(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Emmanuel Macron wants to “take back control” of immigration in France. At first glance, his government’s forthright language — and its aspirations for a system of numerical “quotas” similar to Canada’s or Australia’s — sounds a lot like the populist clarion call that won Nigel Farage the Brexit referendum.
There are differences, of course. This is about migration from outside the European Union, whereas Farage and his fellow Brexiters were angry about the U.K.’s lack of control over migrant numbers from eastern Europe. And Macron would no doubt say that he just wants the right level of immigration to meet the needs of the French economy. But he appears to have one eye too on trying to neutralize his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, who’s tied with Macron in the polls. It’s a political ploy that risks backfiring.
In 2018, non-Europeans accounted for about 256,000 French residency cards, or titres de sejour. That sounds huge, but the proposed quotas would only hit those moving explicitly for work, which was a small slice of the pie at about 33,500 last year. The rest are mainly students, family members, and asylum-seekers. And even though “quotas” sounds draconian, these ones look more like aspirational targets defined by corporate sectors. They’ll probably end up very close to current levels anyway.
As with the rest of the western world, France certainly needs immigration. By 2050 it will have about 9 million more over-65s than it did in 2013. Somebody will have to do the work to pay for that ageing population. Even in an economy where more than 2.5 million people are unemployed, there are jobs that go unfilled because of a shortage of skills or lack of interest from locals.
At the same time as talking tough, the Macron administration wants to double the number of foreign students to about 500,000 by 2027, remove the bureaucratic blocks to getting visas and attract engineering talent from China, India and the U.S. via flexible “tech visas.”
So it’s evident that talking up quotas is almost entirely political, a way of trying to pacify voters over the inevitable future upward trajectory of immigration. This isn’t just a French problem: Voter attitudes are hardening across Europe, with a 2018 Pew survey of 10 EU countries finding 51% on average wanted fewer migrants. Macron wants to nullify the populist threat on this issue.
So far at least, his effort to address blue-collar concerns doesn’t appear to be alienating his core white-collar support. An Elabe poll this week found 64% of French people were in favor of “economic migrant” quotas, with most support among center-right and centrist voters. Le Pen’s supporters were less impressed. She pointed out, not entirely unfairly, that Macron didn’t want to cut immigration at all.
Regardless of his actual intentions, Macron is playing a risky game. Right-wing opponents will accuse him of not going far enough, while tougher rhetoric on migrant workers would upset his urban base. His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy also tried to win support for immigration quotas in 2007, but his lurch rightward didn’t deliver a second term.
The U.K. example is instructive. Prime Minister David Cameron’s failed promise to cut net yearly migration to the “tens of thousands” led directly to the Brexit vote. Taking back control is an alluring promise to voters, but the cost of failure is high.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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