President Emmanuel Macron refused to accept the resignation of his interior minister on Monday night after the government’s immigration bill was rejected in parliament.
It was a devastating humiliation for Gerald Darmanin and Macron, and a moment of great joy for many of his political opponents.
In an unprecedented show of unity, the right and left came together to approve a motion from the Green Party to reject the bill without consideration by a margin of just five votes. But they did so for different reasons.
In the eyes of the left, the bill is ‘racist and xenophobic: they particularly object to the proposal to cut welfare benefits and expel more illegal immigrants; while the right – Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and the centre-right Republicans – considered it too liberal, specifically the clause that would regularise the status of illegal immigrants working in some job sectors. Le Pen told reporters she was ‘delighted’ with the outcome because it ‘protected the French from a migratory tidal wave’.
Le Monde described the bill’s rejection as a ‘stunning setback for the government’, a description echoed in Le Figaro’s editorial this morning, which said it represents ‘the biggest setback suffered by Emmanuel Macron since his arrival at the Élysée’.
Macron was elected president in 2017 on a pledge that he was ‘neither left, (nor) right’, and he attracted to his Renaissance party figures from the left (like his Socialist prime minister Elisabeth Borne) and from the right (such as Darmanin). His ambiguous governance was epitomised by his favourite slogan, ‘En Meme Temps’ (At the Same Time); in other words, saying one thing but doing another, in an attempt to keep his disparate party united.
But, as with the Tories, the divisions within Macron’s party have been exposed by the question of immigration and the president has failed to produce a bill that satisfied his own party, let alone the rest of parliament.
The bill has been over a year in the pipeline, a priority of Darmanin ever since a 12-year-old Parisian girl was raped and murdered, allegedly by an Algerian woman who should have been deported. But, as Le Figaro points out, since then Macron and his government have ‘continued to prevaricate, to put forward an incoherent plan. How can they promise to be tougher on immigration while at the same time saying they want to regularise the situation of illegal immigrants working in so-called short-staffed jobs?’.
The truth is that Macron, like Sunak, is at heart in favour of free movement. Even if this bill had passed it wouldn’t have addressed the issue of legal migration, which, during Macron’s presidency, has reached an historic high. In particular, the right, including Macron’s former prime minister, Edouard Philippe, want to reexamine the 1968 treaty with Algeria that makes it much easier for their citizens to settle in France.
Macron ruled out such a move last week, and on Sunday he attempted to influence parliament’s vote in an address that lauded France’s ‘tradition of asylum’. Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Macron said:
‘France maintains its long tradition of asylum for those whose rights are threatened in their countries, and we will continue to defend this right of asylum. It protects freedom fighters and was conceived after World War II when many stateless individuals roamed Europe’.
Macron’s words may have done more harm than good, underlining the fact that, like many progressive leaders, he doesn’t appear to understand the difference between genuine asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution, and economic migrants; among the ten nations most represented in asylum claims in France are Turkey, Pakistan, Albania, Georgia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.
There was speculation among some political commentators on Monday evening that Macron could dissolve parliament in the wake of the defeat; that seems unlikely, as does – at this stage – the triggering of article 49.3 of the constitution, which permits a government to pass legislation without putting it to a parliamentary vote. This has been a favourite tactic of this government, and it was used to push through the unpopular pension reform bill earlier this year.
Having refused Darmanin’s resignation, Macron told him to ‘submit proposals to move forward by overcoming this blockage and obtaining an effective law’. The most likely way this can be achieved is the formation of a joint committee formed of seven MPs and seven senators to produce a compromise bill, which is then submitted for a vote in the lower and upper houses. As the centre-right Republicans dominate the senate, this would allow them to toughen the bill to suit their taste and that of Le Pen’s National Rally. But it would then require the support in parliament of Macron’s Renaissance Party, many of whom are left-wing and pro-immigration.
Macron spent Monday in Toulouse where he unveiled the latest phase of his strategy to put France ‘at the forefront of technological and industrial innovation’. Like Rishi Sunak, this is where Macron is happiest, surrounded by like-minded people all imagining a bright and successful future. Instead their governments are menaced by the one issue they just can’t escape: mass and uncontrolled immigration.