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IMMIGRATION

Macron’s party divided as France debates immigration law

French lawmakers were set to vote Sunday on a controversial immigration law that has exposed unprecedented divisions in President Emmanuel Macron's young centrist party.

Macron's party divided as France debates immigration law
Protesters hold a banner reading "Against the asylum and immigration law, Let's resist with open arms" during a demonstration on April 19th in Toulouse. Photo: AFP

At least one MP, Jean-Michel Clement, is planning to vote against the law — at a cost of being kicked out of Macron's En Marche (Republic On The Move) party — while several others said they would abstain.

The lower-house national assembly was supposed to vote on the bill Friday, but the fractious debate stretched into the weekend due to more than 1,000 amendments proposed by MPs.

More than 200 of the changes were suggested by En Marche members as Macron's own MPs openly challenged his plans to double the maximum time migrants can be held in detention to 90 days.

The government defends the bill as balanced, but it has attracted criticism both from rightwingers who say it is too soft and leftwingers who have blasted it as repressive.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said it aims for “better controlled” immigration, halving the waiting time for asylum applications to six months while also making it easier to deport those turned down as “economic”
migrants.

Accepted refugees will be given more help to integrate, such as better access to work and French lessons.

Many left-wing opponents lashed out in parliament at measures to keep asylum seekers awaiting deportation, including children, in detention for up to 90 days.

“Nothing justifies locking up a kid,” said Socialist MP Herve Saulignac.

The bill also reduces the time that asylum-claimers have to lodge their application from 120 to 90 days and gives them two weeks to appeal if unsuccessful, which NGOs say is not enough to gather more evidence in support of their claim.

Despite rumblings of revolt, the bill is expected to pass, with En Marche holding more than half the seats after battering traditional parties in June's parliamentary elections.

France received a record 100,000 asylum applications last year, bucking the general trend in Europe where the number of asylum seekers halved between 2016 and 2017.

Many Africans and South Asians end up sleeping on the streets of Paris due to a shortage of accommodation, or camping out in Calais hoping to stow away on trucks to Britain.

Pressure over the immigration bill comes as Macron insists he will push on with sweeping reforms including an overhaul of state rail operator SNCF, despite strikes and street protests.

Monday sees the start of another two days of strikes by rail workers over the shake-up which have been causing havoc for French commuters two days out of five since the start of April.

Rail unions object to plans to strip new SNCF recruits of jobs-for-life and early retirement, part of Macron's bid to reduce the SNCF's nearly 50 billion euros of debt.

The unions are gambling on public opinion turning in their favour but polls suggest an opposite trend, with just 43 percent backing the strike in an Ifop poll released Sunday.

The scale of the disruption has also eased over the course of the month as fewer workers continue with the strike.

On Monday, 35 percent of high-speed trains are set to operate — up from just an eighth at the beginning of the month.

READ ALSO: Here's what's wrong with France's new immigration law – according to rights groups

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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