France to unveil controversial migrant law

French President Emmanuel Macron (second from right) with migrants and a volunteer during his visit to a migrant centre in Croisilles, northern France, on Jan 16, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron (second from right) with migrants and a volunteer during his visit to a migrant centre in Croisilles, northern France, on Jan 16, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - The French government is set to unveil a tough new immigration Bill Wednesday (Feb 21) that is proving one of the most divisive of Emmanuel Macron's young presidency.

The legislation, which criminalises illegal border crossings and aims for quicker deportation of those deemed economic migrants, has sparked widespread anger from NGOs who have branded it repressive.

The government says the law balances "efficiency" with "humanity", offering faster asylum to refugees found to have fled conflict or repression.

But it has opened divisions in the left-right coalition that newcomer Macron set up when he came to power in May, with even some members of his Republic On The Move (LREM) party breaking ranks to criticise it.

"The most vulnerable will be punished," said Jean-Michel Clement, a lawmaker who joined the centrist LREM after switching from the Socialists.

"It's not forbidden to put a little humanity into a draft law." Some workers at France's refugee protection office Ofpra were going on strike to protest the Bill on Wednesday, branding it "an unequivocal departure from France's tradition of asylum".

They join staff at the asylum court who have been on strike for nine days over their working conditions, with immigration lawyers also raising concerns over aspects of the draft law.

The Bill will be presented to the cabinet Wednesday before being tabled in parliament in April.

While leftwingers see it as too punitive, the right have labelled it too lax.

Macron has come under pressure to toughen his stance after winning power in an election in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen won 34 percent of the vote, capitalising on concerns over immigration.

The infamous "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais was razed in 2016 but young Africans and South Asians continue to head to the coast hoping to stow away on trucks crossing to Britain, while others are camped out on the streets of Paris.

France received a record 100,000 asylum applications last year.

Liberation newspaper noted that while polls showed voters backing tougher laws the relocation of thousands of migrants to towns and villages nationwide in 2016 went off largely without hitch.

"The French say they are worried, wary and want conservative migration policies. But once they get to know refugees they also want them to be welcomed," the paper wrote in an editorial.

NGOs have lashed out in particular at plans to double the time asylum seekers can be held in detention to 90 days and halve the amount of the time they have to appeal if turned down for refugee status.

"We're asking for it to be withdrawn," the Cimade migrants' charity said of the Bill.

"We're not even in favour of fighting for changes to the bill, because the philosophy behind it is just too repressive." The government has defended the Bill as "balanced" and said it is considering proposals on how to better integrate newcomers, including doubling the number of hours of French lessons they get and allowing asylum seekers to work.

The Bill also aims to cut the average waiting time on asylum applications from 11 months to six, although staff at the asylum court have raised concerns that the tighter turnaround on cases will make it more difficult to appeal.

A heated parliamentary debate last week on a separate law on taking in "Dublin" migrants - those whose asylum claims are registered in other EU countries - provided a taste of how the issue has split Macron backers.

The government has already had to abandon a controversial proposal to deport failed asylum-seekers to a third country deemed "safe".

Plans by Interior Minister Gerard Collomb to carry out immigration checks in homeless shelters have also come under fire in recent weeks.