With municipal elections months away, President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to confront immigration head-on during the second half of his term. A new immigration law was passed in 2018, but Macron made clear last month that he intends to further toughen his stance, describing immigration as a "working class" problem and appealing to lawmakers not to cede the issue to the far right.
Quotas — a nearly taboo word in some political quarters — aren't off the table, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a speech opening the debate. "I'm not afraid of reflecting on the idea of quotas," he told lawmakers, adding that he does not envisage quotas for asylum seekers but left unclear where quotas might be instituted.
Asylum requests have fallen across Europe since the 2015 migration crisis. But in France, they've continued to climb, reaching more than 123,000 in 2018, according to government statistics. Philippe said that represents an increase of 22% compared with 2017.
Aid workers say an increasingly backlogged and convoluted asylum system has left migrants vulnerable, waiting on the streets for weeks or even years. Near the Porte de la Chapelle in northern Paris, migrants line up each morning for a plastic cup of coffee, bread, and, for some, news about their asylum applications.
Mohammed Jan, a Pakistani asylum seeker who arrived in France last month, has been sleeping in a park while his wife seeks treatment for a medical condition. He said he struggles to find decent food and often awakens to mice and rain seeping through cracks in his tent.
"My eyes see France, but my mind does not accept France," he said. "I'm afraid." Inside the gilded chamber of France's National Assembly, lawmakers debated how the country should treat immigrants like Jan.
"Today, the French asylum system is saturated," Philippe told lawmakers. Improving the welcome for new arrivals means improving their integration. France, he said "must not be more or less attractive than its neighbors ... We must face reality, without any taboo, methodically, without renouncing any of our principles."
Philippe presented six topics for consideration, including restricting asylum seekers' access to social services. Ministers stressed that 30% of asylum seekers in France previously applied for asylum elsewhere in Europe — meaning that France should not bear responsibility for them, according to an EU accord.
Some politicians on the right are pushing to eliminate state medical assistance for migrants. Macron shot down that proposal last month, but has said he supports re-evaluating the program. "In France, we don't let people die," Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said to applause.
Inflaming deep-seated societal tensions over immigration marks a risky political gamble for Macron ahead of March 2020 municipal elections. His shift toward the right has already drawn the ire of leftists and some members of his own centrist party.
Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, at a news conference, blasted what she said was Macron's bid to lure voters — "using immigration as an electoral element he pulls out of his hat a few weeks before elections because he thinks it will attract French who see the reality in front of them."
Addressing lawmakers, she denounced a "little debate without a vote" and said a referendum on immigration should be held instead. Migrants are eyeing the shifting political terrain with trepidation. Fere Fedior, an undocumented immigrant from Senegal, has lived in Paris for more than a decade and supports himself by taking out city trash cans every weekend. He said he fears immigration reform will mean more expulsions.
Shokrullah, a 25-year-old asylum seeker who asked to be identified only by his first name, fled violence in war-torn Afghanistan hoping for a safer life. He traveled across Turkey, Greece, and Italy before crossing the French border last month. He claimed that he had earlier sought asylum in Britain as a minor, but was deported. He decided to make another attempt after hearing that France is "very good for asylum."
"Now I'm worried," he said.