France tows the German line on refugees, but with elections looming seeks to balance openness and firmness
France is not at the forefront of the current refugee crisis in Europe. The country is not a major destination for asylum seekers, with numbers actually decreasing in 2014. And when French officials went to Germany to offer to take in 1,000 individuals some weeks ago, they found that just 500 of them were interested in moving to France. Whether because of its location off the main routes for asylum seekers (except to the UK), for the difficulties and constraints attached to asylum applications including in terms of social and economic rights, for its depressed job market or for linguistic reasons, France does not appear to be attractive to Syrians and Afghans when compared to some other EU countries.
In this context, France’s position in recent weeks has been one of support for its German partner. In Brussels, French authorities supported the Commission’s plan to relocate an additional 120,000 refugees within the European Union. President Hollande went as far as to warn that, now that conditions and rules have been set, those countries that would not respect this agreement would put themselves in a situation where “what they get from Europe won’t keep coming”.
Yet, this clarity does not equate to boldness. France has mostly reacted to events and has been sticking to German initiatives. By accepting the Commission’s plan, it only agreed to allow 24,000 more refugees on its soil. The government is acting cautiously, and making sure it appears both tough on illegal immigration and resolute in avoiding creating pull factors.
The current state of domestic political debate plays a major role in defining this posture. The opposition sharply criticised the government’s handling of the issue. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has called again for the end of Schengen as we know it, which he would want replaced with a “Schengen II” agreement limited to countries with harmonised immigration and integration policies. With an eye on the upcoming primary within the opposition, many among The Republicans have joined him in taking this stance. For once, Chancellor Merkel was also criticised, both for taking unilateral decisions and for announcing Germany would take in 800,000 people. On the extreme-right, the National Front not only played its usual anti-immigration tune, but also seized the occasion to attack an alleged German “diktat” on migrants, to add, in their view, to previous “diktats” on the euro, the budget and Greece.
Even though polls are showing that the public are moving towards a more open position on the issue of taking in refugees, French opinion remains volatile and contradictory. Some concerns – from terrorists entering France under the guise of asylum seekers to refugees jumping to the front of the queue for subsidised housing – find space in both some sections of the media and in the statements of opposition leaders. Some local authorities have refused to take in refugees, or requested that they take only Christians.
In this context, the government seeks to balance openness and firmness. Prime Minister Valls announced new measures to support more capacity in shelters, and refused to cut social aid for migrants. But he has also alluded to the possibility of closing borders if and when it might be needed. And he insisted that, whatever happens, France will not take in more than 30,000 asylum seekers.
In Brussels, France was keen to push for a strengthening of controls at external borders of the EU, for additional resources for the EU border agency Frontex and for the quick set up of identification, registration and fingerprinting centres (“hot spots”) in so-called frontline countries. In so doing France is trying to plug the gap between short-term intake of refugees and long-term foreign policy action in the Levant and beyond. The limitations of an approach that consists only of containment have, though, been amply shown by recent events.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.