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Emmanuel Macron’s government was dealt a humiliating defeat in the National Assembly as opposition parties united to block its long-promised immigration reform from coming to debate on the floor.
Lawmakers who usually have little in common — from the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) to the far-left France Insoumise (LFI) — banded together and used a last-minute parliamentary tactic to stop the draft law in its tracks just as its two-week long examination was to begin.
The surprising result does not necessarily kill the proposed immigration reform, but it is another reminder of how legislating has become much more difficult since Macron lost his parliamentary majority last year.
It is also a setback for interior minister Gérald Darmanin, who has spent months trying to rally enough votes from the conservative Les Republicains (LR) party to pass the law, and has made no secret of his ambitions to win higher office, such as prime minister.
Darmanin before the vote defended the government’s proposal as necessary and fair and said it would be incoherent for opposition parties to prevent a debate about a topic that the French public saw as a national priority.
After vote in the lower house of parliament, Darmanin said the government was studying how to salvage the draft and would not withdraw it as opposition parties had demanded.
“Strong measures need to be taken for police and gendarmes and the protection of the French,” Darmanin told TF1 television. He blasted the “alliance of opposites” he said had blocked the reform for “bitter political reasons”.
The motion to pre-emptively dismiss the draft law and stop the planned debate passed by 270 to 265 votes. Marine Le Pen’s far-right RN and the LR opposed it on the grounds that they felt the proposal was too soft and would encourage people to come to France illegally; the leftwing parties opposed it on grounds it was overly harsh.
Loud applause and cheers broke out on the opposition benches as the result was read out.
Opponents from both sides of the political spectrum called on Darmanin to resign. The minister said on TF1 that he had offered Macron his resignation but the president had refused it.
Macron’s government, under pressure from Le Pen’s resurgent far right and a hardening of public opinion on immigration, had touted the reforms as a fix for longstanding problems. It would tighten the asylum system, reduce the number of appeals applicants can make from 12 to two, require proficiency in French, and aim to improve France’s relatively poor record of removals.
But it also includes proposals, slammed by those on the right, to give work permits to undocumented people who are employed in sectors with labour shortages, such as construction and healthcare. It is an example of Macron’s en même temps — at the same time — policymaking slogan, and a reflection of how the French president has long sought to borrow ideas from the left and the right.
The government has several legislative avenues to try to save the reform, such as by convening cross-party committee of senators and MPs to hash out a compromise version or by reverting to an earlier and much harsher version passed by the French Senate, the upper house of parliament.
Éric Ciotti, LR leader, said his party would support the Senate bill: “We want to debate and adopt in its entirety without additions and changes, the Senate draft law.”
Le Pen said the vote was a much broader message to Macron’s government that should remind them they did not have a majority in parliament and had to negotiate with lawmakers as a result. She criticised their use of clause 49.3 of the constitution to override lawmakers as they had done on the unpopular pension reform this spring, saying their reliance on it had “made them forget” the weakness of their political hand.
“The government has today just realised that it’s truly in the minority,” she said.
She likened Macron’s government to a rodeo cowboy gripping on to a bucking bronco: “It’s not about going anywhere, it’s just about hanging on to the saddle.”