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OPINION: The French people are greater losers than Macron in immigration bill battle

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: The French people are greater losers than Macron in immigration bill battle
French President Emmanuel Macron suffered a setback with his immigration bill. Photo by Caroline BLUMBERG / POOL / AFP

President Emmanuel Macron's government has undoubtedly been humiliated by the defeat of the immigration bill - but John Lichfield argues that the real losers are the French people, who polling shows strongly supported the bill and who have once again been denied a grown-up political conversation about immigration.


The first rule of parliamentary politics is to learn how to count. The second rule is to make sure your own supporters vote for you.

The French government’s proposed new immigration law was rejected without debate by five votes in the National Assembly on Monday night. Five members of the pro-Macron centrist coalition failed to vote.

The bill’s sponsor, the interior minister Gérald Darmanin, was convinced that he would win this preliminary test and that he would eventually drag the much-delayed law through parliament.

He miscounted.

The far-right and right said that the law was too soft. The left and greens said that it was too harsh. Darmanin thought they would never vote together to reject the bill for opposing reasons. But they did.


The result is an embarrassing government defeat. President Emmanuel Macron, speaking in private but expecting to be quoted, said that it was a "parliamentary incident, not a political or constitutional crisis". 

He is right - for now.

The great loser is Darmanin, who had staked his credibility on pushing a new immigration law through parliament by hook or by crook. The other obvious loser is President Macron, who has suffered his worst parliamentary reverse since losing his outright majority in the National Assembly in the parliamentary elections 18 months ago.

His failure last March to pass pension reform by a normal parliamentary was an even more serious blow. It forced him to use his emergency, constitutional powers to impose the reform, causing months of street unrest.

On this occasion, the government has decided not to use its special powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. That suggests two things.

Macron regards the immigration reform as less essential than pension reform. He fears that, on immigration, his government would lose the subsequent censure vote in the Assembly and that they would be obliged to resign.

The greatest losers of all, arguably, are the French people.

Something like 70 percent of them opposed pension reform but the government imposed it anyway. Over 70 percent of voters, according to opinion polls, approved Darmanin’s changes in immigration law but the opposition parties blocked them (in the name of the people).

The bill is messy but attempts to balance firmness with fairness. It addresses an absurd situation in which the French state does not have the legal power or staff resources to remove illegal migrants - even those who have committed serious crimes.  

At the same time (the defining phrase of Macronism), the law allows well-behaved, illegal migrants to fill jobs in areas where labour is scarce.

The apparent winners of Monday’s vote are the opposition parties of left and right. They have proved once again that they can block legislation in the National Assembly if they work together.

But we knew that already.

The "victory" of the left may be short-lived. They face the prospect of the law being redrawn in a harsher form which they will be unable to defeat.


The victory of the centre-right is self-defeating. They have  reminded voters that they still exist  by adopting the rhetoric of the far-right and by blocking the advances in migration law that they failed to pass when in power.

The great winners will be Rassemblement National and Marine Le Pen  who are already claiming - falsely - that they have "rescued" France from a new tidal wave of migration. Le Pen suggests that the law will send migrants, legal and illegal, into "village" France. This is another lie.

So what now?

Macron turned down Darmanin’s offer to resign on Monday night. The President will plough ahead with a law which has already been revised, toughened, split and sewn back together a score of times in the last 18 months.

In some respects, Monday’s vote changed nothing. It killed the debate but did not kill the bill (yet). The government will send the law to a committee of both houses of parliament next week.

The centre-right dominated upper house, or Senate, has already passed a draconian version which, inter alia, scraps the proposed work permits and abolishes long-standing medical aid for illegal migrants. A National Assembly committee has removed some of these changes.

The 14-strong committee of both houses will try to square these two texts behind closed doors. Macron wants another version of the bill to go back to the Assembly before Christmas. This will be harsher than the version rejected on Monday but somewhat softer than the Senate version.


If the text is very harsh - scrapping the work permits for instance - it will cause a split between the left and right sides of Macron’s own centrist alliance. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne promised on Tuesday to ensure that this does not happen.

On the other hand, without substantial changes, the law will not attract the handful of extra centre-right votes that it needs to pass.

We are therefore heading for another cliff-hanger vote in the next two weeks. If the government thinks that it will lose again, or the joint committee fails to agree on a next text, the law will probably be withdrawn.

Macron will not dissolve parliament and call early elections.

He will push on and try to win parliamentary votes on other issues. The second half of his second mandate will be a war of attrition as the 2027 presidential election nears. But that was inevitable anyway.

There is no deep, political crisis - yet - in France and certainly nothing to compare with this week’s psychodrama on immigration policy in the Tory party in the UK.

A pattern is emerging all the same. On both sides of the Channel and elsewhere, rational, factual debate and policy-making on immigration is becoming impossible. That may become worse before it becomes better.


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