French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced on Tuesday that France would not be taking in any of the migrants who arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa last week. FRANCE 24 looks back at six years of French U-turns on immigration policies.
Having lamented for years that the Mediterranean has become “the world’s biggest cemetery”, Pope Francis is visiting the French port city of Marseille on Friday to reinforce his message that the region should welcome migrants.
His visit comes as Lampedusa, a small Italian island nestled in the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Malta, saw a record number of migrant arrivals last week. Some 8,500 people reached the island’s shores, briefly exceeding its resident population of 6,100.
But the pope’s call for peace may fall on deaf ears, as EU nations like Italy and France pledge tougher immigration measures.
“[We] will not take in migrants,” French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told national TV channel TF1 on Tuesday. “It’s not by taking in more people that we’re going to stem a flow that obviously affects our ability to integrate [them into French society],” he said.
Darmanin’s words come at a time where immigration has once again taken centre stage in French politics. As the country’s hung parliament wrangles over a draft law governing new arrivals, President Emmanuel Macron has evoked a possible referendum on the topic.
No one knows whether the referendum will actually take place or what question will be posed. But that very sense of uncertainty matches France’s indecision on immigration policy over the past six years.
FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the string of U-turns and contradictions Macron has made on the issue since taking office in 2017, a journey worthy of whiplash.
January 2017: Macron praises Angela Merkel's stance on migration
While he was still running for presidency on January 2, 2017, Macron published an op-ed in French daily Le Monde. In the article, he praised former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for having taken in a large number of migrants years earlier – at a time where most European countries wouldn’t.
“When Italy was alone in handling the arrival of refugees in Lampedusa, to the point of deeply moving Pope Francis, neither France nor Germany were there to help,” Macron wrote. “Greece has also long been on the front line, helpless and overwhelmed in the face of the influx of refugees and migrants. That being said, Chancellor Merkel and German society as a whole have lived up to our shared values – they have saved our collective dignity by taking in refugees in distress, housing them and training them.”
Shortly after he took office, Macron spelled out his vision for welcoming migrants and specifically asylum seekers more clearly. A few months after publishing the op-ed, he made a speech in Orléans, a city south of Paris, in which he stated: “By the end of this year, I no longer want there to be men and women in the streets, in the woods or lost … It’s a matter of dignity, of humanity and also of efficiency. I want to ensure that, wherever emergency accommodation is built to take in [asylum seekers], there are also administrative facilities in place to process their requests.”
In 2023, tens of thousands of migrants are still sleeping rough, according to the Abbé Pierre Foundation, which finances and supports associations that fight against substandard housing.
Summer 2018: France rejects dock request from Aquarius migrant ship
The summer of 2018 was marked by diplomatic quarrels between France and Italy, especially regarding the request to dock the Aquarius – a migrant ship chartered by the European humanitarian organisation SOS Mediterranée, which carries out search and rescue missions for migrants lost at sea.
The dispute began in June, when Italy refused to let the ship dock with 629 migrants on board. Macron criticised the “cynicism and irresponsibility” of the Italian government’s decision to close its ports, while refusing to let the ship dock in France. After a week of being stuck off the coast of Sicily, Spain finally agreed to let the Aquarius dock on June 17, before it moved on to Marseille. Of the 629 people on board, 78 were taken in by France.
September 2018: A controversial asylum and immigration bill
In the summer of 2018, Macron’s initial Interior Minister Gérard Collomb passed a bill on asylum and immigrationthat was slammed by non-profit organisations helping refugees across the board. Measures that were soundly criticised included the doubling of the 45-day detention period for illegal migrants to 90 days, the possibility of placing children in detention centres and cutting the maximum processing time for asylum seekers from 120 to 90 days.
The controversial bill exposed divisions within Macron’s party, who had a majority in parliament at the time. More than a dozen MPs abstained from voting and one MP voted against the bill. The legislation even sparked wrath from the right. Former right-wing minister Jacques Toubon, who later became the French Human Rights Defender, told French daily Le Monde that the bill treated asylum seekers "badly".
November 2019: Prime Minister Édouard Philippe restricts healthcare access for migrants
On November 6, 2019, then French prime minister Édouard Philippe announced a new immigration plan that aimed to combat what the government called “medical tourism”. The government claimed that the medical coverage offered to migrants was attracting newcomers to France, so they decided to restrict access to healthcare.
For asylum seekers who are not minors, a three-month waiting period to access universal coverage was introduced, and the list of treatments covered was reduced for foreign nationals receiving state medical aid (AME).
November 2020: Brutal dismantling of migrant camp in central Paris
Hundreds of migrants were violently dispersed in central Paris on the night of November 23, 2020, only a few days after a migrant camp housing 2,000 people was dismantled in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.
During the evacuation operation in central Paris, police officers were accused of violence as they broke up the migrant camp at the Place de la République. Images on social media showed officers hitting protesters and picking up tents, sometimes with people still inside – prompting the country's interior minister to say that some of the scenes were "shocking" and order an inquiry.
“You can’t respond to misery with police batons. It is urgent, essential and indisputable that the migrants in Saint-Denis who live on the streets should be given shelter. The honour of the French Republic is at stake,” said Delphine Rouilleault, director of the non-profit “France terre d’asile”, which has criticised the treatment of migrants in Calais for years. “When tents aren’t being torn down by police, it’s the ‘jungle’ [the name of the former immigration camp in the Calais region] itself that is dismantled using bulldozers.”
August 2021: After the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan, France must protect itself against 'irregular migratory flows'
When France began repatriating its nationals after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, Macron declared it was his country’s “duty” and “dignity” to protect Afghans (including translators and cooks) who had worked for France on the ground.
But the French president also warned that Europe would have to protect itself “against significant irregular migratory flows”. His statement was condemned by the left as well as humanitarian organisations, who saw it as showing a shameful lack of empathy for the Afghans.
In the weeks that followed, France was accused of not doing enough for the Afghan people – particularly Afghan interpreters and women. A total of 2,600 Afghans were evacuated to France, compared with 8,000 to the UK and 4,000 to Germany.
February 2022: More than a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees welcomed
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 prompted large numbers of Ukrainians to flee their country and seek refuge in western Europe. France quickly opened its borders and spent €500 million on welcoming those in need. As a result, more than 110,000 refugees arrived on French soil within a year – 80 percent of whom were women, according to official data released by the interior ministry on February 24, 2023, a year after the war broke out.
Refugee NGOs applauded the French government’s efforts, but also viewed them as a double standard in relation to how those fleeing the Global South are treated. “We’re very happy that things are going well for Ukrainians, but we found the whole thing incredibly unfair. When they are Africans or Afghans, we’re told there is nowhere to house them and they end up sleeping rough. On the other hand, when it’s Ukrainians – people we can identify with – they open accommodation centres,” Yann Mazi, founder of French non-profit Utopia 56, told French daily Libération.
November 2022: France accepts the Ocean Viking rescue ship but suspends plan to take in 3,500 refugees
Four years after the Aquarius migrant ship was barred from docking in Italy, a new rescue vessel chartered by SOS Méditerranée, the Ocean Viking, caused a renewed diplomatic spat between France and Italy.
When Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni refused to allow the ship carrying 234 migrants to dock at an Italian port, French Interior Minister Darmanin announced on November 10, 2022 that France would “as an exception” welcome the Ocean Viking in Toulon.
After declaring that France would receive a third of the migrants on board, Darmanin went on to describe Italy’s decision as “incomprehensible” and “lacking humanity”, calling Meloni’s behaviour “contrary to the solidarity and commitments” made by Rome.
However, in protest at Italy's behaviour, Darmanin then suspended a plan to take in 3,500 refugees who had arrived in Italy. The transfer was planned as part of a European burden-sharing accord.
In line with the multiple U-turns the French government has made on its migration policy over the years, it plans to relaunch its immigration bill – initially planned for the start of 2023 – this autumn.
The bill aims to make it easier to expel foreigners who “pose a serious threat to public order” and give special residence permits to undocumented migrants already working in understaffed sectors in France.