After lots of excitement in the final weeks leading up to the French election, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will proceed to the runoff, a result that was widely predicted and yet produced significant surprise when it actually came to be, given the current distrust in the accuracy of polls.
When it comes to immigration, the differences between the top two candidates are significant, although they are not as diametrically opposed to one another as, say, Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon. While Le Pen offers a vision of a dramatically altered immigration regime for France, Macron essentially makes some measured tweaks to the status quo, focused on making the country a more attractive immigration destination for certain types of people and making the asylum process more efficient. Let’s see where the candidates come down on some of the big questions surrounding immigration, asylum, and integration.
Immigration: Invite more students and skilled labor, or reduce across the board?
Le Pen’s overall approach to migration is restrictive, although she doesn’t eradicate it totally as she has suggested in some speeches. She promises to reduce legal immigration to a total of 10,000 people per year, and change the law to restrict family reunification and acquisition of citizenship through marriage or birth in France. She also wants to crack down on irregular as well as EU immigration by leaving the Schengen zone and reestablishing borders, while bolstering border forces and customs agents.
Macron does not get into many specifics about his intentions on all forms of legal immigration, leaving us to assume that he wants to maintain the law as it stands on issues like the acquisition of citizenship and family reunification. (In fact, he asserts that “fantasies” about family reunification are overblown: only 12,000 received family reunification visas in 2015, and of these the majority received them under international rather than domestic legal commitments.)
Instead, Macron focuses on students and other types of “knowledge” migration. He would introduce new types of visas for professionals, scientists, and creators while streamlining existing procedures to make it easier for Masters students, artists, entrepreneurs and other highly qualified people to come to France. Once they get there, he also wants to make it easier for them to access the labor market.
Asylum: Incredibly restricted, or restricted?
Both Le Pen and Macron in some way want to bolster the existing asylum regime to make it faster (and easier to deport people who do not receive asylum.) Le Pen would recruit 6,000 new border officers over five years, alter the asylum system to only take place in French consulates but not on French territory, and expel everyone else. (As we have noted, as stated these two last points likely violate French domestic and international obligations.)
Macron advocates for a “dignified” system that is nevertheless “inflexible” with people who are not entitled to remain. This inflexibility is reflected in a much faster decision process: decisions on asylum applications should be reached in 8 weeks (it currently averages around 11 months) and judgments on appeals should take 6-8 weeks. In this same proposal, Macron implies (without stating outright) that he prefers people seeking asylum to remain in detention to help speed up the process.
Having the applicants on site greatly reduces the processing time (removal of unavailability and sickness, which involves one quarter of the cases, removal of travel costs) and eliminates the time and notification disputes.
This notion could be problematic under European and international law, so here we need a little detour to briefly discuss the legality of mass detention of people seeking asylum.
As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) lays out in their Detention Guidelines, detention is an extraordinary measure that must be proscribed by law and justified by some legitimate purpose, not merely for convenience in speeding up asylum application proceedings.
Detention can only be exceptionally resorted to for a legitimate purpose. Without such a purpose, detention will be considered arbitrary, even if entry was illegal.
The Council of Europe concurs, saying in a recommendation on the subject of detention that people seeking asylum, although non-citizens, are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights: “no one shall be deprived of his liberty save in exceptional cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law, as stipulated by Article 5.1.b. and f. of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
A recent case at the European Court of Justice (2016) reiterates these principles and applies them directly to EU member states like France, narrowing the scope of justification for the detention of people seeking asylum to cases where the individual him or herself (and not just his or her status) presents a danger to public order or national security. Below, part of the Court’s ruling from JN v. Staatssecretaris voor Veiligheid en Justitie:
“…keeping an applicant in detention under point (e) of the first subparagraph of Article 8(3) of Directive 2013/33 is, in view of the requirement of necessity, justified on the ground of a threat to national security or public order only if the applicant’s individual conduct represents a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat, affecting a fundamental interest of society or the internal or external security of the Member State concerned.”
Detaining all people seeking asylum (including, presumably, children) so that their applications can be handled more quickly might infringe on international law, and Macron may be called upon to give a different justification for such a policy, or to restrict it to certain types of people (such as, e.g., people considered flight risks or threats to public security.)
Integration: Everybody just speak French
One place where Le Pen and Macron both concur is on the need of newcomers and nationals to learn French. Macron would encourage this by giving every newcomer to France the “entitlement” to learn French to the level of B1. In practical terms though, this isn’t so much a right as a requirement, since he proposes making this language acquisition a condition of a residence permit.
Le Pen rejects the concepts of multiculturalism and prefers the standard of “assimilation” over integration. To this end, she wants to strengthen ties with French-speaking communities across the world, ensure that French is spoken in universities, and “ensure primary schools spend half their teaching time on teaching spoken and written French.”
An imbalance in the candidates’ focus
In sum, the major difference between Le Pen and Macron is their focus. Le Pen has made restricting immigration and asylum one of the cornerstones of her campaign, while Macron is far more focused on economic and social considerations. Will his lack of focus cost him at the polls? Or will French people reject the kinds of radical, across the board changes that Le Pen is running on? We will find out in two weeks.