By Elizabeth Pineau and Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) -French lawmakers gave their final approval to a contested bill that toughens rules for immigrants on Tuesday, giving President Emmanuel Macron a policy victory that nonetheless exposed cracks in his centrist majority.
The bill, a compromise reached between Macron’s party and the conservative opposition, illustrates the rightward shift in politics in much of Europe, as governments try to fend off the rise of the far-right by being tougher on immigration.
“Today, strict measures are necessary,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said after the vote in the lower house. “It’s not by holding your nose in central Paris that you can fix the problems of the French in the rest of the country.”
The minister expressed relief that the bill passed with the votes of his centrist coalition and the conservatives, without relying on the surprise endorsement of far-right lawmakers, whose support had caused embarrassment in the presidential camp.
The French government had initially said this would be a carrot-and-stick legislation that would make it easier for migrants working in sectors that lack labour to get a residency permit, but would also make it easier to expel illegal migrants.
In order to gain support from the right, however, the government agreed to water down the residency permits measures, while delaying migrants’ access to welfare benefits – including benefits for children and housing allowances – by several years.
The French have long prided themselves on having one of the most generous welfare systems in the world, granting payments even to foreign residents, helping them pay rent or care for their children with means-tested monthly contributions of up to a few hundred euros.
The far right and, more recently, conservatives, have argued these should be reserved for French people only. The deal agreed on Tuesday would delay access to housing benefits for unemployed non-EU migrants by five years.
The compromise also introduces migration quotas, makes it harder for immigrants’ children to become French, and says that dual nationals sentenced for serious crimes against the police could lose French citizenship.
The deal, hashed out by a special committee of seven senators and seven deputies and later approved by both houses, was initially good news for Macron, who had made the migration bill a key plank of his second mandate and could otherwise have had to shelve it.
Just six months before European Parliament elections in which immigration will be key, however, it could also boost Marine Le Pen who, sensing a political opportunity, called the rejigged bill “a great ideological victory” for her far-right party.
She surprised the government by announcing her party would vote for the bill, causing immense embarrassment to the left wing of Macron’s party, who find it unpalatable to vote in unison with the far right.
One of the most vocal representatives of Macron’s left wing in parliament, Sacha Houlie, voted against the bill, his entourage told Reuters. In the end, 20 members of Macron’s Renaissance party voted against the bill, 17 abstained and 131 voted for the bill.
Speculation about some ministers threatening to resign if the vote passed had swirled in French media ahead of the vote. But none had immediately materialised after the results were announced.
The conservative Les Republicains, who have over the years hardened their discourse closer to that of the far-right, also claimed victory, saying the bill was essentially theirs.
Macron won his two presidential mandates in 2017 and 2022 when voters rallied behind him to bar Le Pen from winning and left-wing MPs said the rejigged migration bill was a betrayal of promises made to fend off far-right ideas.
The rebels in Macron’s party could further weaken his hold on parliament and potentially complicate the rest of his mandate.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told parliament that the bill “will make our system more efficient because it will drastically simplify our procedures for processing asylum applications, (and) because it will make it possible to expel criminal or radicalised foreigners more quickly”.
Other governments across Europe are opting for tougher migration policies.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Saturday that he would push for global reforms to the asylum system, warning the threat of growing numbers of refugees could “overwhelm” parts of Europe.
(Additional reporting by Tassilo Hummel; writing by Ingrid Melander and Michel Rose; Editing by Ed Osmond and Stephen Coates)