Macron’s ‘balanced’ immigration bill fails to win over France’s right or left

Proposals in the French government’s reform include letting undocumented migrants regularize their legal status if they are engaged in certain trades

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron this Monday in The Hague (Netherlands).Valeria Mongelli (Bloomberg)

France, which is posting one of its lowest unemployment levels in a decade and a half, is preparing to debate a new immigration law that will allow for the hiring and regularization of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in sectors suffering labor shortages. The bill, which was presented before the Council of Ministers on Wednesday, also seeks to expedite the deportation of foreign nationals with criminal convictions, or those who are considered to represent a “serious threat to public order.”

The bill, which has been titled “Controlling immigration while improving integration,” is the second piece of major legislation to be presented by the French government since the re-election of Emmanuel Macron last May. The other key reform on the table in Macron’s second and final five-year term concerns changes to the pension system, which has been brought to the floor of the National Assembly for debate and has been met with growing social rejection among the citizenry. On Tuesday, for the second time in less than two weeks, more than a million people took to the streets to protest against government plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

“We are living a migratory situation that may seem worrying,” said French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin when presenting the law. “It is not a question of being for or against immigration, but of being able to control and define what kind of immigration we want.” However, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally group in the National Assembly, said that the proposed law will have a pull effect and bring a new wave of undocumented migrants to France to wait for the next regularization drive.

A balance between iron fist and open doors

The new immigration proposal, the second of Macron’s presidency, seeks to find a balance between an iron fist and an open-doors policy. The idea was to obtain the support of both the left and the right in the National Assembly. The result, as things stand, has been quite the opposite: Both wings oppose the reform. The right believes it is too lax while the left considers it repressive. Having lost his parliamentary majority in last June’s legislative elections, Macron is finding it hard to drum up enough votes to see it passed.

The draft bill contains one article that should appeal to the more conservative elements of the French parliament. Under the new law, legally resident foreigners who have committed crimes or offenses punishable by 10 years in prison can be deported. It will also allow for the expulsion of undocumented foreigners who, in the view of the authorities, constitute a “serious threat to public order.” In both instances, it will be irrelevant if they have personal and family ties on French territory. The law also requires a minimum level of French language comprehension in order to become a legal resident in France. The current requirement is limited to attending language courses.

Other areas of the bill include traditionally progressive measures. Without proposing a general regularization, it would allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status in France if they are engaged in trades where there is a labor shortage, which according to the French employment office are the following: roofer, home help and cleaner, pharmacist, blacksmith and locksmith, car mechanic and electrician, car bodybuilder, bus driver, plumber, nurse and childcare worker, and carpenter. To qualify, a worker would have to be able to prove three years of residency and at least eight months of activity in one of these trades over the previous two years.

In the third quarter of 2022 there were 373,100 job vacancies in France, up 3% from the previous quarter, according to the Ministry of Labor’s research and statistics department. The unemployment rate stands at 7.3% while the number of vacant jobs has increased by 77% compared to the last quarter of 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Last year, asylum requests increased in France by 31% and deportations by 15%.

The bill also provides for a special pathway into France for doctors, pharmacists and dentists, among other healthcare professions, via the so-called “talent passport.” There is a recurrent debate in France about regions with few doctors and hospitals – dubbed “medical deserts” – and a general lack of professionals in the health care sector.

However, this proposal has been criticized over concerns that by attracting talent from African countries, France will leave those countries without the doctors and medical professionals they themselves require. “[The government] wants to take advantage, without paying for it, of the professionals trained by these countries, which will result in a reduction in access to care for their populations,” several renowned physicians and former political and NGO leaders, including Rony Brauman, the former president of Médecins Sans Frontières, stated in an article published in Le Journal du dimanche. “In short, there is a desire to transfer our medical deserts to the countries born of our former colonies. But how to attract physicians from these countries without then agreeing to receive their sick populations, having been left without their care?”

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