It’s especially disheartening since the French tend to be so politically-minded. Those of us from the United States, a country where half the population usually cannot be bothered to vote for president and where stating one’s deeply felt “personal opinion” neatly works to end budding arguments, are especially prone to this observation. But it remains no less true. France is a country where discussing politics with acquaintances isn’t seen as inappropriate or provocative—it’s checking to see whether they have a pulse.
Unfortunately, the quality of public debate has deteriorated in the past several months, adjusting to the increasingly hollow spectacle of domestic politics. The president isn’t a reality-television star and there isn’t yet talk of business icons taking over the reins, but Macron is already occupying these roles in a sense. Before the start of his term, he quipped that France misses its king. Since then, he has set out to fill the void—restricting journalistic access to carefully curated moments all while boosting his social-media presence and deploying instantly shareable catch phrases (“Make the climate great again,” “France is back,” etc.). In just a few months, this style has worked to cultivate an air of celebrity that’s made Macron the most famous Frenchman in the world. The press is often excited to collaborate. In January, Le Monde devoted a front-page story to how the First Lady, Brigitte Macron, is redecorating the presidential palace.
For the executive couple, “art is not seen as amusement,” an anonymous source told the paper, “but as a project of social transformation.”
How generous of them!
The Elysée’s latest target of reform is immigration policy. In January, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unveiled an outline of forthcoming legislation slated to be introduced in late February or early March. The idea is to deliver a humane but firm response to the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants and refugees living in French territory. In truth, the bill is more “firm” than humane.
Under current plans, the government would limit the amount of time under which refugees must file asylum requests from 120 days to 90 days. If denied, respondents would have just two weeks—rather than the one month under current law—to appeal. That timetable is tighter than it may seem. Thanks to overcrowded police prefectures, it often takes weeks for migrants just to be able to file their initial asylum requests in France.
The upcoming legislation would also increase prison time for undocumented migrants—doubling the maximum amount of time they can be held in police custody from 45 to 90 days. As human-rights groups have pointed out, the measure is gratuitous. Two-thirds of deportations occur within the first dozen days of detention.
“This is more about sending a signal than about being effective,” Serge Slama, a law professor at Université Grenoble Alpes, told Le Monde. “The government wants above all to dissuade migrants from coming to France.”
Considering other recent moves, it is hard to conclude otherwise.
In addition to the upcoming bill, the government is already cracking down on undocumented immigrants. In a series of executive orders, it has authorized new “mobile brigades” to oversee ID checks and launch deportation measures in publically funded housing shelters. This marks the first time the Interior Ministry has officially extended its reach into the domain of emergency housing—a subject funded and managed by an entirely different wing of government. It’s the equivalent of ICE agents raiding homeless shelters in the United States.
The nation’s leading human-rights groups, including Emmaus, the Abbé Pierre Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and Secours Catholique, have loudly condemned the measures and filed legal appeals at the highest possible levels. Meanwhile, the nation’s Defender of Rights, a constitutionally-mandated ombudsman, has called on the government to reverse them. But until Macron and company change course—or a judge forces them to—the orders remains in place.
In the end, the package of measures amount to two things: For one, they deliver a symbolic gift to the most odious and xenophobic elements of French society. But on a more practical level, they are designed to accelerate deportations—to ensure that authorities can more efficiently remove tens of thousands of human beings from French soil.
Understandably, these developments have pleased the runner-up of France’s presidential race last year, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN). She recently hailed the reforms as a “political victory.”