Macron’s controversial immigration law gets passed despite rare internal dissent

The bill received favorable votes in parliament from the far-right National Rally, putting France’s centrist president in an uncomfortable position

Emmanuel Macron
The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, at the summit of European Union leaders, in Brussels (Belgium).JOHANNA GERON (REUTERS)
Marc Bassets

France’s new immigration law, adopted on Tuesday with the votes of the right and far right, has opened one of the biggest crises in President Emmanuel Macron’s ranks since he came to power in 2017. The most repressive measures included in the law, such as the tightening of foreigners’ access to social benefits, call into question some principles that, for years, the centrist president has staunchly defended.

Prominent lawmakers with the presidential bloc voted against the final version of the bill, considering it too right-wing. Several ministers even threatened to resign. Health chief Aurélien Rousseau made the threat effective, according to Le Figaro newspaper and Agence France Presse, although it is unclear whether the resignation was accepted.

The law was adopted by 349 votes in favor and 186 against in the National Assembly in a suspenseful late-night session that ended close to midnight. It would have been adopted even without the votes of the National Rally (RN), the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen. But the result projects a picture of Macron and his fiercest adversary together on the same issue that his opponents will remind him about for a long time to come.

The vote from Le Pen’s lawmakers was a poisoned gift for Macron. She knew that it would make him uncomfortable. And that, despite the fact that she was initially opposed to the project, voting for it would allow her to declare that her own ideas on immigration had prevailed.

“We are faced with a crude maneuver by the RN,” said Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to the lawmakers in her group, as leaked by several media outlets. She was trying to convince them to vote in favor of the bill. “Let’s not fall into the trap,” she urged. Speaking inside the chamber, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin held that the bill contains progressive elements, such as the regularization of 10,000 undocumented migrants each year.

The left accuses the president of embracing the postulates of Le Pen, who celebrated the agreement as “an ideological victory” for her party, currently the favorite to win the European elections in June. There is a European dimension to this French parliamentary struggle, which coincides with the negotiation in Brussels of an immigration pact for the EU.

Le Pen also expressed her “gratitude” to the left for refusing to debate the project in the National Assembly, thus leaving the text in the hands of the right and the Macronists.

A more repressive version of the bill had been adopted in November in the Senate, dominated by the traditional right-wing Republicans. On December 11, it reached the National Assembly, where the Macronists form the bloc with the most lawmakers but fall short of an absolute majority. The Macronists had hoped to soften the senators’ version there.

But there was a surprise in store. The left, the right and the far right in the National Assembly joined their votes to adopt a “motion of rejection” which prevented the bill from even reaching the floor for debate.

To find a solution, a joint commission of 14 members from the Senate and the National Assembly was convened. And from there came the final version, once again tougher in its wording. This is the one that was adopted on Tuesday first by the Senate, with 214 votes in favor and 114 against, then later by the lower house.

The Socialist lawmaker Boris Vallaud declared before the vote, “I hope that in the ranks of the majority there will be men and women of principle to reject this compromise.” In the end, 27 members of the majority ended up voting against and 34 abstained.

The text, as denounced by the left and celebrated by Le Pen, includes a historical concept of the RN and its predecessor, the old National Front party. It is the concept of national preference, “the advantage for the French with respect to foreigners present on the territory in access to social benefits,” as described by Le Pen.

Le Pen and those accusing Macron of adopting national preference allude to the requirement for foreigners to have been working in France for two and a half years, or living there for five years in case of not working, to be eligible for some social benefits.

The alternative for Macron and his deputies would be to abandon the text. But it would mean admitting his inability to legislate.

No solution seemed good for a president without an absolute parliamentary majority or enough margin to govern comfortably. This much was made clear with the first major project after his re-election in 2022: pension reform. In the end, it was approved by decree. Now he is proving it again with the second major project of his five-year term: the immigration law, which was originally intended to strike a balance between conservative and progressive measures. It proposed to facilitate the deportation of foreigners considered dangerous. At the same time, it promoted the regularization of undocumented immigrants who could work in sectors with labor shortages.

More than just a law was at stake in Tuesday’s vote. At stake was the essence of Macronism, which proclaims itself neither left-wing nor right-wing, or both left-wing and right-wing. In the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections, Macronism defeated the far right. But now there will be a picture of its lawmakers voting alongside Le Pen. And not just on any old issue, but one of the favorite topics of the far right: immigration.

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