On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

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

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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?

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.