The Aquarius Challenge to France

The significance of different attitudes and policies on migration has been on my mind for some time. The anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions of the current occupant of the White House are deeply distressing – worse and worse, it seems, and without any end to the disregard of human rights and rejection of humanitarian standards. The impasse on reforming immigration laws in the US is aggravated by this erratic and inflammatory figure who happens to be President. But then comes Aquarius! And here we are in France, coping with yet another set of complexities (and barriers) to resolving the suffering of current migrant populations. Things are not so clear-cut, in either place, the US or France. But we start with our French vantage point before moving on to the broader picture.

The new coalition of populists and right wingers in Italy started this most recent crisis with an abrupt refusal to allow a ship named “Aquarius” carrying 629 refugees from North Africa to land at an Italian port – an NGO ship, by the way, flying a Dutch flag – which then found a willing government in Spain to welcome the refugees to the Spanish port of Valencia. This took at extra week because of weather-related rough seas in the Mediterranean, even redirecting the path up the coastline of Italy rather than directly across the sea to Spain, thereby passing right by the French island of Corsica. THREE ships actually ended up making the “flotilla” (since the overloaded Aquarius was enabled to offload and relieve the numbers on board by transferring many of them to accompanying ships) that finally sailed into Valencia.

One has to wonder why they didn’t just stop at one of the French ports in Corsica, but no one seemed to complain too much about this. The Corsican government apparently offered but had no authority, while the French government in Paris was not forthcoming. French President Emmanuel Macron eventually confirmed that the French would be willing to accept any “legitimate” applicant for asylum in France once they were all processed in Valencia – but not the whole shipload. The timing of the Spanish option benefited, to be sure, from yet another change in government, this time in Spain, where, in contrast to what has happened in Italy, the new government had just taken over from a right-wing coalition, swinging to a  significantly more left-learning one with an open-door approach on immigration.

As for the French role in all of this, President Macron did jump into the picture, even trying to play the role of a mediator, but he also seemed to be positioning himself on both sides. He actually criticized the Italians for being “irresponsible and unethical” in the Aquarius case, even as he reached out to meet with the new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. On the other hand, he has recently pushed through a domestic reform of asylum law that has been called the most repressive in French history!  He does appear to be playing to both left and right. And in reaching out to the EU where migration policy bumps into the open-borders Schengen agreement, he seems to be favoring a set of policies that are directed to some variation of border controls and closed detention centers for refugees at the point of entry into Europe (e.g. Italy). For the longer term, his proposal includes establishing processing centers under UN control for refugees in North Africa, while also creating an EU-level Office of Asylum Control to harmonize the policies and procedures for the external borders of the EU. It all looks like an effort to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, much like the current administration in the US is trying to do at its own borders.

Within France itself, there certainly are unique tensions associated with its culture of “laïcité” that are playing a role in this immigration crisis. “Laïcité” is a word that is typically translated into English as “secularism”. But from an American point of view, the French embrace of “laïcité” is quite different from the American culture of church/state separation. It includes things like the French hostility to displays of religious affiliations in public – no head scarves for schoolteachers, for example. But then there is this substantial Moslem population in France – some 6 million out of 65 million – with the challenge of discouraging any radicalization coming out of Islamic practices without endorsing religious practices in general, no matter how moderate. And it is also the case that a high proportion of migrants seeking asylum in Europe are from predominantly Islamic countries.

It is no surprise, then, that the French Interior Minister Bertrand Collomb has recently announced a national plan for “concertation” in every “dèpartement” of France on the subject of the future of Islam in France!  There are 96 of these administrative divisions in France itself, plus five in French territories overseas. For us, we are in the administrative unit called “Les Alpes-Maritimes”, which happens to be one of the départements with the highest concentration of Moslems. It is also a département that experienced one of the worst terrorist attacks by a radicalized Moslem some two years ago in Nice.

The proposed plan by Minister Collomb is for a dialogue to take place on the same day in every one of these administrative units, on 15 September, to “improve the struggle against radicalization”. Well, well, well. One has to wonder how this will unfold. Who besides Moslems will be brought into these dialogues? How public will they be? I look forward to monitoring all of this while also following both the EU-level negotiations and the ongoing debates in the US. And, oh yes and by the way, the UN is supposedly producing two new “Global Compacts”- one on Refugees and the other on the Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – by the end of the year. (Read more about these developments in my next blog on this subject.)

Meanwhile, the bigger issue in Europe seems to be what is happening in Germany. As we know, when there was a very dramatic upsurge in refugee flows in 2015, mostly from the Middle East, Chancellor Angela Merkel boldly opened the borders of her country. Over 1.5 million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016. This might have been a mistake, to take in so many so fast, since it did lead to an increase in anti-immigrant positioning there. The impact of that on the German elections in 2017 can be seen today in the fragility of the coalition she ultimately negotiated to stay in power. Even within her own CDU/CSU network, she has a “sniper” in the form of the anti-immigrant stance of this fellow Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s CSU, whom she had to accept as the new German Interior Minister. He wants to close down Germany’s borders to all refugees and is challenging Angela Merkel to come up with a better solution. It is entirely possible that this will force another election in Germany.

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