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Emmanuel Macron’s more than two-hour defense of his position on French television on Wednesday, December 20, reflected the seriousness of the crisis shaking the presidential camp after the painful adoption of the divisive immigration bill. Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned and 59 members of the governing coalition did not vote for the text in the Assemblée Nationale. The law was hardened by the right and backed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen. This is Macron’s first major defection since his accession to the Elysée. It is all the more dangerous as it occurs in a situation of relative majority and risks leading to paralysis if it is not quickly contained.

Added to this crisis was a moral dimension that was particularly damaging to the image of both Macron himself and his political movement. Ever since his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, under pressure from the head of state, concluded negotiations with the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) party, the government has been accused by the left of adopting the ideas of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) instead of fighting them.

Read more Macron’s immigration law marks a political and moral rupture

Macron’s response on TV was twofold. At first, he took an offensive approach, asserting his methods to counter Le Pen, who had become his most dangerous opponent. It was important to “start from reality, deal with the problems that concern the French,” he argued, castigating the failure of his predecessors to “combat mass unemployment, deindustrialization and achieve integration.”

Contrary to what he did for his unpopular pension reform, the president used the polls that show public opinion supports a new immigration law. The text on immigration, which the opposition in the Assemblée Nationale did not want to debate, enjoys broad public support, he points out, at a time when legislation is being tightened across Europe.

Read more Article réservé à nos abonnés Immigration bill: The French government pitted the people against Parliament

His second approach was much more defensive. Acknowledging the deep malaise that has been expressed within the majority over this bill, Macron acknowledged that disagreements expressed within his own camp were “legitimate”, and admitted that he himself didn’t “like” all the provisions adopted. Some of the measures imposed by the right, such as limiting the right to obtain French citizenship for people born in France, or restricting access to social benefits for documented foreigners, effectively validate the vindictive rhetoric of the far right.

Backing away

Macron could have rejected them, but the text – which also includes provisions to facilitate border deportations, speed up asylum decisions and legalize a certain number of regularizations for jobs in short-staffed professions – would subsequently not have seen the light of day. In order to preserve what was important to him, the president preferred to let the right do its thing and then rely on the Constitutional Council to work out which provisions are constitutional or not. The decision to back away from an issue that touches on the values of the Republic is all the more problematic in that it will encourage both the right and the far right to intensify their crusade against the Constitutional Council, in the event of a partial invalidation.

Whatever its final wording, the immigration law, which came after the disputed pension reform, has cost the government a lot. Both the prime minister and the interior minister have emerged from the ordeal each as weakened as the other. The social-democrat wing of the majority, marginalized since Macron’s reelection, is in disarray. The rest of the troops are not fully fragmented yet, but they are looking for a mobilizing project to hold them together. In a hurry to turn the page on this crisis, Macron is nonetheless accountable for the risky choices he has made, in a political context that is getting rougher by the day.

Le Monde

Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.

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