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New French migrant law faces stormy debate in parliament

A migrant walks next to a row of tents installed on the banks of Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on 15 February, 2018. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

The new migrant law will be presented to French President Emmanuel Macron's cabinet on Wednesday ahead of parliamentary debates that promise to be stormy, with migrant charities and left-wingers blasting the bill as repressive.

Emmanuel Macron faces a difficult week as lawmakers weigh up a controversial bill that toughens France's stance on migrants, with even some of his own party reluctant to back it.

After France processed a record 100,000 asylum applications last year, Macron vowed to grant asylum faster but also to deport economic migrants more swiftly, while better integrating those who stay.

Staff at France's asylum court and the Ofpra refugee protection office are even set to strike Wednesday over a law that unions have blasted as "an unquestionable break with France's tradition of asylum".

"France has a long and admirable tradition of being welcoming. But the country isn't always in a position to live up to this tradition," his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Monday.

Philippe added that it is vital for newcomers to master the French language "without which there will never be successful integration".
'Normalising locking people up'

But his proposals are under fire from both sides, with the rightwing opposition Republicans party branding them "too timid" and NGOs saying they erode the rights of the vulnerable.

"We're asking for it to be withdrawn," said the Cimade charity which works with migrants.

"We're not even in favour of fighting for changes to the bill, because the philosophy behind it is just too repressive."

The ranks of Macron's own coalition, drawn from both the left and right, are also deeply split on one of the most divisive issues of his presidency so far.

The government has already had to abandon a controversial proposal to deport people to a third country deemed "safe".

And a separate law on taking in "Dublin" migrants -- those whose asylum claims are registered in other EU countries -- sparked a tense debate in parliament last week, with some among Macron's own ranks criticising it.

"We are in danger of normalising locking people up," said Florence Granjus, a member of Macron's Republic On The Move (LREM) party.
Crackdown on economic migrants
The law aims to cut the waiting time on asylum applications from 11 months to six, while help will be given to those wanting to go home.

Migrants will in future be put in detention centres for a maximum of 90 days -- double the current limit -- in a measure that has been particularly criticised by charities.

Tighter deadlines for different stages of the court process, making it more difficult to appeal a decision, have also prompted concern among activists and immigration lawyers.

"The bill is completely balanced," Interior Minister Gérard Collomb insisted last month. "It works on two guiding principles: France must welcome refugees, but it cannot welcome all economic migrants."

Collomb was due to unveil new measures alongside Philippe in the southeastern city of Lyon on Monday, aimed at better integrating new arrivals.

But the interior minister has come under fire in recent weeks after he ordered immigration agents to go into homeless shelters to check people's residency status.

Charities have taken the government to France's highest administrative court over the policy, which they say breaches people's right to seek shelter without fear of questions being asked.

- with AFP