Emmanuel Macron mmanuel Macron is under pressure from France’s political Right to hold a referendum on immigration, after the president promised to “significantly reduce” numbers and called the current level “unsustainable”.
Mr Macron has sought to deflect criticism that he rules by diktat from the Elysee by suggesting a series of public votes on topics of national importance.
These votes, or so-called “preferendums”, would not be legally binding but would inform his government’s policies.
Sensing an opportunity, Jordan Bardella, the president of the hard-Right National Rally party, last week sent a formal letter to Mr Macron demanding immigration be put to a formal, binding vote.
In the letter, Mr Bardella describes the situation in France as urgent and calls for a hardline approach to the country’s immigration policies in order to regain control, “restore state authority and protect French identity.”
“It’s not a subject that divides French people, it is on the contrary, the subject of broad consensus, measured by a significant number of studies and polls for several decades,” he wrote.
Mr Bardella said the vote should go ahead on the day of the European elections June 9, 2024.
Marine Le Pen, the former leader of National Rally, made a referendum on immigration one of the key planks in her presidential campaign in 2022.
But the issue has flared up again in the wake of the riots across France this summer, with Ms Le Pen claiming France suffers from “an immigration that is totally anarchic.”
Mr Macron took a hard line against the rioters but his government disputed Le Pen’s characterisation of the issue, claiming that only 10 per cent of those who took part were foreign-born.
Bruno Retailleau, the head of the conservative group that dominates the French senate, sparked controversy by linking immigration to the rioting - previously a position seen as the preserve of Ms Le Pen’s hard-Right.
“We know the causes,” he said. “We are sick of being politically correct.”
“As soon as we want to be firm, they say, ‘The fascists are arriving! You’re like the National Rally!”
Immigrant count below the average
According to the national statistics bureau Insee, France’s population is 10 per cent foreign-born, with seven million immigrants living within its borders in 2022. The share of immigrants in its population is well below the OECD average.
In an interview with Le Point last week, Mr Macron argued France was “not overwhelmed” by migration but said he wanted to reduce the numbers. He said his first priority was to reduce illegal migration but this would be done alongside helping existing migrants integrate into French society.
The president has, however, ruled out a referendum on the subject, claiming it would be unconstitutional.
Article 11 of the French constitution holds that referendums must not violate the constitution, which guarantees the right to asylum.
To overcome this constitutional hurdle, Eric Ciotti, leader of the conservative Republican party, has called for a referendum on a referendum. That is, a referendum on changing the constitution, in order to pave the way for another referendum on immigration.
“We cannot remain in this situation where we are experiencing a migratory wave,” Mr Ciotti said in an interview with radio station Europe1 earlier this spring. “...We are experiencing a real submersion without any real reactions from the public authorities, I deplore it.”
Both Mr Bardella and Mr Ciotti raised the issue of holding a referendum on immigration during a meeting with the president last week, when Mr Macron held a marathon 12-hour closed-door session with leaders of the opposition in the aim of finding some consensus amid the parliamentary deadlock.
Both expressed disappointment at Macron’s response.
“We did not have a very firm position from the President of the Republic,” Mr Ciotti said after the meeting.
The rising volume of debate around immigration comes as the new parliamentary session will this autumn begin to examine the government’s immigration bill, which would speed up the expulsion of illegal immigrants and give special permits to those working in industries facing labour shortages.