SHORTLY before dawn, a queue has already formed along the pavement outside the immigration office. Applicants, mostly men, wait in silence, their jackets zipped against the winter chill. Discarded sleeping bags and torn strips of cardboard boxes lie on the ground. Huddled beside the nearby canal is an encampment of coloured tents. A tall burly man from Nigeria, clutching a thick file, says he is appealing against his first asylum refusal, giving his name as Michael Emmanuel. “Like Macron!” he exclaims. “I came before he was elected, but he’s like Angela Merkel: he opens up borders.”
In 2017 a record 100,000 people asked for asylum in France. Although this was only half the number that applied in Germany, it marked a jump of 17% on the previous year. Many migrants used to shun France, preferring Germany or Sweden; they often passed through France only to reach Britain. At one point in 2015, when Germany opened its doors to an influx of Syrians and Iraqis, the French authorities rented coaches and drove to Munich to try to tempt some to France. But the coaches came back half-empty. Now the mood has shifted. A surge of applicants, led by Albanians, Afghans, Haitians and Sudanese, is putting fresh pressure on the processing system—and on the unity of President Emmanuel Macron’s governing party.
Receive our Daily Dispatch and Editors' Picks newsletters.
During his campaign, to liberals’ delight, Mr Macron declared that Mrs Merkel had “rescued Europe’s collective dignity” by opening the doors. Fighting off the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen, the candidate repeatedly made the case for open borders and a humane response to asylum-seeking. Yet in office he seems to have hardened his line. A new immigration and asylum bill, designed to tighten the rules, is due to be unveiled next month. As its contours emerge, Mr Macron’s government finds itself charged with betraying those principles, not least by some of its own deputies.
Edouard Philippe, France’s centre-right prime minister, says that the bill will help to accelerate asylum procedures, improve conditions in reception centres and “strengthen the efficiency” of rules on illegals. Its critics, however, condemn it as authoritarian and illiberal. One measure under consideration, for instance, would reduce from a month to 15 days the deadline for lodging an appeal against a refusal of asylum. Another would increase the maximum period of detention for illegal immigrants from 45 days to 90. In December, refugee charities were outraged when the government ordered a census of migrants in emergency reception centres. “Not all foreigners in France are terrorists; not all foreigners in France are benefit-scroungers,” declared an angry Sonia Krimi, a deputy from Mr Macron’s own party, La République en Marche (LRM), in parliament.
To head off a rebellion within the governing party, which remains a loose centrist movement of mostly first-time deputies, the government has begun a series of meetings with them to explain the broader context. Last year more asylum-seekers in France applied from Albania, a country considered safe, than anywhere else. Barely 6% of them were granted asylum, compared with an average of 36% across all nationalities. Of the 3,249 Syrians who applied in 2017, by contrast, 95% were accepted as genuine refugees. If asylum-seekers are to be treated humanely and efficiently, says the government, it needs to sift out the bogus ones and enforce the rules. In a new-year message, Mr Macron spoke of France’s “moral and political duty” to act as a land of refuge for those fleeing persecution. But, he added, “we cannot welcome everybody.”
Fresh from a trip to China, Mr Macron was this week heading to Italy to discuss Mediterranean migrant flows, and then to the northern port of Calais to look at cross-channel movements. He is likely to sound a tough note. For the idealists in his own party, some drawn into politics from humanitarian work, limiting open borders is a difficult message to hear.