrations as a cover for attacks on police and property. 

It has endured the arrests of some of its leaders, and its own failure to set forth a clear agenda or choose representatives to effectively make its case. It did not recede after Macron made some initial concessions (most importantly on the gasoline tax), nor after national attention was diverted by a terror attack prior to Christmas, nor after Macron attacked it as an ugly mob of racists, homophobes, and anti-Semites. Nor did it abate during the two week political lull of the holidays. Last Saturday, 84,000 gilets jaunes demonstrated throughout France, according to the Ministry of Interior, 35,000 more than the week before. 

Macron, unpopular before the protests began, has done what would be expected from a moderately skilled politician: attempt to divide and diffuse the movement with a combination of concessions and harsh attacks, both rhetorical and judicial. For the French president, the question of whether he will to finish out his term—“can Macron still govern?”—remains alive.

Macron was elected by voters either at peace with liberal globalism or fearful that Marine Le Pen would be too disruptive. He now knows that the former group, at least, are far from a majority in France. National polls remind him that the gilets jaunes‘ contempt for French elites of all stripes is widely shared.   


In a response born of political desperation, Macron has called for a wide-ranging national conversation on key issues. But who gets to choose the topics?

In a televised address on December 10, Macron raised the minimum wage, postponed the rise in the gasoline tax, and called for a renewed national debate on five subjects, including immigration. Immigration had not been at the forefront of the protests. Nonetheless it is widely understood that the gilet jaunes‘ sociological base (the white working and middle classes in peripheral cities) has been for a generation on the losing side of changes that globalization and immigration have brought about.

So Macron put the issue on the table. Then within days, he reversed himself. Immigration was downgraded from a major topic to a subset of a discussion about “democracy and citizenship.” It had proved too divisive a topic for La République En Marche!, Macron’s newly created political party. One Macronist deputy, Matthieu Orphelin, exclaimed that “a great debate on housing, fiscal issues, social mobility, purchasing power, and democracy is a wonderful idea. But immigration doesn’t belong on the list.”

Politicians to Macron’s left echoed that view. Jean Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, expressed “sadness” at Macron for putting the issue on the table. Mélenchon  had been supportive of the gilets jaunes, while trying to funnel their protests into class warfare channels. Benoît Hamon, the socialist standard bearer in the last election, chimed in to say that debating immigration was “incomprehensible and dangerous, when the main subject is clearly social justice.”

On the other hand, some figures in Macron’s party, speaking off the record, lamented the turnabout—blaming the “intense lobbying effort of the care-bears who wish to censor a subject at the heart of the concerns of the gilet jaunes and the French people.”

A Macronist deputy, speaking on the record, said it was “time to stop sweeping the immigration issues under the carpet—that he would have no problem with the issues of identity, immigration and laïcité.”

Then, nearly as abruptly as he dropped it, Macron returned to the immigration issue. In a letter addressed to the French people last week—this attractive form of communication was utilized previously by Mitterand and Sarkozy in their campaigns—he made some nationalist and traditionalist points about the uniqueness of France. And he stressed once again his desire for a wide-ranging debate on all subjects concerning France’s government and people. 

“For me there are no forbidden subjects,” Macron wrote. He mentioned the four “grand themes” around which the debate will center: taxation and fiscal matters, the organization of government and public services, the ecological transition, and democracy and citizenship, and elaborated upon each of them. He also placed up for discussion the important issue of referendums, a key gilet jaunes demand that often yield conservative or populist results. He added that the French tradition of immigration has been shaken by doubts and the failures of integration.

He threw out the possibility of quotas on immigration, set annually by the Parliament. In practice, this would likely limit the number of immigrants through “family reunification”—one of the main channels of immigration into France. He then added a paean to laïcité—a “primordial value” of liberty—a word historically linked to the 19th and early 20th century battles against the power of the Catholic Church but now deployed as a discreet way of expressing concern over Islamic fundamentalism.

So unless he reverses course again, Macron has doubled down on his initial instinct—to make immigration part of the great national debate instigated by the gilet jaunes rebellion. His own views are not obvious. During his campaign, he said all the things a pro-business multicultural centrist would be expected to say; subsequently, on a trip to Africa, he poured cold water on requests for more visas for Africans to enter France, and remarked about African birth rates [1] in a way that liberals derided as racist. Now, to take the steam out of the gilets jaunes, he’s presented as an option an immigration restrictionist plank proposed by the center-right party in the last election cycle. For this, naturally, he came under renewed fire from members of pro-immigration lobby.

The gilet jaunes, eloquent in expressing their contempt for Macron and French ruling circles, have not been especially clear on immigration. One compelling interpretation comes from Causeur’s Élizabeth Lévy, who writes [2] that the anti-government sentiment pervasive in France (and in much of the West) is provoked not by governmental authoritarianism so much as by governmental weakness.

Governments, Lévy says, have been “unable to come up with a policy for globalization that does not sacrifice the middle classes.” The state seems ubiquitous with its torrent of rules and regulations—yet when it comes to protecting your way of life, it is impotent: “Your factories close, you are coming to feel like a foreigner in your own town…too bad, you have to adapt, not only adapt but proclaim your enthusiasm for the new situation.”

This strikes me as correct, and not only about the populism raging in France. There are tens of millions of people who want desperately for government to work for them, not just for the rich and the poor. When he came into office, Macron had no intention of instigating a national debate about the French state and its goals, and certainly not about immigration. And his current stance may be no more than a smokescreen—that’s what Marine Le Pen, the left-wing socialist parties, and most of the gilet jaunes think anyway.

But another possibility is that Macron has been forced into a corner by the gilet jaunes, and that his only way out is to put multiculturalism and immigration on the table for discussion. It may really be that his own views on these subjects are not set in stone, that his greatest motivation at this point is to succeed as president, and as a result something good might emerge.

We’re soon to find out.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Macron Puts Immigration Controls on the Table"

#1 Comment By polistra On January 17, 2019 @ 2:09 am

So far Macron hasn’t shown any motivation to succeed, or even an ordinary crass political skill for staying in office. He just mechanically carries out Juncker’s orders.

#2 Comment By sb On January 17, 2019 @ 3:53 am

Pfft! Macron, like May of UK, and Merkel of Germany, is a Liberal Atheist Capitalist, and is just throwing bones to the dogs (as he sees them).

Macron can afford to set quotas on immigration, so long as the ‘weak government enforcement’ that the Gilet Jaunes protest about, continues. Even if he actually enforced a limit, the LAC elite will ensure it is sufficiently high enough to atomise French society.

Thus, the LACs achieve Thatcher’s goal, expressed decades ago – that there be ‘no such thing as society’ – just individuals. That’s liberalism. And so easy then to control (as consumers, workers, etc) by the capitalists. Which is the LAC goal.

The LACs stay in their gated, policed communities or apartments and profit off their exploitation of the working class GJs.

Burn their mansions down.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 17, 2019 @ 7:43 am

“Governments, Lévy says, have been ‘unable to come up with a policy for globalization that does not sacrifice the middle classes.’”

That sure cuts to the heart of the matter, Scott.

#4 Comment By Martin On January 17, 2019 @ 12:39 pm

No surrender. No appeasement. Down with Macron.

#5 Comment By Louism On January 17, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

Neither the French nor the French Protestors will accept Macron or his negotiated compromises.

True there is distrust whether he will keep his promises to restrict future immigration but notice there are no promises of what to do with the 10+ million immigrants already in France.

The French have insolvent banks, insolvent govt services, high unemployment, insolvent pensions, rationed healthcare, neglected roads, declining schools and buildings in the rural areas where immigrants do not settle.

Meanwhile the French elite have spent billions to rebuild the French suburban and urban immigrant suburbs. Meanwhile the French elite ARE spending billions in social welfare services for immigrants. All of this money could have been spent on the native French poor and middle class who are struggling from neglect, rationed and declining services as well as terrorism, robberies and rapes. None of these things will Macron mention, admit or negotiate. Macron is only capable of token negotiations on the future while covering up and deflecting the current problems Macron and past have created. This is why Macron is at a dead end and will not be accepted.

#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 17, 2019 @ 1:28 pm

I agree with your assessment, Scott–“this strikes me as correct”–about the words of Élizabeth Lévy: “Governments…have been ‘unable to come up with a policy for globalization that does not sacrifice the middle classes.’ The state seems ubiquitous with its torrent of rules and regulations—yet when it comes to protecting your way of life, it is impotent: ‘Your factories close, you are coming to feel like a foreigner in your own town…too bad, you have to adapt, not only adapt but proclaim your enthusiasm for the new situation’.”

I also agree with “Marine Le Pen, the left-wing socialist parties, and most of the gilet jaunes” that just as “when he came into office, Macron had no intention of instigating a national debate about the French state and its goals, and certainly not about immigration…his current stance may be [and almost certainly is] no more than a smokescreen.”

The Yellow Vests should keep working on “a clear agenda [and to] choose representatives to effectively make its case.” But in the meantime, they must stay in the streets to keep the pressure on Macron. As a lifelong trade unionist, it has been my experience that when you’re given vague promises–or are promised “serious negotiations,” if you’ll agree to “call off the picketers and go back to work”–you end up with nothing!

Keep demonstrating, Yellow Vest brothers and sisters! Don’t stop!

#7 Comment By Jay On January 17, 2019 @ 2:04 pm

The French cannot trust Macron nor any of his kind. He needs to go.

Respecting the history of his beloved Republic demands it,a Republic which has been frequently and disingenuously invoked by Macron against the protestors, as it was born of the same type of protests. Macron is only lucky to have more effective military style protection. The French Monarchy was only unlucky to be born in a less technologically advanced period. A couple hundred years difference in their respective births is all that literally keeps Macron’s head on his shoulders. Even so, Macron should respect the Republic’s history and step down. The no confidence vote is firm.

As for the protestor’s, they can not trust such a globalist slimeball. He will stab them int he back at the first opportunity. They seem to act as if they know that.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On January 17, 2019 @ 2:32 pm

“…subsequently, on a trip to Africa, he poured cold water on requests for more visas for Africans to enter France, and remarked about African birth rates in a way that liberals derided as racist.”

Perhaps Mr. Macron should be concerned with his own nation’s birthrates which are below replacement level & have been dropping for the last 3 years:

“While France remains the European Union’s most fertile country ahead of Ireland according to the most recent data available, it seems unlikely this will remain the case for long if the current downturn in birth rate continues.

But why is the birth rate declining?

Part of the reason, as reported by Insee is that the lowering birth rate is partly due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer women of child-bearing ages in France.

The number of 20 to 40-year-old women have been on the decrease in France since the 1990’s, as women born in the baby-boom period of 1946-1964 start to leave that age bracket.

The latest report from Insee showed that fewer women aged 25-29 were having children, a trend which has existed since 2000 and has accelerated since 2015.

The average age at which women are giving birth is 30.6 compared to 29.8 ten years ago, Insee reported….”


#9 Comment By German_reader On January 17, 2019 @ 2:56 pm

I’d like to know how much immigration there has actually been to France in recent years…seems like there were a record 100 000 applications for asylum in 2017. Which is a lot, but not on the scale of what has happened in Germany and Sweden since 2015. Regular immigration seems not to be that high either. So France’s undoubted problems with Islam and ethnic and religious diversity might be primarily due to mistakes made decades ago.
Another issue that McConnell hasn’t mentioned is the UN global compact for migration which led to significant controversy in many European countries a few months ago. I’m not familiar with the details of the debate in France, but iirc there was at least some public debate about it.
Can’t say I find this article more convincing than the last one, still seems rather superficial.