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IMMIGRATION

Hundreds of migrants ‘occupy Pantheon in Paris’

Hundreds of undocumented migrants surged into the Pantheon in central Paris on Friday, briefly occupying the vaunted memorial complex to demand talks with the prime minister on regularising their status, activists said.

Hundreds of migrants 'occupy Pantheon in Paris'
Undocumented migrants demonstrate to ask for the regularisation of their status. Photo: AFP
Around 700 migrants and their supporters joined the demonstration, with some pushing into the historic complex at around midday on Friday, a member of the Chapelle Debout collective said. Footage posted on Twitter from inside the building's main dome showed hundreds of people waving papers in the air shouting “Black vests, black vests!” and “What do we want? Papers!”
 
The so-called “Black Vests” is a Paris-based migrant association that takes its name from the “yellow vest” anti-government protest movement. 
 
Photo: AFP
   
In a statement, the Black Vest protesters said they wanted “papers and housing for everyone”, describing themselves as “the undocumented, the voiceless and the faceless of the French Republic”.
   
“We don't want to negotiate with the interior minister and his officials any more, we want to talk to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe now!” they wrote. 
 
They stayed there for several hours until they were calmly evacuated through a back entrance mid-afternoon, AFP correspondents said. 
   
“All of the people who gained entry to the Pantheon have been evacuated,” Philippe tweeted early evening as a police source said 37 arrests had been made.
   
'Rule of law'
 
“France is a country based on the rule of law which means respect for the rules that apply to the right to remain, respect for public monuments and for the memory they represent,” he added.
   
Some leftist lawmakers came to the site to offer moral support to the migrants but Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, tweeted her indignation.
   
“It is UNACCEPTABLE to see protesting illegal aliens occupy, with wholesale impunity, this is the centre of the Republic,” Le Pen said.
 
“Expulsion should be the immigrants' future — that is the LAW,” she said. “The Pantheon is a symbol of great men. Inside there are symbols representing the fight against slavery. We are fighting against modern-day slavery,” said Laurent, an activist from French rights group Droits Devant. 
   
“Many people have been living without rights for years. We have done this to ask the prime minister for an exceptional regularisation. There has never been such a thing since (Francois) Mitterrand took power” in 1981. “It's about time we had one.”
   
The “Black Vests” are known for staging headline-grabbing protests in support of the undocumented. 
 
In June, they briefly occupied the headquarters of the Paris-based Elior Group which works in contract catering and property. And a month earlier, its activists occupied terminal 2F at the city's Charles De Gaulle airport against “Air France's collaboration” in the deportation of undocumented migrants. 

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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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