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On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

France can't “endure” more economic migrants, but could do with more “expats”.

This is the fifth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

The 37 French people Emmanuel Macron had invited to his speech on 27 July were special: all had just become French by way of naturalisation. For his first big speech on immigration, the new French president was addressing (former) migrants.

“What we must do today,” he told them, “is look at the world as it is: shaken by terrorism and the economic and environmental crisis, great migration, including endured migration, on these necessary routes from the Middle East, the Balkans in the past, the whole of Africa and the Mediterranean.”

Macron took a good look at the world as it is and its “endured migration” and proposed his solution: the creation of “hotspots”, located in Libya, where migrants would be sorted “to avoid people taking foolish risks when they are not all eligible for asylum”. With or without Europe, he said, this would start “this summer” (although he conceded that Libya needs to be “stabilised” for this plan to be implemented – with the country currently engulfed in civil war, that may take some time.)

The Socialists and the National Front were both quick to condemn the measure for its “unfeasibility”, but it is symptomatic of a particular view of migration. Macron is setting apart two categories of migrants: the asylum seekers and the “economic migrants” who, he said, “come from safe countries and follow economic migration routes, feeding ferrymen, organised crime and sometimes terrorism.” France must be “rigorous” and “inflexible” with this class of migrant because “we cannot welcome them all”.

On asylum rights, he spoke to France’s ideals: pledging to reduce the asylum application process to six months (the current waiting time is 14 to 18 months) and to provide emergency housing to remove all migrants from the streets. A “pipe dream”, judged Liberation: the government’s plan to create 7,500 openings in migrant centres is a step forward, just not a big enough one.

But it is economic migration that Macron really gets wrong. “Sorting people who are eligible for asylum from economic migrants is extremely complex and very difficult to do,” says Maryse Tripier, professor in sociology of immigration at Université Paris Diderot.

She says citizens of Sudan and Eritrea fleeing poverty and dictatorship, Colombians fleeing drug traffickers, women fleeing violence, even a Syrian she met who emigrated after losing his earthenware business to a bombing, can all be considered economic migrants by France, as asylum rights ask that individuals prove they have been persecuted and will die if they return to where they come from. Even war victims like Syrians, although clearly coming from an “unsafe” country, can struggle to provide proof. “Factors for migration are multidimensional, we can’t put them easily in the box ‘economic’ or the box ‘asylum’. It’s too simplistic, it cannot really work.”

The hotspots aren’t a new idea, she says: “It externalises borders: we trade development aid funding with countries like Libya or Morocco if they accept to stem migration flux going through their territory.”

Macron’s speech linked economic migration to organised crime and terrorism – that, she says, is due to the “electoral topic” that immigration has become. Tripier regrets that European countries, that could “totally absorb” the small part of migration from Africa they receive, never set up humanitarian corridors through the Mediterranean and into Europe: “With regulated policies, there would be fewer crime and human trafficking. When we close borders, that’s when ferrymen and mafias come in.”

It’s worth noting that not all migration is deemed “endured” by the French president. American researchers, international entrepreneurs, London City bankers: Macron has tried to lure them all to France. Technically, they, too, would be economic migrants. “It works with his conception of class,” Tripier says, “the idea that we can welcome people for their competence and skills.” But it reflects on the ones France doesn’t want – there's “something about poverty, misery”, Tripier says.

Read more: The Macron Con #4: France's housing aid row is the latest indication of Emmanuel Macron's class problem

This difference in wealth or skills also plays out in what these desirable migrants are called. Tripier gives the example of her nephew, who works for a French company in Singapore: “He’s told that he’s an expat, not that he’s an immigrant. He is protected by his company, by his country of origin. These are distinctions with a social context.” It may not come as a surprise that during the presidential election, 93 per cent of French expats voted for Emmanuel Macron.

In any case, hotspots in Libya won’t prevent economic migration. “There is a right to mobility,” Tripier says. “But people should have the choice to remain or to leave. We can’t tell them, ‘No, you’re not allowed to leave.’” And development won’t stop migration flux, either, she says – when people are more educated, they become more global, move to finish their studies, to live and work abroad.

Often, the refugees Tripier talks to hope to go to England, where they know the language, or to Germany, where they know the welcome is warmer. “Economic migrants who want to come to France are those from former colonies, who already speak French and want to work, but we don’t let them in,” she says, adding that the French economy, which would benefit from migration, gets obstructed by “out of sync” politics. “In Morocco, there are Senegalese who want to come to France and say, ‘Our grandparents died in your war, our parents built your roads, and you feel like you have no debt to us.’” This, she says, is the last act of colonisation, “telling them, ‘You are useless to us, we don’t want you.’”

Of the 37 newly-naturalised French who listened to Macron’s big plans, how many realised the door had closed right behind them?

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”