With mere days until the first round of the French presidential election, the polls have evened out to the extent that it looks a four-way race (within the margin of error), with centrist Emmanuel Macron taking a narrow lead and closely followed by far-right Marine Le Pen, center-right Francois Fillon, and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Sunday’s vote will most likely narrow down the race to two candidates, who will face off in a runoff election two weeks later.
There is an upside to the fact that the election is so wide open: practically the entire range of possible views on migration are represented! This is unusual, especially in comparison to the more common scene: candidates who say the same thing on migration policy in different ways, while heavily favoring the status quo.
We’ve already summarized where the major candidates stand on migration and asylum, and examined Le Pen more closely, as she has campaigned continuously and heavily on the theme of restricting immigration. But far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon deserves a closer look as well. He and his brand-new party, Unsubmissive France, have been steadily gaining in the run-up to the election, and his proposals on immigration would present as much of a departure from current French policy as Le Pen’s.
The Business of Xenophobia
In Unsubmissive France’s in-depth explanation of their migration policy, (not written by Mélenchon himself, we should note) the authors offer an anti-capitalist critique of the European migration crisis. The European Union, by creating a migration policy based on borders and security have incentivized both the exploitation of migrants and the fear of them, they write.
“…[S]ecurity policies lead to the development of a “business” of fear and xenophobia by giving the transnationals of the security industry the opportunity to benefit from a new financial windfall at European level. These policies keep migrants in a state of permanent insecurity, in particular encouraging them to put their available work force of employers who want to benefit from exploitable labor, and place them at an inability to meet their most basic rights.”
Given this diagnosis of the problem, the party proposes numerous EU-wide policies that would solve it: work for peace and avoid military deployments, end the imposition of unfair trade deals that destabilize other countries and regions, work on adequate development and climate change policy that will make home countries more livable, and people less ready to leave them for Europe.
These policies have the advantage of being unique among French candidates and speaking to larger global and economic issues. A major downside is that they are not policies that can be implemented by Mélenchon if elected. He can work to promote these views at the European level, but as one member state, even an influential one, he cannot meaningfully promise voters the ability to enact an entirely new EU security or trade policy (and cannot accomplish these by threatening to leave.) In that sense, these proposals are unrealistic, but give an idea of the general worldview of the party: anti-capitalist, pacifist, labor-oriented.
Unraveling migration laws and trade agreements
The party goes on to elaborate a plan that would fundamentally alter the legal situation of migrants in France, from acquisition of citizenship to family reunification to asylum. Many of the proposals aim to erase restrictions now existing, while others propose new laws or policies.
For instance, the party calls for France to:
- Decriminalize illegal residence and end detention of immigrants, especially children
- Break with European directives and repeal the successive laws that aimed to restrict the right of asylum in France,
- End free trade agreements and replace with protectionist solidarity
In effect, Melenchon is calling for “amnesty” for undocumented migrants and for authorities to stop enforcing immigration laws. This could, theoretically, be achieved but would require the dismantling of an entire system created to apprehend, detain, and deport undocumented migrants, which employs many people and is connected to numerous criminal and civil code provisions. It would no doubt create some upheaval and be difficult to get past the legislature.
As for the idea to break with European directives, this could be less tricky, depending on how it is operated. Many European directives applying to asylum regulate “minimum standards” for the asylum process in member states. In other words, they regulate the least the state can do in certain situation but do not prevent that they do more. In fact, they deliberately allow for this possibility. For instance, the 2013 EU Asylum Directive in article 5 states “Member States may introduce or retain more favourable standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection, insofar as those standards are compatible with this Directive.” So if Melenchon “breaks” with EU directives in a way that offer more protection to asylum seekers, it will probably not be a legal problem at the European level.
Ending free trade agreements unilaterally, on the other hand, will. The EU generally negotiates as a block on trade agreements and is currently implementing deals with numerous countries and regions, such as one with West Africa, East Africa, and Canada. Could France withdraw from these and replace them with “solidarity” or development schemes?
The answer is probably no, unless they withdraw from the EU as Britain plans to do. Trade policy is an area that is firmly within the scope of exclusive EU competences- meaning only the European Commission can negotiate trade deals with other countries or regions, and individual member states can’t alter these or exit them. This also applies to foreign direct investment. So without withdrawing from the EU customs union more generally, which as Brexit has shown is no small undertaking, France will probably not easily extricate itself from EU trade policy.
Granting More Rights
Unsubmissive France has more in their program than just repealing laws and treaties. They also have some positive legal proposals with ranging levels of realism:
- Restore jus soli citizenship rights for people born in France
- Allow asylum seekers to work while they wait for their cases to be reviewed
- Allow for “flexible” return scenarious, with fluidity between France and other countries and ability to return elsewhere without losing residence rights
“Our collective mission is to respect the human dignity of migrants and their fundamental right to family life,” Unsubmissive France writes, and their policy proposals support this migrant-centered mission and present new ideas that make France more welcoming both to new immigrants and for people already living in France who are not citizens.
The introduction of jus soli citizenship would make France the first country in Europe to have an US-style citizenship law, wherein being born in France entitles a child to automatic citizenship. This idea, in combination with decriminalization of undocumented migrants, would mean that multi-generation families without residence rights would be a thing of the past. This proposal would represent an extension of the form of jus soli citizenship already in place under the French civil code, which was detailed in our article on Le Pen (who, in contrast, wishes to eradicate Jus soli citizenship.)
The priority of workers rights and the value that UF places on work is visible from policies granting work permission to asylum seekers and people who wish to return to other countries for temporary periods to work. These promises are a little vague, and one can’t help but wonder whether proposals like these would encounter resistance from powerful French labor unions. But as with many of these proposals: its usually easier under the law to give new rights than to take them away.
Radical, and Sometimes Unrealistic
Overall, Melenchon’s party proposes radical changes to the status of migrant under the French system that could be difficult to get through the legislature, but overall comport with their own constitution and international commitments. They propose ideas that would be a major change from how things are done now, but do not necessarily break with French values as embodied in the constitution- in many cases they just extend them further.
Where UF’s plans are weakest are when they refer to EU-wide activities, like trade. Its not impossible for France to follow Britain out of the EU in order not to be bound by EU-wide trade agreements and other commitments, but this would make it far more difficult too simultaneously influence EU policy on distribution of asylum seekers or military engagements in other countries. And organizing a “Frexit” referendum would require Melenchon to spend valuable political capital that could otherwise be used to reorganize immigration law in the way he proposes.
For pro-immigrant voters, Melenchon’s policies have lots of appeal. But voters will have to weigh this against the overwhelming ambitiousness of UF’s plans, to consider whether one candidate can really achieve so many massive changes at the same time without setting priorities.