Youssouf Doucoure handed out flyers against tough French migration legislation under slate grey skies, as thousands of people poured into Paris’ elegant Trocadero Square on January 21 for a last-shot protest against the newly passed bill.
“I would say it’s more politicians,” said 25-year-old Doucoure, who hails from Mali, of an uptick of anti-migrant sentiment in the country. “Ordinary French treat me well here.”
The tens of thousands of French demonstrating this past weekend against hardening immigration policies toward asylum-seekers got a boost Thursday when France’s Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional authority, rejected large parts of the legislation, after being requested by President Emmanuel Macron to review it.
Among other measures it deemed contrary to the constitution: making it harder for immigrants to access welfare and bring their families here.
Still, migrant rights supporters here and across the European Union face a difficult road ahead, as a rising far right is helping to harden views and laws against undocumented migrants — whose 2023 numbers reached their highest level since the bloc’s 2015-2016 migrant crisis.
“We see in Europe at large a trend to focus more and more on border controls, checking, filtering the migrants, and sending the illegal migrants back,” said Eric Maurice, an analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre. “France is also aligned with the EU trend.”
European border agency Frontex reported some 380,000 illegal border crossings last year, a 17% jump from 2022. Syrians, Guineans and Afghans led the list of new arrivals. But Europe is less welcoming today than during the influx nearly a decade ago.
Even as countries like Hungary and Poland built border fences at the time, Germany took in nearly a million asylum seekers over 2015-16, many of them Syrians fleeing their war-battered homeland.
“We can do this,” the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel said at the time.
Today, successor Olaf Scholz offers sharply different rhetoric. While calling for more qualified and talented foreign workers, Scholz told Der Spiegel weekly that “too many” migrants were arriving.
“We must finally deport on a large scale those who have no right to stay in Germany,” he said in an October interview, calling for “more” and “faster” expulsions. Scholz spoke shortly after the poor performance of his coalition party in a pair of state elections that saw the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AdF party, scoring significant gains.
Populist, anti-immigration parties are similarly surging in other EU member states, from Italy, where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni came to power in 2022 promising to drastically cut the numbers of migrant boats landing, to the Netherlands, where the party of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders finished on top in November legislative elections.
Indeed, a new study by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank finds populist parties are likely to top the polls in June’s European Parliament elections in nine EU countries, including France — with a right-wing coalition potentially controlling the EU legislative body for the first time.
That possibility is shaping Macron's calculations, with a recent poll showing nearly one-third of French voters intend to vote for the right-wing opposition National Rally party — compared to 19% for Macron’s ruling Renaissance party.
Long in the making and counted on as a key plank for his second term in office, Macron’s immigration bill was hardened by the center-right that was essential to its December passage. Many moderate lawmakers affiliated with Macron’s party voted against the bill, and his health minister resigned.
But the far-right National Rally voted in favor. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, celebrated its passage as an “ideological victory.”
Among other things, the new legislation would make it harder for immigrants to get French legal papers and citizenship, consider undocumented migration a minor offense, demand foreign students pay a deposit to study here and strip French citizenships from dual nationals convicted of crimes. Polls show a strong majority of French citizens — 70% or more — support the legislation.
“There’s a real sense that France is transforming, and people don’t feel at home anymore,” said Jerome Vignon, migration specialist at the Jacques Delors Institute, a Paris-based think tank, explaining some of reasons behind the backing. Many French have a sense of a disorganized immigration, he added, marked by overflowing welcome centers and migrant boats arriving in Europe.
Soaring living costs, unrest in the country’s immigrant-heavy towns and the 2015-16 terror attacks in France have also fed negative public sentiments toward the newcomers, analysts say.
“I think it has to do with identity and a feeling of being lost,” said Maurice, of the European Policy Centre. “We have lots of questions — about where our social model is going, about a sense of purpose — and it’s easy for people to feel insecure.”
Such sentiments are echoed elsewhere in the EU, experts say, even as the bloc’s aging population and falling birthrates make the need for foreign workers more important than ever.
After months of negotiations, EU member states agreed in December to a deal reforming the bloc’s asylum and migration laws. Among other things, it would streamline the vetting of asylum seekers and more evenly share the burden of hosting migrants among member states. But it would also deport illegal migrants more quickly and set up border detention centers.
Supporters are hopeful EU member states and parliament will formally approve the pact in the coming months. Migrant rights groups have sharply criticized it, saying it will create a “cruel system.”
In France, too, critics say the new French migration bill collides with basic principles.
“It goes against our values of welcome and fraternity,” said museum guide Pierre Gentilleau, who joined Sunday’s protest in Paris. “It supports the extreme right. Diversity is necessary to live together.”
Doucoure, the Malian immigrant, agrees. He said he was born in France, but his parents returned to his homeland when he was an infant, before officially registering his birth — which would have given him French citizenship.
He returned to France as an adult, but his nationality demand was refused, he said. Today, he works illegally, borrowing French working papers from relatives living here.
Still, he is optimistic French laws will eventually tilt more favorably toward migrants.
“Of course,” Doucoure said.