At the French Senate’s Judicial Committee hearing on Wednesday July 24, France’s new Interior Minister Manuel Valls signalled that the new Socialist government of President François Hollande intended making changes in French immigration law.
Appearing before the French Senate’s Judicial Committee on last Wednesday, France’s new Interior Minister Manuel Valls made it clear that France’s new Socialist government would reverse many of the changes in French Law as it applies to immigrants brought in by the previous administration of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Valls’ comments at the Judicial Committee hearing signalled that the Hollande government intends moving away from measures introduced by Sarkozy which many considered to be nothing more than an attempt to woo right-wing voters in France from France’s National Front Party (Front National), led by Marine Le Pen.
Valls criticised the immigration policies of the former French President as being “random and discriminatory,” reports France 24. In a move which was welcomed by a number of groups in France campaigning for the rights of immigrants, he also called for more objective procedures to be put in place for those applying for French citizenship. Valls hinted that revised procedures for those wishing to settle in France could be formulated without necessarily making immigration to France any easier.
France’s new Interior Minister likened immigration procedures introduced by the previous administration to a "random, discriminatory obstacle course” and expressed the view that immigration should, instead, be an “engine of integration.”
Under the Sarkozy government, procedures for those wishing to settle in France were changed in what the Socialists regard as a haphazard way. Up till 2010, all applications for French naturalisation went through a central processing system based in the city of Nantes, Loire-atlantique in western France. Under Sarkozy, central processing, and, with it, a uniform administrative treatment of immigration applications disappeared. Responsibility for dealing with immigration applications was given to local prefectures, French central government offices based in each French county-sized department. The change, claimed Valls, resulted in an inconsistent approach to the treatment of applications for immigration, with offices across France applying different standards.
The change also resulted in applications for French naturalisation dropping from 94,573 in 2010 to 66,273 in 2011. This arbitrariness is at the heart of the Socialist Party’s proposed changes. Valls referred to a new policy based on "two fundamental principles: objectivity and transparency," reports left-leaning French political journal Le Nouvel Observateur.
Hinting at what any new immigration standard might comprise, Valls said he wanted to, "put an end to any notion of bias and arbitrariness," asserting that obtaining French nationality "should be based on clear and objective criteria such as length of residence in France, family ties with France, children's schooling, employment situation, effectively everything pointing to the reality of an everyday life built in France."
Demographics to play a part
Valls' approach to the problem appears to recognise that France, in common with many other Western countries, is sitting on a demographic time-bomb, resulting from a combination of falling birth rates and greater longevity. He expressed concern that if the current trend continued immigration numbers in France would drop by 40% between 2011 and 2012 after falling 30% between 2010 and 2011. The minister stressed that "realism" was required as part of a review of French immigration policy, "taking into account the economic and social situation" of the country. Recognising the interconnection between immigration and economics in modern Western economies, the Minister announced, "A debate on the regulation of economic migration as a function of the needs of our country will become an annual feature of this Parliament.”
The Nationality Test
Valls also poured scorn on the co-called Nationality Test, a test on French culture and history, introduced by Claude Guéant, his predecessor as Interior Minister. This test, designed for immigrants with primary school level education, consisted of a number of multiple choice questions. Examples are: “Who do you associate with the Arc de Triomphe? a) Napoleon, b) General de Gaulle, c) Julius Caesar?; When did France finally abolish slavery? The choice of dates being 1848, 1918 or 1968.”
At the Senate Committee hearing Valls ridiculed the test suggesting that many “ministers and senators would find it difficult to answer some of the questions because they were so out of line,” adding that the test was "like a game show "
The Legislative Timetable
Without going into detail, Valls outlined the legislative changes in prospect. This autumn, a bill will be introduced to the French parliament to end the French crime of solidarité. Effectively, this put those voluntarily giving aid to illegal immigrants on the same footing as money launderers and criminals engaged in human trafficking. "French law should not punish those who, in good faith, want to extend a helping hand," said the minister, adding that, "This is not the way we do things in France. We try to address those issues through dialogue."
In the past, some French community activists had faced prosecution for having provided assistance to undocumented migrants.
Stage two of new legislation is likely to occur in the first half of 2013. This would create a multi-year residence permit for foreign (non-European Union) nationals in France. At present, most residence permits are issued for one year only before application has to be made for renewal. Valls wants a "less restrictive administrative framework. Difficulties in obtaining the renewal of a residence permit are factors that weaken economic instability and, ultimately, constitute an obstacle to integration."
The French minister said he believed that this reform could help between 50,000 and 60,000 resident foreign nationals in France avoid the administrative log-jam of having to make annual applications for renewal of residency permits whilst at the same time reducing public expenditure.
Cautious welcome from immigrant groups
Matthew Tardis, head of France Terre d'Asile, a Paris-based immigrant rights group, welcomed the new procedures. Speaking to France 24 he said, "It’s a step in the right direction, but we need more information and details. We need to limit the arbitrary nature of naturalisation procedures where local prefectures hold discretionary powers. The law must be the same for all. We need a clear framework."
Profile of Manuel Valls, France’s new Interior Minister
Manuel Valls may be particularly suited to his new task. Unlike many of France’s political elite, Valls did not make his way up the French political pole via the traditional route of France’s Grandes Ecoles, or, particularly, the French École nationale d'administration, from which many of France’s top civil servants and politicians have graduated. Instead, Valls is one of that rare breed of top French politicians who was not actually born in France. Another is Eva Joly, a leading member of France’s Green Party, who was the French Green Party (Mouvement écologique Europe Écologie Les Verts) candidate in the 2012 French presidential election.
49 year old Valls was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1962, the son of a Spanish artist father and a Swiss-Italian mother. Family connections with Barcelona are strong. His father’s cousin, Manuel Valls i Gorina, was a Catalan musician and composer, one of whose compositions was the Hymn of Barcelona football club. Today, France’s new Interior Minister remains one of Barcelona F.C.’s most ardent supporters.
Before being appointed Interior Minister in the first Cabinet of new French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Valls served as Mayor of the town of Évry, situated in the Paris commuter belt, from 2001 to 2012. In the last French presidential election, Valls participated in the primaries looking to become the candidate for the Parti Socialiste but was eliminated in the first voting round winning 6% of the vote. He then announced he was supporting the campaign of current French President François Hollande, becoming Hollande’s Director of Communications. Valls' deft handling of the Socialist campaign, fielding awkward press questions was reminiscent of former British Premier Tony Blair’s ‘right-hand man’ Alastair Campbell and earned Valls the moniker “Kommandant.”
Politically, Manuel Valls is considered to be on the right of France’s Socialist Party and more in line with the modern social democratic traditions of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Contrary to how France’s Socialist Party is portrayed in some sections of the media on the other side of the Atlantic, the French Parti Socialiste is not entirely populated by crypto-communists, indeed sometimes Valls has been described as ‘Blairite’ and ‘Clintonian.’