French debate on setting migration quotas reopened

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) gestures as he speaks during a meeting with mayors of oversee territories as part of the 'national debate', in Paris, France, 1 February 2019. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

This article is part of our special report Migration and security: Snapshots across a divided Europe.

The question of setting migration quotas in France has come back to the forefront through the ‘great debate’ initiated by Emmanuel Macron. EURACTIV France reports.

Within the national ‘great debate’, a two month series of public meetings initiated by the French President in the wake of the ‘yellow vest’ crisis, the question of setting migration quotas has been put back on the table.

While the matter of immigration has not been at the forefront of the issues raised by the ‘yellow vests’, the subject still appears in the questionnaire addressed to French people.

“With regard to immigration, after meeting our asylum obligations, would you like us to set annual targets laid down by the Parliament?” the website for the ‘great debate’ asks.

Annual quotas

While this question clearly stipulates that asylum seekers would be excluded from annual immigration quotas set by the Parliament, the start of yet another discussion on migration quotas calls to mind a plan by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, which ended up being abandoned.

“This question of quotas is not a new one and has already been settled and then settled again in France from a constitutional perspective,” said an irritated Sylvie Guillaume, a Vice-President of the European Parliament.

“And putting the issue of migration, which wasn’t part of the initial demands, in the ‘great debate’ is very loaded,” said Guillaume, who is also a member of the board of directors of the French office for the protection of refugees and stateless persons (OFPRA).

The idea of establishing migration quotas is regularly proposed by the French right as a  solution to managing migratory flows. However, the application of such a measure has repeatedly been ruled out on the grounds of being unconstitutional and ineffective.

The French constitutional council ruled on this matter in 1993. Establishing quotas on family immigration would not only contravene the French constitution but also the European Convention on Human Rights, of which France is a signatory.

Furthermore, during the last attempt to establish immigration quotas by Sarkozy in 2009, it was decided that such a measure would be ineffective. The so-called “Committee on the constitutional framework of the new immigration policy,” chaired by Pierre Mazeaud and set up for the occasion, decided that the quotas “would be unworkable or meaningless.”

“Having a quota policy has no impact on illegal immigration,” Guillaume also pointed out. “It’s dangerous to mix the categories between immigration and asylum with this kind of initiative,” the MEP warned.

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Although the question of setting immigration quotas is separate from that of the right to asylum, the two policies are very often assimilated in public debate, even if it means attempting to indirectly regulate the number of migrants in France by taking action on asylum policy.

At an event recently held by the Institut Montaigne and the think tank Terra Nova, the former head of OFPRA Pascal Brice, criticised the “logic of deterrence” implemented in France and Germany, with “the idea that if the conditions for asylum seekers are harsher, this means that fewer will come.”

Statistics indicate a tightening in the granting of refugee status in France. The number of applications for asylum made with OFRPA for the whole of 2018 increased by 22%, reaching 122,743. However, this increase was only slightly reflected by the number of applications accepted. This was up marginally in 2018, with 24,663 requests accepted compared to 23,958 in 2017.

Dublin system

The difficulties facing French asylum policy can also be found at European level, where the lack of reform to the Dublin system is damaging a system under pressure. Pascal Brice criticised the “complete failure of the Dublin system,” which requires countries of entry into Europe, often Greece and Italy, to handle applications for asylum.

Reform of the Dublin system, which has been at a standstill for two years, will probably be postponed indefinitely due to a lack of consensus between member states.

“The cornerstone of the common asylum system is indeed the Dublin Regulation, which by nature is flawed because it assumes that the asylum systems in Europe are equal, which is wrong!” Guillaume explained.

However, “the member states – including France – refuse to enter into the discussion at European level, whereas the Parliament has proposed a compromise on the matter for two years,” she said.

Guillaume added that she regretted that “the French state prefers to cast French people into yet another debate about quotas rather than returning to the discussion at the European level.”

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