France’s Immigration Debate Is Hurtling to the Right

On Monday, Emmanuel Macron’s government lost a vote on a new immigration law, as right-wing parties demanded even tighter limits. Faced with a harshening political climate, France’s 700,000 undocumented workers have little hope of gaining regular status.

French president Emmanuel Macron (C) at a press conference with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin in northern France. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

Upward of seven hundred thousand people live and work in France without papers or with fake documents, France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, told an interviewer in late 2021. In a workforce of nearly twenty-seven million, it’s clear that much of the economy depends on migrant labor. The refusal to grant these workers legal status exposes them to terrible conditions in the jobs they most often find their way into — on construction sites, in restaurant kitchens, or in gig economy jobs with the likes of Uber and Deliveroo.

Yet France is currently debating an immigration bill that would further threaten the rights of foreigners residing in the country. Besides a small tweak to extend legal status to a fraction of undocumented workers, Darmanin’s bill “to control immigration and improve integration” amounts to a wish list of xenophobic and nationalist policy changes. Even so, the proposed legislation was held up by a successful “motion to reject” in the National Assembly on December 11, as right-wing opposition parties jockey for even more sway over France’s tightening immigration system.

Bosses’ Control Over Migrants

Sans-papiers,” literally “without papers,” is a political term, which undocumented people put forward in their struggles to demand their rights. It entered general use in the 1970s, during the movement against the executive orders that first linked work contracts and residency permits. Mobilizations of sans-papiers have led, historically, to massive “regularizations” of worker status: 130,000 foreigners were regularized in 1981–82, and 88,000 in 1997–98.

One such sans-papier is Aboubacar Dembelé, originally from Mali. He arrived in France in late 2018, studying law in Brittany, but he had to abandon his education during the pandemic, when he was unable to follow online courses for lack of a computer. Today he works at Chronopost, a subsidiary to which France’s post office outsources express deliveries. Its branch in Vitry-sur-Seine, a suburb southeast of Paris, is the scene of a battle between sans-papiers workers and bosses, whose signature is required for the proof-of-employment documents that validate a work visa. This dispute is just part of a national fight for regularization that rarely makes the news.

At Chronopost, hours are long, tasks are timed, and contracts are zero-hours. If workers do not complete tasks on time, their assignments are terminated. Dembelé told Jacobin:

Undocumented workers hang on to these jobs, telling themselves that they have to keep working in case they’ll get regularized one day. The bosses know that it’s not easy for undocumented people to get work, that work is declared either under an alias or a fake ID. Deep down bosses know that they’re stealing extra hours from us. They ask you to go faster, saying, “I’m keeping you on, despite your circumstances.”

An extended strike at Chronopost in 2019 led to seventy-three regularizations — although the company’s exploitation of undocumented workers did not stop there. More recent hires like Dembelé are again striking for their employer to sponsor their residency permits.

Yet, at present, there is little to hold bosses accountable. “I see some of my friends’ pay slips in the restaurant industry who work 150 hours a month and get paid €1,000. The managers are crooks. There is nothing that obliges them to give necessary paperwork like the CERFA,” Dembelé explains, referring to the employment document required to seek official residency status and access the basic services and rights that come with legal work.

Improving Integration?

Today’s proposed changes to immigration law are the brainchild of hard-line interior minister Darmanin, who is eager to leave his mark on the immigration system and anchor President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition firmly to the Right. If the legislation ever makes it through parliament, it will represent a further erosion of the rights of foreigners in France.

In a nod to political custom whereby immigration laws claim to combine measures of “humanity” with “firmness,” Darmanin initially promised to expand the pathway for undocumented workers to receive residency papers through a specific visa for workers in industries with labor shortages (métiers en tensions). This would be paired with classic measures designed to appeal to the Right like making deportations easier. But for organizers and activists, the promise of a balanced immigration reform was a smokescreen.

“Word was going around that the law might be a good thing because of a few measures about regularization in understaffed parts of the workforce,” says Mathieu Pastor, an organizer with the Marche des solidarités collective, which unites various workers’ alliances and anti-racism groups. “Ultimately, that’s because the situation of undocumented people in France is an absolute catastrophe. Obtaining papers is difficult enough as it is, and in the last few years, even more so. The smallest bit of hope can be seen as an opportunity.”

Pastor’s concerns were confirmed by November’s version of the bill, which passed in the Senate thanks to the support of the right-wing Republicans, an opposition party that controls the upper house. Following a setback in the 2022 parliamentary elections, Macron’s government has generally needed the tacit approval of the Republicans, who blocked a no-confidence vote when a major retirement reform was adopted this spring by decree.

Darmanin is having a harder time in the National Assembly. There, the government’s coalition does not have an absolute majority of seats, and a wing of pro-Macron MPs seem reticent to follow the interior minister’s flirtation with the hard right. An amended version of the bill passed the National Assembly’s laws committee early this month. But those changes shifted the political calculus, leading the Republicans to support a successful “motion to reject” on December 11 alongside the left-wing opposition and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

Monday’s vote was an embarrassing defeat for the government, which has again been played along by the right-wing opposition. Macron could accept defeat and rescind the whole reform. But he rejected Darmanin’s pro forma resignation, and leading MPs have claimed they want to pursue the legislation.

“We’re furious about the way that parliament is taking up the question of immigration and the proposals that are being put forward,” says Fanélie Carrey-Conte, secretary general of the migrant right’s group La Cimade. Marie-Christine Vergiat, vice president of the French Human Rights League, said Darmanin’s legislation is “riddled with elements that violate international law and conventions signed by France, like the European Convention of Human Rights.”

Darmanin’s planned métiers en tension work permit would represent a small loosening of the status quo that has prevailed since 2012, when then interior minister Manuel Valls gave leeway to prefects to issue papers to certain workers able to provide proof of current and prior employment. The so-called Valls Circular has been undermined by administrators’ discretion, however, and the reality that many sans papiers work under fake identities.

The proposal has been a nonstarter for the Right, which bewails a supposed “amnesty” for migrants who technically reached France illegally. (According to estimates from the president’s allies, the measure would lead to only about seven thousand regularizations annually). Darmanin’s pact with the Right, lightly amended in the National Assembly committee, means that access to papers for undocumented workers would remain “very marginal, and at the discretion of prefects,” says Carrey-Conte. “There’s been a whole lot of noise about nothing, because the number directly affected would have been very small in any case.”

“People who have been in France for years, who have been working and paying their dues deserve nothing less than full-fledged regularization,” says Dembelé. “These so-called ‘métiers en tension’ work permits only shackle people to a dodgy boss for their entire career. It’s the last thing we need. This measure boils down to saying, ‘You’re not equal to us, you’re only good enough to man a jack-hammer, to deliver packages, to clean offices or do the dishes at restaurants.’”

Macron and the opposition Republicans are bargaining over a host of measures that activists fear will greatly weaken foreigners’ rights. The two groups in the Senate voted together to pare down the state medical aid (AME) earmarked for undocumented foreigners, reduced to an emergency health package. The AME was reestablished by Macronist deputies in the National Assembly, although it will likely be one of the major bargaining chips if Darmanin wants to force a compromise with the Right.

A wing of the Macronist bloc in the lower house also wants to loosen proposed restrictions on family reunion — i.e., the ability for foreign workers to apply for their families abroad to join them in France — and block the Right’s push to end automatic naturalization rights for children born to foreigners on French soil. Their defeat on December 11 will likely only strengthen those in the president’s entourage eager to satisfy the Right’s demands.

Moving-Right Show

At its core, this bill (and the political show surrounding it) provides a snapshot of France’s tightening consensus on immigration. For refugees seeking official asylum status, it increases the possibility of them being detained and deported before filing a request. Submitted asylum applications will be decided by a single magistrate, as opposed to the current three-person tribunals — a change that some fear will increase the likelihood of rejections. The Right is demanding that “irregular” residency should again count as a criminal offense in France, a status scrapped under François Hollande’s presidency.

The legislation’s main thrust is to expand the forms of harassment affecting undocumented foreigners in France. While barring under-sixteen-year-olds from detention in special prisons, the length of a maximum possible detention has been extended to eighteen months, specifically for “delinquents” and individuals on intelligence service watch lists. Strengthening the so-called “double penalty,” the bill calls for the deportation of individuals convicted of an offense and alleged to represent a “threat to public order” or not adhering to the “values of the Republic.”

Deportation decisions like this are often never executed, however. While nearly fifteen thousand foreigners were expelled in 2022, less than 10 percent of deportation orders result in the removal of the individual in question.

The interior minister’s grotesque habit of posting profiles of “foreign delinquents” who have been successfully deported to social media is meant to give off the image of a well-oiled state machine. But France’s special detention system for foreigners largely functions to consign individuals to a limbo, rights-less status. The goal of the reforms in the bill is to thicken the web of loopholes and blind spots to keep more people detained and for longer. A 2022 interior ministry budget package earmarked funding for the construction of several new detention facilities, bringing nominal capacity to three thousand by 2027. That’s double the figure from 2017, when Macron became president.

“Most people in detention are eventually released, held there for nothing, often after three months because they can’t legally be held any longer,” says Vergiat. “They are the so-called ‘neither-nor,’ which refers to people who are neither regularized nor deportable. These include foreign parents of French children, spouses of French nationals, and people who have been refused asylum but who come from countries to which they cannot be deported.”

“There’s no way around the fact that this is a far-right immigration law,” says Dembelé. “Its goal is to keep people in precarity and hold them at the margins of society.”

Spate of Crackdowns

There have been nearly thirty immigration laws in France since 1990. “That comes out to a new law every 18 months or so for the last thirty years,” says Vergiat, “and they’ve all gone in the direction of a weakening of the rights of foreigners in France.” The 2018 Asylum and Immigration Law, the last major initiative under Macron, increased the length of possible detention to ninety days and streamlined the process for applying for asylum while shortening the window for appealing a rejection decision.

“But now we feel that things are being taken to a whole new level,” says Carrey-Conte of the proposed legislation, which organizations like La Cimade are calling to be fully withdrawn. “There are a number of measures in the bill that put fundamental rights and our social compact in danger.”

The Macron camp is betting that “firmness“ on immigration is needed to respond to the demands of the French public. “I think that on migration, this law is eagerly awaited by the French people. There’s a real demand for action and results on the issue of migration,” says Benjamin Haddad, an MP for Macron’s Renaissance party.

Amid the breakdown of the French party system, Darmanin, who sees himself as a possible successor to Macron, is clutching for a coalition on the hard right, straddling the centrist establishment and identitarian conservatives. “I think this migration issue is fundamental. It has become symbolic of a feeling of loss of control in globalization,” Haddad told Jacobin in October. “If we don’t want it to be hijacked by a populist nationalist rhetoric, then democrats, liberals, and moderates have to show that we are capable of having a policy that remains open and generous, but is still a policy of control.”

This thinking doesn’t seem to have stopped the far right in the past. Even some members of Macron’s own party are raising doubts. Sacha Houlié, an early fellow-traveler with Macron and president of the laws commission in the National Assembly, has been critical of Darmanin’s willingness to water down the “regularization” element of the law. He has sought to position himself at the head of the bloc in the lower house skeptical of the interior minister’s opportunism.

According to Macronist legislator Christopher Weissberg, a wing of the president’s MPs are very “upset” by the version of the bill that Darmanin is trying to build together with the Right. “He wants to get a bill voted on, whatever the cost,” Weissberg told Jacobin. “But if we go too far to the right, many MPs on the left of the president’s party will decide to not support the bill.”

Hysteria on Migration

In this, it’s often difficult to parse what’s political theater and horse trading in the Macronist bloc, and what principled opposition exists. Would-be “progressive” Macronists want some change that they can point to as a gesture toward regularization, and see other elements like the burying of general medical aid as a redline.

Yet the Macronist group in the Senate voted alongside the right-wing Republicans on that measure, like the rest of the most radical version of this package in the upper house. More broadly, despite the president’s accelerating shift to the Right since he first won election over six years ago, a revolt by “progressives” in his camp has consistently failed to materialize. Will one really happen with a bill on immigration, a question on which France’s media and political climate routinely lapses into hysteria?

Darmanin, meanwhile, has fully adopted far-right rhetoric. He has shamelessly used events like the October 13 murder of a teacher in Arras to bolster his bid for the immigration bill, and has embraced the general willingness to confuse “criminality” and immigration.

“Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘there is no alternative’ on economic neoliberalism and it seems that a similar dogma applies to immigration policy in France,” says Carrey-Conte. “We keep hearing that welcoming people and giving papers for undocumented migrants is impossible. But why, really? For France, regularizing all undocumented migrants would not only improve their situation, it would strengthen society as a whole.”

In France’s overwrought and rightward turning climate, any step in this direction is viewed as giving a “green light” for migration from the Global South. “This is nonsense,” says Dembelé. “Nobody migrates to France for benefits, just like they don’t come to see the Eiffel Tower. Personally, I just told myself that I had to get there. Whether I have the right or not, I’ll get there — I’ll be able to live off my work.”