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French immigration bill causes uproar

Lisa Louis in Paris
December 10, 2023

President Emmanuel Macron wants to reform immigration law with stricter deportation measures. But migrants and refugees in France protesting against the reform say the severity of the new measures is unprecedented.

Ahmada Siby with a megaphone at a protest in Paris, France
Ahmada Siby, a Malian migrant, has been vocal about his criticism of France's planned immigration reformImage: Lisa Louis /DW

Thousands of people marched in the streets near Montparnasse train station in southern Paris on a recent Sunday afternoon. They were holding signs proclaiming their opposition to the "Darmanin law," named after France's interior minister, Gerald Darmanin. Other placards said "Immigration is not a problem ― racism is."

Right at the front of the group, a megaphone in hand, was Ahmada Siby.

The 33-year-old Malian arrived in France almost five years ago. Benefiting from a legal loophole, he has been using other people's papers to work as a cleaner, a chambermaid and, lately, a dishwasher.

'We are doing all the dirty work'

"Most of us undocumented immigrants are using this method, but it means we are paying social insurance fees and taxes without benefiting from services such as regular public health care like French citizens," he told DW.

"President Emmanuel Macron's government treats us as if we were nothing, although we're doing all the dirty work ― at construction sites, including the ones for the Paris Olympics next summer, in restaurants and as cleaners," he added.

Ahmada Siby and other migrants with megaphones and drums at a protest
Siby and fellow migrants, seen here at a protest in Paris against the planned migration reform, feel undervalued by the French governmentImage: Lisa Louis /DW

That's why Siby and others have banded together to protest the bill, which France's government said is a compromise including left-wing and right-wing measures.

Deportations easier, family reunification harder

The draft law is set to be discussed in the National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament, starting on December 11, and could enter into force early next year.

The final version of the immigration bill still needs to be pinned down, but some details are already known.

The new bill is likely to fast-track asylum procedures and shorten delays for appeals, make family reunification more complicated and restrict the possibility to come to France for medical treatment. Changes also include the option of deporting people who were younger than 13 when they came to France, and deporting foreign parents whose children have French citizenship.

Paris was planning to create a one-year green card for people working in sectors with a labor shortage. But as it stands now, the decisions on these one-year permits have been left up to local authorities.

Interior Minister Darmanin brought the immigration reform bill into the Senate, but France's upper house of parliament, which has a center-right majority, recently toughened the draft considerably. And the government is expected to keep some of these changes to get the bill through the National Assembly. Macron's Renaissance party and its allies don't have an absolute majority there, and need the support of the conservative Republicans.

Since a recent terror attack by a Russian immigrant on French teacher Dominique Bernard in the northern town of Arras, the government has presented the law mostly as a safeguard against unwanted immigration and terrorism. Migrants, refugees and aid organizations are worried the new rules could lead to more stigmatization and discrimination.

France 'passing a new threshold of toughness'

Lise Faron from Paris-based Cimade, an NGO providing support for refugees and migrants, is among those who are deeply concerned by the new bill.

"The government had promised a balanced bill, and yet, the new rules will almost exclusively restrict immigrants' rights and make it more complicated for them to get legalized, which will result in even more undocumented migrants," she told DW.

"France has voted through many immigration bills, but it feels like we are passing a new threshold of toughness with this one ― for example by making it easier to expel foreign parents of French children, which was beforehand only possible if they had committed serious crimes," she added.

Europe braces for rise in terrorist attacks, violence

For Vincent Tiberj, a political sociology professor at University Sciences Po Bordeaux, the draft law reflects a general shift to the right in the political debate.

"Most French politicians are depicting immigrants as a burden and a threat. They completely forget that many migrants, also of later generations, are contributing a whole lot to our society," he told DW.

Tiberj thinks mainstream politicians are out to grab right-wing votes. Far-right party Rassemblement National is predicted to come first in next June's European Parliament elections, according to recent polls.

"And yet, parties such as Renaissance should know this strategy doesn't work ― it only legitimizes far-right movements and helps them gain even more ground," he said.

Will new immigration rules have an impact?

Alexis Izard, Renaissance parliamentarian for the department of Essonne just south of Paris, said the final bill will still be balanced.

"Every year, we need to expel about 4,000 illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, and that will be possible with this new law," he told DW, adding that deportation procedures would take one instead of two years after the changes.

"At the same time, we want to attract those who come here and work. This will be a highly efficient law," Izard said.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and other members of France's governing party have high hopes for the proposed new immigration lawImage: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

Herve Le Bras, historian and demographer at the Paris-based School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences EHESS, begs to differ on that last point.

He said none of the more than 100 other immigration laws since 1945 have been effective.

"The bill is completely useless and will have practically no impact on the number of migrants coming in per year. It only gives politicians, from the far-right to the far-left, a platform to express their stance," he said in a DW interview.

"If you look at the immigration figures under past governments, you'll see that they are uncorrelated to politics," he said.

Alain Fontaine, owner of the restaurant Le Mesturet in central Paris and head of French Association of Master Restaurateurs, is still hoping the initially planned one-year green card will be put back in and even extended.

"Bars and restaurants won't be able to function without foreign workers who represent about a quarter of our workforce," he told DW.

Some 12 out of his own 27 employees are foreigners.

"We need immigrants ― also since our own youth prefer to work in the digital sector or jobs linked to the protection of the environment," he said. "They no longer want to do the tough jobs."

A large number of people wearing life vests on a small wooden boat in the Mediterranean
Thousands of migrants cross the Mediterranean every year in hopes of a better life in EuropeImage: Emilio Morenatti/picture alliance/AP Photo

Fight for a better future continues

Malian immigrant Ahmada Siby doesn't think the automatic one-year green card, even if prolonged, would be the right way forward.

"It would enshrine modern slavery into law, as we would need to work in that one sector to keep it. You'd still be at the boss's mercy," he said, sitting on his bed in a 15-square-meter (161-square-foot) room in the suburb of Montreuil east of Paris, a studio flat he's sharing with an uncle and a cousin.

"We want the government to legalize all of us, so that we can choose the job we'd like to do," he added.

Then, Siby looked at pictures of himself five years ago, after he had reached Spain from Morocco on a small inflatable boat.

He thinks of the crossing, which took almost a whole day, as "the most difficult moment in my life." Everyone on board almost died.

"Once you've survived this, you don't just give up," Siby said. "I'm determined to fight for a better future."

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

Correction, December 11, 2023: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Lise Faron. DW apologizes for the error.