French Interior Minister’s populist immigration policy

By Alain Maalouf, Paris-based journalist

Image: AP

France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin doesn’t mince his words. “It’s obvious that we have a problem with foreign crime,” he said in a recent press interview . The proportion of foreigners in the population in France is 7.4 percent, but 19 percent of crimes are committed by foreigners, the interior minister calculates.

The disparity is particularly pronounced in the big cities: almost half of those arrested in Paris are foreigners. In Marseille the figure is even 55 percent. The Minister emphasized that he did not want to establish a “direct connection“: after all, foreigners are not “by nature” criminals. But as a responsible politician, he must expect the French to be truthful: “We have to be strict with the minority of nuisances.”

With statements like these, Darmanin not only cultivates his reputation as a government hardliner, he wants a debate on the new immigration law, which is due to be passed in parliament next month: “My goal is to drastically reduce illegal immigration.”

In doing so, he is taking the opposite approach to Germany: In Berlin, the government’s migration package provides for granting residence permits to rejected asylum seekers, giving them a good chance of a right to stay.

Darmanin, has been active on all fronts this summer. While President Macron was on summer break, his minister showed up in the forest fires, the floods, tried unsuccessfully to expel an Islamist hate preacher and traveled primarily to the overseas department of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Africa.

It seems that the minister relies on the strategy of his role model Nicolas Sarkozy: be hyperactive, show yourself on all fronts, preach toughness, flex your muscles and thus compete with the right-wing national „Rassemblement National“ with its unexpected success in the general elections. Polls show that a majority of voters are increasingly dissatisfied with Macron’s safety record. Frédéric Dabi, director of the polling institute Ifop: “Internal security is the Achilles heel of the government and the president.”

He left his party, the conservative Les Républicains, in 2017 to join Emmanuel Macron. He was one of the President’s hunting trophies, who thanked him for defecting with a post as Secretary of the Treasury. Two years ago he was promoted from finance to interior minister. Darmanin likes to emphasize that he is “socially left-wing and politically conservative”. In fact, the son of a single-parent in his northern French hometown of Turcoing successfully fought the right-wing nationalists with his line and made it to mayor in 2020. He wants to embody what he calls “people’s conservatism”.

He rejects accusations of promoting xenophobia, saying that half his family has Arabic first names. Gérald Moussa Darmanin, who takes his middle name from his grandfather Moussa Ouakid, likes to emphasize his mixed heritage and the heroic deeds of his grandfather, who fought for France’s freedom in World War II far from his native Algeria.

The waves of protest have died down and Darmanin’s shares are rising again. Only now has he joined the governing party, which is about to be renamed from La République en Marche (LREM) to Renaissance. Allegedly, Darmanin is to become deputy party leader.

During this summer, the Minister of the Interior has been advancing repressive avenues targeting immigrants. Many migrant communities see this as obstacles on the way to integration.

Darmanin presented, during numerous speeches, the measures that the government could bring together in a text which would be tabled in parliament in the coming months – the second devoted to migration policy since the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017. The latest law, which notably reduced the period during which a foreigner can file an asylum application and extended the possible period of confinement in a detention center, was adopted in September 2018.

“Today, a foreigner who has committed serious acts is not deportable as long as he meets certain conditions, such as arriving on national territory before the age of 13. I will be explicit: we want to allow the expulsion of any foreigner found guilty of a serious act by the courts, regardless of their condition of presence on the national territory”, Gérald Darmanin declared in an interview with the French Le Monde.

On July 20, Lyon police officers were trying to arrest a person. A video that went viral showed them being pushed back and attacked by a group of residents hostile to their presence. Four days later, a person was arrested in connection with these facts. In the public debate that followed, Darmanin announced that the accused would be expelled “on his order“, adding that “foreign delinquents have no place in France.” The man was exonerated a few hours later by the Lyon prosecutor’s office.

On July 26, Darmanin clarified his intentions. He said he wanted to remove “all the reservations that prevent the French state from expelling foreigners who are delinquents” and then announced a new law. The same day, he repeated his desire to legislate and said “to assume a form of double punishment” for foreign offenders, using a wording close to far right rhetorics.

“It’s ritual, each new government systematically makes a law on immigration, a legal expert on foreigners’ rights said. The double penalty already exists in reality. Among the “reservations” of which Darmanin speaks, there is in particular the situation of a foreigner married in France. “For us, the double penalty is a penalty from another age, which is discriminatory because it is based on nationality alone and unfair, preventing the reintegration of people”. The lawyer sees in these announcements a “stigmatization” of foreigners: “There is a political focus on repression and security logic as soon as it comes to immigration, but that has never reinforced the social cohesion and made societies better, it only increases tensions.”

On August 3, in an interview with Le Figaro, Darmanin was finally forced to back down on the timetable announced for this law. But the minister nevertheless announced that a major parliamentary debate will be organized on this subject in October, “with all the parties, the social partners, associations and representatives of civil society”.

No details have since been provided on the organizations that would be invited to this discussion. “I want to be in it! Do we have experience and solutions, do we talk about it?”, asked the head of a migrant NGO.

In another interview, Gérald Darmanin outlines the measures that could constitute the bill he wants to submit to parliament: expulsion decision pronounced by the administration “as soon as the asylum application is rejected”, extension of the duration of the obligations to leave French territory from one to three years, obtaining a residence permit conditional on “obtaining a certificate proving mastery of French and acceptance of the values of the Republic”. A reform that would anchor measures already in place, a lawyer explains: “Today a person who is refused asylum or the status of political refugee is already immediately notified to leave the French territory, so all that is nothing but a reform, except to make foreigners in an irregular situation even more precarious.“

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