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Migration Right

France’s new immigration law could herald a broader shift in the nation’s politics, and Europe’s.

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Credit: B.Borisov

French politics tends to produce esoteric debates, but perhaps none so outlandish as the furor around the passage of a new law on immigration: did the votes of the far-right Rassemblement National put the legislation over the top? The bill garnered the votes of 349 of the 535 deputies in the National Assembly, including 88 from the RN. Elisabeth Borne, President Emmanuel Macron’s prime minister, crowed that the overhaul had “been adopted without the votes of the RN.” But detractors soon pointed out that the bill would have failed had the RN opposed it. Her response? Had the RN abstained, the measure would have carried based on a lower threshold for passage. Macron and Borne’s hairsplitting, par for the course among such professional triangulates, cannot hide the essential fact: the law needed the backing of the far right to pass. What is more: the legislation demonstrates the public’s gradual alignment with the right on the issue of migration. 

The new legislation, the product of months of backroom wrangling, checks off several items on the right’s Christmas list. It eliminates the automatic acquisition of citizenship by a child born to foreign parents in France on his majority; toughens conditions for receiving medical care in the Hexagon; extends the period for newcomers to become eligible for certain social benefits, notably the housing allowance (l’allocation personalisée de logement); makes it harder for immigrants to sponsor family members; permits the government to rescind the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of murdering civil servants and officeholders; and mandates Parliament to set an immigration quota for the next three years. 

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Reactions to the law broke down familiar lines. Marine Le Pen hailed the bill’s passage as “an ideological victory”; the left and an alphabet soup of pro-migration NGOs assailed the measure as a violation of human rights and a sign of the country’s droitization. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the sulfurous head of the far-left France Insoumise, condemned the formation of “a new political axis” around the passage of this “racist” measure. The outrage extended into the ranks of Macron’s own party, La République en Marche—dozens of center-left deputies abandoned the presidential majority, and the ministers for higher education and health presented their resignations.

Despite the French left’s fury, the measure left much of the right’s immigration program on the cutting-room floor. French law still spares numerous classes of illegal aliens from deportation: clandestine migrants who have persisted in the country for a decade, those married to a French citizen or having a French child, and persons having arrived in France as children are exempt from removal. Removal orders—in administrative parlance, ordres à quitter le territoire français (OQTF)—can take eons to execute. Potential deportees have recourse to interminable appeals in the regular and administrative courts.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, already in hot pursuit of the presidency, has touted himself as an anti-migration ultra. He boasts on X about each week’s slate of deportations, particularly when it comes to criminals and Islamist radicals. But this has so far proven vain bluster. A mere 7 percent of OQTFs were carried out in 2022, leading to the removal of around 15,000 foreigners. And so it shall remain: the right’s initial plans to pare back these protections had to be kiboshed.

Ditto the desire to restrict entry for those purporting refugee status. Around 150,000 asylum-seekers have come to France per annum in the past decade. This represents 60 percent of the number of other migrants (both legal and illegal) entering the Hexagon (around 250,000). The nation’s treaty obligations—which place it under the jurisdiction of European Union tribunals and the European Court of Human Rights—limit room to maneuver on irksome matters like refugees and due process for potential deportees. At the same time, the law accords greater latitude to prefects in giving papers to the undocumented, meaning the number of 35,000 regularizations from last year might increase. France counts between 600,000 and 900,000 clandestine migrants, and one should not expect this statistic to diminish because of this measure.

Some of the right’s gains could also be reversed. The law must be reviewed by France’s highest administrative body, the Conseil Constitutionnel, before it comes into force. Macron and Borne maintain that the bill’s provision for a quota on legal migration (again, excluding refugees) violates the constitution of the Fifth Republic. 

Notwithstanding these qualifications, this legislation—and the surrounding polemic—is more than sound and fury. France’s politics are shifting rightward, and particularly so on immigration. Both right and left see this measure as an instantiation of a nascent consensus against mass migration and as a precedent for a broader restrictionist drive. Marine Le Pen could lose again in the next presidential election, but the lepéniste agenda is on the march.

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