France's Lower House approves Bill to tighten asylum rules

People holding placards and a banner reading "code of shame" during a demonstration organised by a French organisation to promote the rights of migrants and refugees outside the French National Assembly in Paris on April 16, 2018.
People holding placards and a banner reading "code of shame" during a demonstration organised by a French organisation to promote the rights of migrants and refugees outside the French National Assembly in Paris on April 16, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (REUTERS, AFP) - France's Lower House approved by a large majority on Sunday (April 22) a Bill that would tighten asylum rules after tense debates that created the first cracks within President Emmanuel Macron's party.

The government had defended the Bill as balanced, but it has been criticised by right-wingers for being too soft and by left-wingers who see it as repressive.

The Bill doubles to 90 days the time in which illegal migrants, including children, can be detained, shortens deadlines to apply for asylum and makes the illegal crossing of borders an offence punishable by one year in jail and fines.

But the measure would also make it easier for minors to get asylum and aims to halve the time it takes for the authorities to process any asylum request. Accepted refugees will be given more help to integrate, such as better access to work and French lessons.

One member of Macron's party, Jean-Michel Clement, voted against the Bill and said he would leave the majority.

"I am not sure we're sending to world citizens the universal message that has always been ours," the lawmaker said in a statement following the vote late on Sunday.

The Lower House, the French National Assembly, voted in favour of the legislation by 228-139, with 24 abstaining. Debates are due to follow in the Upper House, the Senate, in June. The National Assembly will have the last word on the Bill.

A dozen lawmakers in the more than 300-seat majority have voiced concerns over the Bill in recent days, not enough to defeat the government but the most serious sign of unease to date for Macron's two-year-old political movement.

Embarrassingly for the government, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her fellow National Front lawmakers voted in favour of some of the Bill's articles.

Before the vote, Macron's party whip, Richard Ferrand, had warned his members that although abstaining would only be considered a "venial sin" by party hierarchy, voting against the Bill would constitute a "mortal sin".

The government has said it wanted to be both firm and fair on immigration, which has been a major political issue since hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa started moving to Europe.

France received a record 100,000 asylum applications last year, bucking the general trend in Europe where the number of asylum seekers halved between 2016 and 2017.

Many Africans and South Asians end up sleeping on the streets of Paris due to a shortage of accommodation, or camping out in Calais hoping to stow away on trucks to Britain.