After weeks of heated and often fractious debate, the French parliament has adopted a controversial bill that toughens the country’s immigration laws. However, the political wrangling that preceded the vote and the shockwave that followed it have dealt a body blow to President Emmanuel Macron and his minority government.
The new law contains a series of restrictive measures, including migration quotas, stricter access to welfare benefits for foreigners, stricter curbs on foreign students, and restrictions on the naturalization of French-born children of non-nationals. In addition, dual nationals sentenced for serious crimes could lose their French citizenship. It is not just the content of the legislation that has caused an uproar, but the way it was adopted.
To grasp the broader political dimension, it is essential to remember the context in which the bill was framed. Back in 2022, when Mr. Macron was running for re-election, he vowed to bring in legislation to “control immigration and improve integration.” His aim was to see off a challenge from the far-right Rassemblement National, led by Marine Le Pen, while wooing swing voters who might otherwise be tempted by the RN’s strident anti-immigration rhetoric. Although eventually re-elected, the president lost his parliamentary majority, and his government has since been forced to seek legislative alliances with opposition groups while avoiding any dalliance with the RN.
In May 2023, the then prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, instructed her hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, to prepare legislation that would curb immigration and facilitate the expulsion of illegal migrants, while continuing to admit foreign workers in order to fill vacancies in short-staffed sectors. The bill, the second of its kind under a Macron administration, was already controversial before it reached the Senate in November and had been significantly amended at the committee stage. Its fate was bound to depend on the conservative parties, chiefly Les Républicains, that control the upper chamber, with one political adviser predicting a “dog-eat-dog struggle” between the right and far right to adopt the most radical measures. And indeed, the senators substantively rewrote and toughened the text, concentrating heavily on control rather than assimilation. Among other measures, they tightened expulsion rules, scrapped medical assistance for undocumented migrants, further restricted access to social services, and demanded French-language proficiency as a condition for a residency permit.
When the amended bill arrived in the lower house in December, the reaction was immediate. Representatives on the left found it too restrictive, their colleagues on the right – notably the RN – thought it too lax. The Green Party filed a rejection motion,10 which passed by 275 votes to 265, and the debate was aborted. Gérald Darmanin tendered his resignation, which President Macron rejected. The government was then faced with three options: tighten the bill even further, use a constitutional mechanism to force it through without a vote, or submit it for review to a special committee. The latter option prevailed and the committee prepared a compromise version that took up many of the Senate’s original measures.
When the bill was resubmitted, many members of Mr. Macron’s centrist party, Renaissance, and their allies either voted against or abstained, thus exposing deep internal divisions. The right-wing parties, by contrast, voted in favor and pushed the bill across the finish line. Crucially, the RN, which had originally said it would reject the Senate’s version, changed tack and supported it, prompting Ms. Le Pen to declare an “ideological victory” for her party. Despite the government’s claim that the bill would have passed without the RN’s support, the damage was done. Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned in protest, civil society organizations expressed grave doubts, the leaders of a third of French regions refused to comply with certain measures, and the Defender of Rights, which defends citizens’ rights and freedoms, published a scathing opinion. As one member of the government said despairingly, “the RN has given us the kiss of death.”
The saga is not over yet. Since some of the law’s provisions infringe the Constitution, both the president and his left-wing adversaries have appealed to the Constitutional Council for rulings. But whatever the outcome of those reviews or any other appeals and amendments that may ensue, the damage to President Macron’s “neither-right-nor-left” credo may prove irreparable.