Macron has managed to spin the Immigration Bill in his own favour: The master tactician has made himself sound tough but reasonable

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You have to hand it to Emmanuel Macron. Few heads of state, faced with the rejection of an emblematic bill in the National Assembly, only to see it pass in the recast version of their political adversaries at the Senate, causing resignation threats from seven of his own ministers (one eventually did step down), would be capable of selling the whole process as a political success.

That the French President, the day after the vote, managed to hold his own on the Immigration Bill in a two-hour long-television interview by zig-zagging flamboyantly between hard-Left and hard-Right talking points is evidence that he may be light on actual substance, but he can be a superlative spin doctor when his back is to the wall.

Depending on how you read the text produced earlier this week by Parliament, France has enacted a “cruel, absurd, xenophobic” text that “shames the Republic” (Jean-Luc Mélenchon), or a “pointless charade that will not slow down the arrival of a single migrant” (Eric Zemmour).

Overburdened by amendments, the law is heavy on administrative tweaks and pretend dogwhistles  — to take but one instance, Jus Solis, the principle that being born on French territory, even to two non-French parents, makes you French, has not been cancelled, as heavy criticism from the Left might lead one to believe (therefore burnishing Macron’s credentials with the conservative electorate); the law now simply requires that you formally request French nationality between the ages of 16 and 18, a provision that already existed in the 1990s.

If you think this is a very technical point to wrangle about (and there are many, many more), you’re missing the point: this complex game of hunt the slipper is not a bug but a feature.

Alarmed by the successive victories of anti-immigration parties in Europe, from Denmark to Italy to the Netherlands, not to mention the third re-election of his unlikely friend, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (the two regularly speak on the telephone), Emmanuel Macron wanted to seem active on the question, without actually changing much.

“There are two main ways of putting the brakes effectively on new immigration to France,” a Préfet who’s had to contend with regular arrivals in his département tells me.

“One is to stop Jus Solis altogether. It’s not an EU requirement, and you only have to consider the tens of thousands of heavily pregnant women who move into, for instance, Mayotte or Guyana in order to give birth to French children to realise how the law is being abused.”

“The other is to stop family reunification, which sounds benign and is an EU legal requirement, but is abused by people who never mean to integrate in French society rather than recreating their traditional family structures. This bill provides neither.”

French polls are no different from the rest of the continent’s: only last month, after a second teacher was killed by an Islamist former pupil who was under a legal expulsion order from the country (both murderers were Chechens), two thirds of the population answered a resounding Yes to the question of whether there were too many immigrants in the country.

You’d think actually strengthening measures against illegal immigration would be a no-brainer.

Yet each of the Macronistas who carried the initial text — Home Secretary Gérald Darmanin, a former Sarkozy hardline protégé; PM Elisabeth Borne, a lifelong Socialist technocrat; Renaissance party parliamentary leader Aurore Bergé, once a promising Républicain party maverick — each had a different political and personal agenda; so that the Bill was a dog’s breakfast of contradictory intentions and measures.

This should not have come as a surprise: Emmanuel Macron was first elected in 2017 on a post-politics platform in which he declared the political notion of Left and Right to be passé.

Having cherrypicked compatible personalities from both the Républicain and Socialist parties, he coined the “en même temps” (at the same time) slogan: modern politics would no longer be about overarching principles, but ad hoc answers, at the same time from the Right and from the Left.

What started out as a selfless technocrat’s reasonable compromise spirit  was, predictably, soon reduced to mere opportunism, unhampered by convictions, as the new president alternately tacked port and starboard, attempting to keep every constituency happy.

Renaissance, Macron’s party, enjoyed a comfortable majority during his first term. This ended with the 2022 elections: it remains the largest group in the National Assembly, but needs to forge coalitions for every new vote, while the Senate remains functionally on the Centre-Right.

In this more unstable situation, the hitherto shell-shocked remnants of the Vieux Monde started taking heart again. Meanwhile, cracks started appearing within Renaissance itself: the Immigration Bill tore them apart. The seven ministers who toyed with resignation all came from the supposedly defunct Left. (Macron, who bears grudges, has the names of the six who have kept their portfolios for now; watching them backpedal the morning after the final vote negotiations was entertaining, as all swore they never meant it.)

Even watered-down, the Immigration Bill was eventually voted for by the 88 National Rally MPs, ensuring its success. “This is an imperfect law, but it should be voted, because it finally acknowledges our concerns with protecting French citizens: it’s an ideological victory,” said Marine Le Pen, with a smile showing she definitely intended blowing the kiss of death from Goldfinger to the Macronistas across the aisle.

An Odoxa poll taken the day after the vote confirmed that the Bill — any Bill — is popular with a wide majority in France.

72 per cent agree with its major points, including one reducing the length of foreigners’ work permits for hard-to-fill jobs (which initially was supposed to ease access to an immigrant workforce in a number of areas like catering, construction, sanitation, basic healthcare). 68 per cent say they are personally satisfied with the vote. 55 per cent consider the Bill is a victory for Marine Le Pen, against 25 per cent who think it is a win for Emmanuel Macron.

Le Président had not yet performed his televised dance of the seven veils at the time the Odoxa poll was taken. As an example of snatching victory from the jaws of disaster, it was superbly shameless: the Bill, he said, was actually “a defeat for Marine Le Pen”.

The moderation of its measures would “shield the French” from the National Rally excesses. Furthermore, he disagreed with some provisions of it, and would take them up to the Constitutional Council and the Council of State to request they be stricken  down.

“He was not so much trying to reach the public”, the political scientist Arnaud Benedetti said, “as to getting his troops, and his usual media supporters, to regroup”.

By Thursday, Macron had made significant inroads among political Twitter/X, which was initially negative. Some big account holders even recanted publicly. Whether it works with the French in the real world remains to be seen.