This year, the world held its breath over the agonizing two week-long French elections. With Brexit and the rise of populism across the West, a lurch to the far-right in France could have meant the continuing erosion of the European Union and a further aggravation of the migrant influx on its southern and eastern shores. Happily for many, with the election of Emmanuel Macron, a European apocalypse was prevented — or at least adjourned. But what does it mean for the refugees trying to find shelter in France?
One of Macron’s first actions after his election was to visit Germany. He was there to stress his commitment to European cooperation, and called for a greater effort by European countries to address the refugees who arrive in Europe daily, fleeing war, persecution, and famine. Macron’s view of Germany as a key partner on this issue was one that he made apparent in his campaign, during which he praised Angela Merkel’s advocacy for Germany’s open door policy, saying that it “has saved our collective dignity.”
In spite of the newly elected French president’s stance on this matter, Marine Le Pen’s strong results do raise concerns as to how far Macron can push his vocal admiration for the open-door policy before hitting resistance. Le Pen rode a wave of anti-migrant and anti-Islamic feelings in some sectors of the French society, stoked by heightened rhetoric around the refugee crisis. Juggling this strain in French society along with a stated aim of renegotiating the Dublin regulations governing how EU countries handle refugees, and reinforcing European borders, may prove a challenge to say the least. That’s because a greater focus on what he defines as the “humanitarian aspects” of the crisis demands a substantive change in how France deals with immigrants, which may cause unease among those attracted to Le Pen’s fiery anti-migrant rhetoric.
Some changes seem to be apparent already. France recently welcomed for the first time a gay man fleeing from Chechnya, and the French Minister for the Interior, Gérard Collomb, announced a new plan for migrants last month during a visit to Calais. The upcoming plan aims to reduce the waiting time baked into the French asylum process, a wait that now takes up to 14 months) and to make the process by which illegal migrants are removed from France more efficient.
Regardless of the government’s attempts to speed up the process, the French asylum system is another obstacle that refugees need to overcome. In the Parisian humanitarian center at Porte de la Chapelle, hundreds of migrants are waiting outside the camp, which only has around 300 places. Camped between car lanes in insalubrious conditions — including a scabies epidemic that is spreading amid the urban camp in spite of the effort made by the humanitarian community — these refugees struggle to find a way to into the center to get medical attention, or simply for information about applying for asylum.
To add to the already long delays, the process of applying for asylum in France is a complex one: the French authority in charge of asylum applications, l’Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides (OFPRA) demands several pieces of evidence and documentation, many of which applicants are unlikely to have been able to organize in their escape from their homelands. Without the support of charities, the bureaucracy can be nearly impossible to navigate.
For instance, access to a lawyer and a translator is only guaranteed and when an applicant’s case is forwarded to the Cour nationale du droit d’asile (CNDA) after a denied request is followed by an appeal. More than 25% of the cases that were presented to the CNDA resulted in the cancellation of the decision to deny asylum issued by OFPRA. This speaks to the need to strengthen OFPRA’s logistical capabilities and to provide substantial support to asylum-seekers during the process.
This low level of support grows yet more relevant as requests for asylum grow. According to the OECD, France received 78,000 demands for asylum, particularly from Sudanese, Afghan and Haitian citizens. However, only 29% of those requests have already been addressed, as compared to 62% for the European Union as a whole.
It seems that, in order to achieve significant advances, Macron will have to juggle international and domestic pressures. Many of the refugees camped next to reception centers in France are known as “Dubliners.” These people have already been registered and identified in another EU countries, which restricts the ability of the French administration to process their cases. Addressing the problems that afflict the French asylum system also touches on the need to reform migrant policy across the EU — no easy task.
Emmanuel Macron thinks he can, but it is still unclear whether he will be able to mobilize other European countries towards this goal. Merkel’s open-door policy is subject to harsh criticism and the EU as a whole shows a lack of political will which had impeded the bloc from asylum reform until June 2016, even as the crisis grew worse each day.
Meanwhile, a record number of migrants are trying to cross the Mediterranean and arrive in Italy — 60,200 this year until June compared to 48,000 in the same period of 2016 — in precarious boats. This was not lost on Macron, who last month accidentally cracked a joke about the so-called “boats of death” that often carry migrants from the Comoros to the nearby French island of Mayotte, saying “The kwassa-kwassa doesn’t do much fishing; it takes Comorians.” Some appreciated the dark humor, but it probably was not the smartest move for the man looking to make France the standard-bearer of the asylum seekers’ cause.