Macron’s visit to Calais shines light on his Theresa May-like immigration policies

As Macron prepares to meet May, they can at least agree on a hardening approach to immigration.

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“France cannot welcome all the misery in the world.” When it comes to immigration, this phrase coined by former French Prime minister Michel Rocard is one of Emmanuel Macron’s favourites. The president, who campaigned on a liberal, humanist platform, draws a clear distinction between refugees (eligible for asylum status) and economic migrants (who aren’t), which has fed into the harshest immigration policy in recent history, with increased numbers of migrants being deported.

In theory, those are concepts shared with, and applied by, Theresa May’s Britain. In practice, it means both countries are turning their backs on migrants, and need, at the very least, some coordination in doing so given how many migrants cross the Channel from one country to the other. Macron, who will meet May in Sandhurst later this week, wants the UK to welcome more refugees, especially children, and a bigger British financial contribution to implementing the 2003 Touquet accords, which regulate the border, which some have suggested could be moved from Calais to Dover.

Visiting Calais on Tuesday, Macron called for British authorities to “give specific answers” regarding the city’s situation, where about 600 migrants are still camping after the infamous “Jungle” was dismantled last year. Calais, he said, can “no longer be a secret gateway for Britain” and will not allow another similar settlement to develop.

The visit to Calais, Macron’s first as president, was boycotted by two of the city’s biggest support groups for migrants, L’Auberge des Migrants and Utopia 56. They judged it “useless” and aimed only at opening a dialog over the border and discussing the new legislation on immigration, which is currently being drafted and will focus on improving the integration of refugees while accelerating the expulsion of those who don’t qualify as such. “We disapprove of these policies – they created the situation in Calais, and they will aggravate it”, the support groups said.

In Calais, migrants have been harassed by the police, systematically gassed, denied food, water and sleep and seen their sleeping bags confiscated by the authorities. Supports groups have organised night patrols to protect them from police violence. “It’s really cold. Every night, the police take our tents, our sleeping bags, hit us. Life in Calais is very tough. It’s inhumane”, migrants have told French media. Back in June, the French Commissioner for human rights denounced “violations of unprecedented gravity” in Calais.

Macron has recognised that such actions “go against all ethics”, promised “sanctions” in cases of police violence and a better organisation of food distribution in Calais. But he also reminded the audience that the law stipulates “[illegal] migrants’ effects must be retrieved by the authorities”.

Last year, expulsions of illegal immigrants by French authorities increased by 14.6 per cent. Macron has also repeatedly emhpasised his distinction between refugees from war-torn countries, which he has agreed to take in, and other immigrants, which he doesn’t, declaring: “We cannot integrate all the people who are coming from countries in peace, but our duty is to protect those who are persecuted and ask for asylum.”

But if his goal is, as he has said himself, to “welcome everyone – protect some and see the others through the door”, Macron is sending worrying signals to non-profits, pundits and migrants alike. His Interior minister, Gérard Collomb, who is currently drafting the new legislation, is also the mayor of Lyon, where he is known for his anti-migrant policies. Lyon’s migrants are incessantly chased and moved by the police who prevent them from accessing long-term accommodation, leading them to hide and spread. Collomb is now applying this technique of making migrants “invisible” nationwide.

What about the French values of “Liberty, egality, fraternity”? In December, a leader from the newspaper Le Monde warned that Macron’s exceptionally harsh immigration policies were harming France’s reputation: “When brutality seems to beat humanity, it is the image of France that is in the balance.”

Independent news outlet Mediapart has called for the government to apply France’s “duty of hospitality”: “One day, it will be remembered that in France, in the 21st century, a democracy, its state, its leaders and judges, criminalised this fundamental gesture of humanity: solidarity”, wrote editor Edwy Plenel. France drafted the Universal Declaration of human rights, but Plenel worries the country is forgetting that the declaration guarantees all “the right to leave their country of birth and choose their country of residence”, adding “humanity isn’t under home arrest.”

Macron’s supporters are starting to worry too. As the president was heading to Calais on Tuesday, four figures of the centre-left, including the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, who oversaw Macron’s presidential campaign budget, published an op-ed in Le Monde disagreeing with the French government’s “disdain for the principle of unconditional welcome”. They detailed the horrible living conditions of migrants in France in 2018 and said they regret Macron’s campaign promises for a “strict but exemplary asylum policy”.

“This logic goes against the humanism you advocate for”, they wrote. “One cannot at the same time to want and to refuse, to promise and to dissuade... After raiding migrants’ centres, will the police go to hospitals, clinics and schools?”

Macron hasn’t yet sent lorries roaming around the country telling illegal immigrants to “go home”, but his France is starting to look a lot like Theresa May’s Britain: tough, and sometimes inhumane, in its approach to immigration.

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