French and Corsican officials strike deal in ‘decisive step’ towards island’s autonomy

France’s government and Corsican elected officials have agreed on the wording of a proposed constitutional revision granting the île de Beauté (Island of Beauty) a special status, six months after President Emmanuel Macron broke a longstanding French taboo on the subject of autonomy for the island scarred by decades of conflict with Paris. 

Half a century after the start of Corsica’s armed nationalist struggle, the Mediterranean island inched closer to autonomy in the early hours of Tuesday as officials hammered out a deal on a proposed constitutional revision after marathon talks at the interior ministry in Paris.  

The draft text provides for the “recognition of an autonomous status” for Corsica “within the (French) Republic”, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told reporters following the talks. It meets a six-month deadline set by Macron during a visit to the island last year, when he became the first French president to openly endorse “a form of autonomy” for Corsica.   

Corsica’s proposed new status, the draft reads, “takes into account its own interests linked to its Mediterranean insularity, (and) to its historical, linguistic and cultural community, which has developed singular ties to its land.”

Both sides also agreed that “laws and regulations can be adapted” on the island, under the supervision of France’s top courts, Darmanin added, pointing to a form of legislative power for Corsican officials, the scope of which will be detailed in a forthcoming “organic law”.  

The interior minister said that registered voters in Corsica would be consulted on the plan. So will the island’s regional assembly in Ajaccio, which is currently dominated by nationalists, some of whom advocate full independence from France.   

The head of the Corsican regional government Gilles Simeoni (right) and other Corsican officials arrive for late-night talks at the Interior Ministry in Paris on March 11, 2024. © Julien De Rosa, AFP

Speaking shortly after the minister, Gilles Simeoni, a moderate nationalist and the head of Corsica’s regional administration, hailed a “decisive step” on the path to autonomy.   

“The principle of a legislative power, submitted to oversight from the Constitutional Council, has clearly been accepted,” he said, acknowledging that both sides still needed to spell out how devolved powers would operate.  

“We’re in the semi-finals,” Simeoni added. “We still need to win the semi-final – and then the final.”   

Corsican ‘community’ or ‘people’? 

Corsican nationalists, who include both separatists and advocates of autonomy, have long clamoured for greater powers for the island, which has been part of France since it was purchased from its Genoese rulers in 1768. Their demands include official recognition of the Corsican language, which is closer to Italian dialects than French, as well as protection from outsiders buying up their land.   

Such topics remain highly sensitive in France, where politicians routinely tout the need to protect the country’s unity and national identity, harking back to the oft-quoted Jacobin slogan from 1793: “The Republic is one and indivisible”.  

In that respect, the push for Corsican autonomy signals a major shift for both the Mediterranean island and France’s Fifth Republic, says Thierry Dominici, a political analyst and Corsica expert at the University of Bordeaux in southwest France, for whom the government’s willingness to devolve limited powers to Ajaccio is in step with the decentralisation witnessed elsewhere in Europe.  

The draft text agreed on Tuesday “involves recognising a Corsican cultural specificity and, more concretely, granting the island the power to adapt legislation to its specific needs”, he said, noting that some of France’s overseas territories in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans already enjoy specific statuses and powers.  

“This evolution demonstrates that the Fifth Republic need not be as centralised, nor as Jacobin, as is commonly assumed,” he added. “Even France’s unitary state is slowly leaning towards a form of decentralisation, like Spain, Italy and the UK.” 

However, granting Corsica a special status in the French constitution will require the backing of both the National Assembly and the Senate, as well as a three-fifths majority in the combined chambers – making it a tall order for Macron’s minority government, which controls neither house of parliament.   

The far-right National Rally party has already pledged to reject the move, accusing Macron of attempting to “deconstruct the French nation”. As for the conservative Les Républicains, which dominate the Senate, they are traditionally at loggerheads with Corsican nationalists and are reluctant to devolve power to autonomist movements.  

Seeking to head off their opposition, Darmanin stressed that the draft text “does not separate Corsica from the Republic”, makes no mention of a Corsican “people”, and does not grant the Corsican language official status on a par with French. But his arguments were quickly dismissed.   

“Recognising a ‘historic, linguistic and cultural community’ effectively means recognising a Corsican people,” Bruno Retailleau, the head of Les Républicains in the Senate, wrote in a post on X, describing the draft text as a “dangerous step” for the country. “If it is accepted, this proposal will lead to similar demands from other regions and will lead to the break-up of France,” added Jean-Jacques Panunzi, a conservative senator from southern Corsica.  

Ghosts of nationalist struggle 

Dominici voiced greater optimism about the text’s prospects in parliament, playing down suggestions from some quarters that the bid for Corsican autonomy may have been set up to fail.  

“Macron has crossed a Rubicon by backing autonomy and recognising Corsican language and culture,” he said. “It is unlikely he would have done so without some degree of confidence in the numbers.”  

The Corsica analyst noted that some critics of autonomy had been more guarded in their response, suggesting they may yet be persuaded to back the proposal. They include Jean-Martin Mondoloni, the head of the conservative opposition in the Corsican regional assembly, who reiterated his misgivings about the text on Tuesday, though adding: “I am not going to take on the role of executioner”.  

Like Macron, Mondoloni will be keenly aware of the potential consequences of killing off the push for autonomy on an island blighted by past unrest.   

The need to address Corsica’s complaints became all too urgent in 2022 when rioting swept across the territory following a fatal prison attack on Corsican militant nationalist Yvan Colonna, who was serving a life sentence for the 1998 assassination of prefect Claude Érignac, the French state’s top official on the island.  

Read morePrison attack on Corsican nationalist reopens old wounds on restive French island

Colonna’s five years on the run – hiding as a shepherd in the Corsican scrubland long romanticised as a hideout for patriots and bandits – had turned him into a symbol of the island’s defiance towards the French state, and his death in custody triggered a furious response.  

Protesters rally in the town of Corte,  a bastion of Corsican nationalism, following a violent attack on jailed pro-independence activist Yvan Colonna.
Protesters rally in the town of Corte, a bastion of Corsican nationalism, following a violent attack on jailed pro-independence activist Yvan Colonna. © Pascal Pochard-Casabianca, AFP

Thousands of protesters marched through towns and cities across the island, holding up banners that read Statu Francese Assassinu (“The French state is an assassin”) and I Francesi fora (“Out with the French”). Youths clashed with police and targeted French symbols, fanning fears of a return to the violence and bloodshed that scarred the island from the 1970s to the turn of the century.  

“The pro-independence camp has since demilitarised, but it has not vanished,” said Dominici, highlighting the risk that disgruntled youths take matters into their own hands if officials fail to address the island’s longstanding concerns.   

“The threat is real,” he warned. “If the constitutional process fizzles out, there is a real danger of a return to violence.” 

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Why French farmers are up in arms: fuel hikes, green regulation, EU directives

French farmers have engaged in a standoff with the government to express anger over a perceived lack of respect, rising costs and suffocating EU regulation. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal seeks to calm the protesters while the far-right National Rally hopes to take advantage of their anger, just five months before the European elections.

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France’s farmers are angry with their government. Several dozen of them have been blocking a portion of the A64 highway near Toulouse since January 18 to express their anger. Then an explosion between Thursday and Friday night blew out the windows of a local government building in the nearby city of Carcassonne. Two graffiti tags left at the scene attributed the act to a mysterious collective of winemakers.

“It is not insignificant that this [the protest movement] comes from the south of the country,” said François Purseigle, a sociology professor at the French agronomy faculty of the Toulouse Institute of Technology. “Farmers are on the frontline of climate change, with successive droughts taking place, and they have been repeatedly told they are not doing enough for the environment.”   

Read moreCan technological fixes solve France’s water crisis amid record droughts?

Surprised by the farmers’ blockades, France’s government announced a delay of “several weeks’” for reforms announced over a year ago to help farmers. The stakes are high: France lost 20% (101,000) of its farms between 2010 and 2020, according to a recent survey.

“Many young people today prefer to avoid self-employment because they would earn less than a farm employee, and this should not be the case,” said Yohann Barbe, a cattle farmer in the Vosges department in northeastern France. Successive governments have been struggling to stop the phenomenon. “Nearly 200,000 farmers will be of retirement age by 2026, but there are not enough buyers [to take over their farms],” said Purseigle. “There is a gap between Macron’s speech on ‘civic rearmament’ and the reality of farmers who feel completely disarmed.”

‘We can’t expect farmers to shoulder the ecological transition’

The vulnerabilities of farmers are increasing day by day. “Emmanuel Macron made a great speech on agriculture during a meeting at Rungis International Market in 2017, but never acted upon it. We’re fed up,” Barbe said.

Protesters say their movement, which originated in the southwest, is bound to spread nationwide, especially if the government does not quickly respond to their grievances. These include the government’s move to increase taxes on agricultural diesel, a polluting fuel, used by farmers, that has long benefited from government tax breaks. The move will directly affect the sector’s production costs.

Read moreFrench politicians attempt to appease angry farmers ahead of European elections

Farmers are also denouncing non-compliance with a law passed in 2018 which guarantees that hikes in production costs be covered by the agrifood chain through trade negotiations. 

“I sell my milk to Savencia (an agribusiness group), even though I don’t even know how much milk will cost on February 1, because we didn’t reach an agreement with them in December,” said Barbe, who is also a member of the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (FNSEA). In another example, the 2018 law required 20% of the food distributed in canteens to be organic by 2022, but the threshold is still stagnating at around 6%, according to the French newspaper Les Echos. “We can’t expect farmers to shoulder the ecological transition by themselves,” said Barbe.

The European Union targeted

Also jarring to farmers are the mounting environmental standards put on agricultural production. They point out that the frequent transposition of European directives make national standards even stricter than European standards. “We are not against more supervision, but we need compensation on prices,” said Barbe. This comes at the risk of losing to foreign competition. France imported more than one chicken out of two consumed in 2022 from abroad (notably, from Belgium, Poland and Brazil).

The farmers are also holding the European Union itself responsible for their situation. With a budget of €53.7 billion for the 2023-2027 mandate, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) implements a system of agricultural subsidies and other programmes. Farmers describe it as dysfunctional. “For the first time, the CAP subsidies have still not yet been paid to all our farmers in 2023. Several farmers are having problems with their bank or their suppliers, who they weren’t able to pay as a result,” said Barbe.

Anger over European regulations grows among French farmers

The far-right National Rally did not hesitate to use this anger against Brussels to launch its campaign for the European elections in June. Jordan Bardella, chief of the National Rally, spent last Sunday with workers on the wine-growing lands of Médoc.

“The European Union and the Europe of Macron (want) the death of our agriculture,” said Bardella. “French farmers are exposed to unfair competition from products from around the world which don’t respect the strict standards that they (French producers) have to observe,” he added.

For Purseigle, the farmers’ anger will be a major theme in the coming European elections. “If they have succeeded in one area, it is in putting agricultural issues on the political agenda,” he said. The newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal also rushed to the Rhône department in east-central France on Saturday before receiving the FNSEA and the Young Farmers Union Monday in an effort to calm the discontent. “Politics is also about responding to emotions,” Purseigle noted.

As for the farmers, they have already announced they won’t hesitate to block Paris and disrupt the Paris International Agricultural Show, which begins on February 24, if the government ignores their demands.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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How Gabriel Attal became France’s youngest-ever prime minister

After a swift rise up the ranks, 34-year-old Gabriel Attal took the reins as France’s new prime minister on Tuesday. With a background steeped in privilege, the first openly gay head of government is expected to bring new energy to President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which has been weakened by months of protests over pension reform, the lack of a parliamentary majority and low approval ratings.

Macron is relying on Attal to rejuvenate his government, in part, with an appeal to a younger demographic of voters who have become disillusioned, notably ahead of crucial EU parliamentary elections in June. 

Gabriel Attal’s most pressing task will be to ensure that Macron’s unpopular government is in position to outperform the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, who continues to gain ground on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform.  

As elsewhere in Europe, France‘s far right has benefitted from a global cost-of-living crisis, immigration woes and simmering resentment towards a political class – and a president – seen as out of touch. Macron’s confidence rating among the public dropped another point in January to 27 percent, according to a monthly Elabe poll for “Les Echos” business newspaper.

The same day that Attal took office, a leading Macron ally warned that Europe risks becoming “ungovernable” as gains by far-right parties in EU elections threaten to weaken the fabric of European integration.

Confirming his choice of Attal in a post on X, Macron addressed the young outgoing education minister directly, saying he knows he can count on Attal’s “energy and commitment” to bring back the spirit of “excellence and audacity” from 2017, when the president first took office.  

Under the French political system, the prime minister is the head of government, in charge of implementing policy and managing government ministers.  

But some heavyweight government figures aren’t happy about the dazzling rise of a man known among fellow ministers as “young Gabriel”.  

His combative stance runs contrary to that of his predecessor Élisabeth Borne, 62,  whose austere demeanour was respected among colleagues but made her averse to rapid-fire soundbite politics. Borne stepped down on Monday after serving less than two years in office as France’s second female prime minister.  

By coming into politics at such a young age, Attal has drawn inevitable comparisons to Macron himself, who became France’s youngest-ever president at the age of 39. The youngest previous prime minister was Laurent Fabius, named head of government by François Mitterand in 1984 at age 37.  

French media have suggested that Attal could succeed Macron when he reaches the end of his second term in 2027. He has already proven to be one of the most ambitious ministers in government despite his relative inexperience.  

Read moreMacron’s action plan ‘rings hollow’ as critics take to the streets banging pots and pans

A popular figure with a privileged background 

It took Attal only a little over a decade to rise from an internship in the health ministry to the second-highest office in the French republic.  

Born in the southern suburb of Clamart in 1989, Attal grew up in Paris with three younger sisters. His father, Yves Attal, was a successful film producer of Tunisian-Jewish descent who passed away in 2015. His mother, Marie de Couriss, also worked in the film industry and is from an Orthodox Christian family from Odesa.    

Attal attended the École alsacienne, a private school in the heart of Paris, and later graduated from the prestigious Sciences Po university. At age 17 he joined the Socialist Party and supported its then presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, in the 2007 presidential election.  

Marisol Touraine, a former health minister under François Hollande and the mother of one of his classmates, offered Attal a job in 2012 that led to a full-time position in the ministry at the age of 23. While in that post, Attal also served as a local councillor in Vanves, a municipality in the southwest suburbs of Paris.  

Attal was one of the first to leave the Socialist Party to join Macron’s nascent “En Marche!” movement in 2016 and was elected to the National Assembly (France’s lower house of parliament) one year later in 2017. 

He became a deputy minister of education at 29, the youngest member of government ever under the post-war Fifth Republic. During the Covid-19 pandemic that took 166,176 lives in France, Attal was appointed government spokesperson by former PM Jean Castex and quickly became a household name.   

While serving as a junior minister in the budget office between 2022 and 2023, Attal defended Macron’s hugely controversial pension reform bill. Then in July 2023, he was appointed education minister, one of the most high-profile and politically sensitive cabinet positions. 

Read morePension reform poses biggest challenge to Macron’s legacy as a reformer

Tensions at French public schools have been rising in recent years, with cases of violence between students and teachers prompting intense national debate. Last month, a 12-year-old schoolgirl threatened a teacher with a kitchen knife at a school in northern France. In October, a radicalised Islamist student stabbed his former teacher to death. And in a case that shocked the nation and elicited an outpouring of grief, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history and geography professor, was attacked and beheaded by another radicalised student in a Paris suburb in October 2020.

Having experienced bullying himself while at school, Attal promised to make tackling bullying a priority after a series of student suicides made headlines in recent years. He has joined forces on this issue with First Lady Brigitte Macron, who has a strong interest in the subject as a former teacher herself.  

His most controversial move came less than two months into the job, when he banned pupils from wearing abayas, the long robes worn by some Muslim women and girls. Seen as a challenge to France’s secular values, the ban prompted a wave of fury across the country. Critics argued the loose garment did not constitute an “ostentatious” display of religion (banned in French schools since 2004) and shouldn’t be forbidden. The move earned him a popularity boost among many right-wing voters, despite Attal himself hailing from the left.  

Attal is France’s first openly gay prime minister and is in a civil partnership with Stéphane Séjourné, a 38-year-old MEP and secretary general of Macron’s ruling Renaissance party. Attal was outed when an old classmate published a book in 2018 while he was serving as junior minister at the education ministry during Macron’s first mandate.  

Attal is the most popular figure in government, with more than a third of poll respondents backing his possible appointment as prime minister in an Odoxa survey published last week. “Youth, public opinion and the real or potential capacity to lead the European election campaign made the difference” in the choice, a source close to the presidency told AFP. 

A wider government reshuffle is expected this week as Macron looks to fine-tune his team for the last three years of his presidency.  

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France’s undocumented migrants face uncertain future under new immigration law

Despite facing serious labour shortages, the French government passed a more restrictive immigration bill this week after watering down measures that would have streamlined the legalisation of foreign workers. But some of the law’s new provisions may still offer a glimmer of hope for the country’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants. 

Until it became unstuck, the sticking point – as far as France’s right wing was concerned – for the Macron government’s sweeping immigration bill was how to deal with the country’s undocumented migrants.

In presenting the bill’s initial text a year ago, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt included provisions making it easier to legalise undocumented migrants working in sectors with labour shortages. But representatives from Marine Le Pen‘s far-right National Rally party repeatedly stated they would not endorse legislation granting undocumented workers legal status. 

After the language of the bill was significantly weakened in a joint committee, Le Pen saw an opening for a strategic victory and changed course; it passed the National Assembly (lower house) on Tuesday with Le Pen’s endorsement.

While it does not go as far as the original text, the new law gives undocumented workers in high-demand occupations a path to obtaining residency permits. Speaking a day after the law was passed, Darmanin said he expects the number of legalisations (régularisations) to double, with “ten thousand additional foreign workers each year“.

At the same time, the law will make it more difficult – and more risky – for undocumented workers in France: a law abolished by former president François Hollande that allowed police to fine foreigners up to €3,750 if they are found to be in the country unlawfully has been reintroduced. The bill also steps up sanctions against companies employing illegal workers.

Sans papiers

The number of undocumented workers, or what the French call the “sans papiers” (without papers), is impossible to calculate. Darmanin himself estimates the number to be between 600,000 and 900,000.

Amadou* moved to France from Mali on a work visa in 2001 (overstaying a legal visa is the most common path to becoming an undocumented migrant in Europe).

Finding work has never been a problem. He has primarily worked in the hospitality sector and in retirement homes – he currently works at a restaurant in Paris’s 7th arrondissement (district). “I’ve been working in France for 19 years without a holiday, without any sick days or absences,” he says.

Amadou first applied for working papers – to no avail – in 2012. The second time he applied, in 2018, he was denied because he didn’t have children or a partner to support. Since then, despite help from his employer, he has been unable to get another meeting.

Amadou belongs to an association that supports undocumented migrants in Montreuil, a suburb just east of Paris. He often participates in protests but realises he and people like him are largely powerless. “I’d like to get my papers but, considering it’s [the politicians] who decide, we are not their priority,” he says.

France’s right-wing Les Republicains party and the far-right National Rally are reluctant to endorse a path towards legalisation because they believe migrants choose France for its advantageous social system. Therefore, the logic goes, making life difficult for migrants will prevent more migrants from coming – an idea that has no grounding in research.

Read moreMacron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with stricter immigration law

By contrast, studies have found that legalising migrants has positive macroeconomic and fiscal outcomes in developed countries.

Citing research from the Institute of Labour Economics, French economist Pierre Cahuc argued for the significant advantages that legalisation can have on a country’s economy in the French financial daily Les Echos.

“It is a crucial factor to take into account in the context of low growth and an ageing population,” Cahuc said. “From a purely fiscal standpoint, legalisation could also have a positive impact since declared work generates income for the state coffers.”

Violaine Carrère, a lawyer at Gisti, an immigrant information and support group, agrees. “When you are on a payroll, you pay into social security. And with a real salary, you can spend more.” 

Not only does it benefit the economy, Carrère says, becoming legal enables migrants “to integrate fully and lead a dignified life”.

“Staying stuck, working all the time – it’s not a life that many people would want to live,” says Amadou.

“Everyone wants to be happy, have a good life, a roof and a family. If you’re a sans papier it’s all out of reach.”

Labour shortages

Under French President Emmanuel Macron, unemployment has fallen to 7.4% of the workforce, the lowest level in more than a decade. He has pledged to continue this mission, pushing for full employment (which the country’s labour organisation considers to be 5%).

At the same time, eight out of 10 professions in France saw labour shortages in 2022, according to the Directorate for Research, Studies and Statistics (Direction de l’Animation de la recherche, des Études et des Statistiques). This increased from seven out of 10 in 2021 due to France’s ageing population and a wave of resignations.

Targeting low domestic unemployment rates while seeking a concurrent increase in migrant labour might seem contradictory. But it is simply not possible to make up for France’s worker shortfalls with a supply of domestic labour that is mostly young – some 17% of French youth are unemployed, significantly higher than the EU average. 

Research is focusing on three central reasons for this, says migration policy analyst Anna Piccinni. The first and second are skill disparities and remuneration: much of the increasingly qualified youth are not motivated by low-skilled jobs, especially if the salary level is not what they expect.

Piccinni’s third reason is that labour shortages are often localised and migrants offer a more mobile labour force – filling the gaps that non-migrant workers might be unable or unwilling to fill. “Often, shortages of low-skilled labour are not in urban areas, where the youth move for their studies and then stick around for jobs,” she says. “Migrants have the potential to fill these gaps.”

Indeed, she points out that many municipalities across Europe are now creating incentives to retain migrant populations – such as Altena, a small town in Germany known for its successful integration scheme.

This point has not been lost on France’s business community. Speaking to Radio Classique in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, Patrick Martin, who heads the French entrepreneurs’ union, said relying on a foreign labour force is necessary for the country.

“We are already experiencing enormous recruitment pressure,” Martin said. “We have to call a spade a spade and make a choice” to allow a larger immigrant workforce.

For Piccinni, this cannot be achieved without fewer bureaucratic hurdles for issuing work permits to migrants who have already demonstrated a commitment to participating in the economy. “This has to be part of the solution,” she says.

Even the most anti-immigration governments in Europe are doing this, she points out. Georgia Meloni’s government in Italy signed a decree in March allowing 82,000 non-EU migrant workers to work in the country because of seasonal labour shortages.

“Beyond the perception of migration as a threat to social cohesion and security, some governments are aware and willing to recognise the role it has in [fulfilling] employers’ needs,” Piccinni says.

* Not his real name

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Macron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with passage of stricter immigration law

French President Emmanuel Macron is under renewed fire after urging his minority government to vote for a strengthened immigration bill that was endorsed by the far right. The late Tuesday vote, which divided Macron’s coalition MPs and prompted his health minister to resign a day later, was heralded by far-right leader Marine Le Pen as an “ideological victory” upon its passage. 

In a speech following his April 2022 re-election, Emmanuel Macron was well aware he owed his victory to left-leaning voters who considered him the lesser of two evils as he faced off a challenge from Marine Le Pen. “I know that many of our compatriots voted for me not to support the ideas I represent but to block those of the far right,” he acknowledged.

Less than two years later, Macron is facing criticism that he betrayed those same constituents by aligning with the far right after his minority government helped pass an immigration law that was heavily influenced by the right-wing Les Républicains party and supported by the far-right National Rally.

Soon after it was passed, the law was heralded by far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen who proclaimed an “ideological victory”.

Macron and members of his government rejected that assessment in a round of interviews on Wednesday.  

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told France Inter she felt a “sense of duty fulfilled” after the adoption of the immigration law. Faced with strong criticism from the left, NGOs and even within her own government, Borne insisted that the law “respects our values”.

‘Préférence Nationale’

The immigration law includes several measures inspired by the National Rally’s policy platform. For example, access to certain social benefits will be conditional on a longer period of legal residence in France.

What’s more, sanctions against companies employing undocumented workers will be stepped up.

Measures like these and others concern critics who say the Macron government has accepted policies affiliated with an ideology of “préférence nationale” – policies that legitimise discrimination against foreign nationals in favour of French citizens concerning access to employment, housing and social protections.

“This law does not encompass the entirety or even the majority of Marine Le Pen’s presidential programme, but some of her policies – especially regarding national preference – certainly made the cut even if the law does not go as far as the National Rally wants,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on the far right and the director of the Observatoire des Radicalités Politiques.

“It’s an exaggeration to talk about an extreme-right text – I would call it instead a ‘hard-right’ text – but we are still opening the door to national preference. We are not fully there, but the door is ajar,” says Caroline Janvier, an MP from Macron’s Renaissance party who voted against the immigration law on Tuesday. 

‘Kiss of death’

It is precisely the addition of national preference policies that tipped the vote on Tuesday night.

Until the mid-afternoon, representatives from the National Rally repeatedly stated they would not endorse the bill, deeming it impossible to approve a text that grants undocumented workers legal status. But seeing the possibility of a strategic victory on the issue of national preference, Le Pen reversed course.

“One can rejoice in an ideological victory … national preference is now inscribed in law, meaning the French will have an advantage over foreigners in accessing certain social benefits,” Le Pen said on Tuesday.

Janvier described Le Pen’s endorsement as the “kiss of death” – a “political move” to make Macron’s government look complicit with the far right in the eyes of left-leaning constituents.

National Rally members were not the only ones pleased by Tuesday’s vote. “There was a kind of jubilation among MPs from Les Républicains over having chipped away at a taboo: that of equality between French and foreigners,” said Camus. “For them, this means that the cultural hegemony of the left has begun to crumble. Beyond the immigration issue, a moral taboo has been broken.”

But Camus said the party’s hopes of luring away far-right supporters are likely in vain. “Les Républicains continue to pursue a strategy of undermining the National Rally by hijacking their policy platform. The only problem is that this strategy doesn’t work. The National Rally continues to rise in the polls,” he said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and the founder of National Rally predecessor the National Front, may have said it best: “Voters always prefer the original to the copy.” 

Victory by ‘background noise’

Macron could have prevented this shift by choosing, in the face of Les Républicains demands, to withdraw the bill and start from scratch. But he deemed it preferable to go through with the vote, even if it meant dividing his coalition.

In total, 27 MPs in the government’s coalition voted against the bill that passed while 32 abstained. Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned from his role in protest the following day.

Borne insisted on France Inter on Wednesday that “there is no crisis in the coalition” while government spokesperson Olivier Véran said that same day there was “no ministerial rebellion”.

Macron defended his decision in an interview with the “C à Vous” TV programme on Wednesday evening. “It is a shield that we needed,” he said, adding that the law “will allow us to fight against what nourishes the National Rally party” – namely immigration fears.

Read moreFiercely contested immigration law is a ‘shield that we needed’, Macron says

Whatever the case, the lines are no longer the same as 20 years ago, Camus said. “With this law, we have accepted the far-right vision of immigration as a danger.”

He said the National Rally’s success is due to persistent “background noise”: “This law would not have been approved without half a century of emphasis on national preference and the idea that immigration is a burden, that we pay a price for it or that it is a factor in criminality.”

To offset the right’s most extreme measures, the Macron government appears to be adopting a novel strategy: to accept Les Républicains’ demands, knowing full well that some of them will be invalidated by the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional court.

The president submitted the immigration bill to the high court on Wednesday to “decide on its conformity in whole or in part with the Constitution”, Véran announced. Borne has also suggested that some of the bill’s measures are unconstitutional and that the text would likely “evolve”.

But it’s a risky bet, according to Camus. “French people will have a hard time understanding that the law has been emptied of its substance,” he warned.

“This will inevitably benefit the National Rally and the idea, which is already beginning to take hold, that a ‘government of judges’ works against the interests of the country.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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What we know about the French senator accused of drugging an MP in attempted sex assault

French Senator Joël Guerriau is facing preliminary charges of drugging a fellow lawmaker with the intent to commit “rape or sexual assault”, prosecutors confirmed Friday, in a case that has shocked France. Guerriau was suspended from both his Horizons party and his Senate group on Saturday. 

The 66-year-old senator from western France was arrested at his Paris home on Thursday over the alleged attempted assault of Sandrine Josso, 48, a member of the lower-house National Assembly. He is accused of drugging the MP by spiking her drink after he invited her to his home. 

Guerriau was placed under judicial supervision on Friday pending the outcome of the investigation, restricting his freedom of movement. Prosecutors said the two politicians were long-standing acquaintances but were not in a relationship. 

Guerriau’s centre-right party Horizons, which is allied to President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, said on Saturday it had suspended the senator “with immediate effect” and initiated disciplinary proceedings “that could lead to his permanent exclusion”.  

His Senate group Les Indépendants, which includes senators from Horizons and other centre-right parties, announced it was taking the same steps in a statement shortly after.

  • What has Guerriau been charged with?

Guerriau is facing preliminary charges of “administering to a person, without their knowledge, a substance likely to impair their discernment or control over their actions in order to commit rape or sexual assault”, according to the Paris public prosecutor’s office.  

His lawyer Rémi-Pierre Drai said he denies the charge. Guerriau was also charged with possessing drugs, Drai added.

Joël Guerriau, 66, has been a French senator since 2011. © Paul Brounais, Wikimedia Creative Commons

The senator was arrested after Josso filed a legal complaint. He was detained under rules of “flagrancy”, which grant investigators special powers – such as overriding parliamentary immunity – when the suspect is caught in the act or shortly thereafter. Searches were carried out at Guerriau’s office and also at his home, where investigators found ecstasy, a potent drug that causes both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects. 

Guerriau and the alleged victim were jointly questioned, in their lawyers’ presence, for nearly two hours on Friday, a common practice in France known as a “confrontation”. After his release from police custody, the senator was placed under judicial supervision and banned from contacting Josso or any witnesses. 

Under French law, preliminary charges mean that the investigating magistrates have strong reason to suspect wrongdoing but need more time to determine whether to send a case to trial. Charges levelled at Guerriau carry a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and a €75,000 fine.

  • What do we know about the incident? 

Josso told investigators she felt ill after having a drink on Tuesday night at the senator’s Paris apartment, prosecutors said. According to French broadcaster BFMTV, which cited sources close to the investigation, the MP told police that the two had initially agreed to meet at a restaurant but that Guerriau suggested they dine at his home instead.

Her lawyer, Julia Minkowski, told AFP that her client felt unwell after drinking a glass of champagne and had seen the senator “grabbing a small plastic bag containing something white in a drawer in his kitchen”. Josso then realised that he was trying to drug her without her knowledge, the counsel added. 

“She had to deploy monumental physical and intellectual forces to overcome her terror and extricate herself at the last minute from this ambush,” Minkowski said, adding that her client was “in a state of shock”. 

Josso was admitted to hospital for tests, which revealed the presence of ecstasy in her system. The lawmaker subsequently lodged a complaint. 

Guerriau’s lawyer denied his client intended to assault the lawmaker, claiming it was a “handling error” that caused her to fall ill. The senator “will fight to prove he never intended to administer a substance to his colleague and longstanding friend to abuse her”, Drai said in a statement to the press. 

A former banker, Guerriau has been a member of the Senate, the French parliament’s upper house, since 2011, representing the western Loire-Atlantique region. He currently serves as deputy head of its foreign affairs and defence committee.  

Guerriau joined Horizons, the party created by former prime minister Edouard Philippe, in 2022, having previously been involved with a variety of centre-right parties. He was also deputy head of Les Indépendants, the group he sits with in the French Senate.

Guerriau’s lawyer said his client was “not a predator”, describing him as “an honest man, respected and respectable, who will restore his and his family’s honour”.  

The senator was previously unknown to the general public, though he made waves on social media in December 2016 when a post on the Islamic State (IS) group appeared on his Twitter account with a close-up picture of a penis. Guerriau claimed his account had been hacked and vowed to press charges, but later dropped the matter.  

Josso is a member of the lower-house National Assembly, also from Loire-Atlantique. She was first elected in 2017 under the banner of Macron’s fledgling party La République en Marche (LREM) and is now a member of its centrist ally MoDem. 

Her lawyer said Guerriau “had been a friend for around 10 years in whom she had complete confidence”, stressing her client’s “feeling of betrayal and total incomprehension”.   

  • What has been the response among the political class? 

Several politicians have expressed their shock on social media and called for a swift investigation.  

The allegations, “if proven, are horrific”, Environment Minister Christophe Béchu, a member of Horizons, told France Inter radio on Friday, adding that Guerriau “can obviously no longer remain in the party (…) if there is any element of doubt”.  

Horizons’ political bureau voted unanimously on Saturday to suspend Guerriau “with immediate effect”. Bureau members said they were “deeply shocked by the facts at the root of the accusations” and had initiated a “disciplinary procedure that could lead to (the senator’s) permanent exclusion”. 

The party said it would “never tolerate the slightest complacency toward sexual and sexist violence” and promised to call the plaintiff to express its support and solidarity. 

Guerriau’s Senate group released a statement shortly after, saying it had also suspended the senator and initiated disciplinary proceedings. 

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French doctors vow to ‘disobey’ bill stripping undocumented migrants of healthcare rights

A push by France’s conservative-led Senate to strip undocumented migrants of their access to free healthcare has sparked a public outcry among workers across the medical profession, many of whom have pledged to ignore a measure they describe as an ethical, sanitary and financial aberration.

Medical practitioners voiced their dismay in a flurry of media statements after senators from the right-wing Les Républicains amended a government-sponsored immigration bill last week to axe a scheme known as State Medical Aid (AME) – which provides free healthcare to undocumented migrants who have settled in France.

The amended bill, which will be examined by the National Assembly next month, was swiftly panned by health officials, who warned that it would present a threat to public health and that long-term costs would far exceed any initial savings.

The head of the Paris hospital consortium AP-HP said scrapping the AME would allow diseases to spread undected and ultimately increase the burden on France’s health system. The Federation of French Hospitals (FHF) described it as “humanitarian, sanitary and financial heresy”.

On Saturday, some 3,500 health workers signed a letter pledging to “continue to treat undocumented patients free of charge and based on their needs, in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath” they took. “Patients from here and elsewhere, our doors are open to you. And will remain so,” they added.

That would effectively mean working for free, said Antoine Pelissolo, a psychiatrist at a hospital east of Paris who co-authored the letter. “If they see a patient who is not covered (by health insurance), they will not be paid,” Pelissolo told AFP. “It’s a very strong stand.”

‘Guided by ideology rather than medical concern’

Set up in 2000, the AME gives undocumented migrants access to the free healthcare provided under France’s health insurance scheme. Beneficiaries must prove they have resided in France for at least three months and have a monthly income of less than €810 ($860).

The scheme has long been a favourite punching bag for critics on the right and far right, who accuse it of inciting illegal immigration – at a growing cost to French taxpayers.  

Last year, the AME counted 411,364 beneficiaries for a total cost of €1.2 billion, up from €900 million in 2018, according to the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS), a government auditor.  

During debates in the Senate last week, Bruno Retailleau, the head of Les Républicains’ delegation, flagged the “steady increase in recent years, both in the number of AME beneficiaries and its total cost”. He added: “It is only natural that we look for ways to cut certain costs.”

In its amended bill, Retailleau’s party replaced the scheme with a more restrictive “emergency medical assistance” (AMU), which would cover only cases of “severe illness and acute pain”.

Read moreUndocumented workers left in limbo as French immigration bill delayed

The move betrays a sketchy understanding of healthcare, said Professor Pierre Tattevin, the deputy head of the French Infectious Diseases Society (SPILF), noting that the aim for medical workers is precisely to treat diseases before they become severe and acutely painful.

“It’s called prevention: if you treat something early, it will cost you less in the long run,” he explained, arguing that the debate over AME was “guided by ideology rather than medical concern”.

Cost of reform set to outweigh savings

While AME spending has increased in recent years, in line with immigration numbers, it still accounts for just 0.5% of France’s public health spending. According to an IGAS report from 2019, the scheme’s beneficiaries have lower healthcare costs than the general public, averaging around €2,600 per year – against a national average of roughly €3,000.

“The idea that AME costs us money is completely misguided,” said Tattevin. “Scrapping it would cost us a lot dearer than any savings it might generate.”

Earlier this month, some 3,000 health workers signed an op-ed in Le Monde warning that AME’s abolition “would lead to a deterioration in the health of undocumented workers, and more generally that of the population as a whole”.


Signatories included Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the 2008 Nobel Prize laureate who helped discover HIV/AIDS, and Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of the scientific council that advised the French government during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They pointed to a recent precedent in Spain, where a 2012 law “restricting access to healthcare for illegal immigrants led to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases and higher mortality rates”. The reform was finally repealed in 2018.

“If you bar part of the population from access to care, it will necessarily have repercussions,” said Tattevin, who also signed the Le Monde op-ed. “It could take months or years to show, but we would end up with hidden epidemics that eventually affect the wider public too,” he added.

A negotiating ploy?

Experts have largely debunked another criticism levelled at State Medical Aid: that its purported generosity induces migrants to choose France over other destinations.

In 2019, France’s former Human Rights Ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, lamented the “false idea that the ‘generosity’ of a scheme such as the AME would lead to an increase in illegal migratory flows by creating a ‘pull effect’”. Instead, he argued, “studies show that the need for care is a completely marginal cause of immigration”.

A 2022 study by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) found that fewer than 10% of France’s undocumented migrants cited healthcare as a factor in their decision to move to the country. A separate survey by the IRDES healthcare research institute found that only half of those eligible for AME actually benefit from the scheme, owing to administrative obstacles and a lack of information.

Read moreMost migrants eligible for French state medical aid have not accessed their rights

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne echoed Toubon’s words in a speech to the National Assembly in December 2022, aiming to “dispel misconceptions” about AME.

“No, state medical aid does not fuel illegal immigration. It’s a question of protection and public health,” she told lawmakers at the time. “No plans to migrate to France are motivated solely by the existence of this scheme.”

While Borne reiterated her stance last week, France’s hardline Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the immigration bill’s chief sponsor, has previously voiced support for a reform of AME in a bid to win over support from the right – only to backtrack in recent days.

On Sunday, Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau pledged to defend the scheme, saying he “understood” the doctors’ complaints. “The government will fight to ensure that they do not have to exercise civil disobedience,” he told France Info radio.

“One has the impression that it’s all part of a negotiation, that EMA’s abolition has been thrown in the mix only to be removed at the last minute,” said Tattevin. “That way they can say they’re open to compromise and argue that their law isn’t as harsh as critics say.”

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France’s Murdoch? Right-wing media swoop threatens ‘pillar of French democracy’

The shock appointment of a far-right editor to run one of France’s best-known mainstream newspapers has sparked calls for urgent steps to protect the pluralism and independence of the French press, while underscoring a sharp rightwards shift of the country’s media landscape under billionaire Vincent Bolloré.

Since June 22, journalists at the Journal du Dimanche – known as the JDD – have voted daily to down tools in an unprecedented strike action that has kept France’s best-known Sunday paper off the shelves for the first time in its 75-year history.

The walkout by more than 95% of staff followed the appointment of Geoffroy Lejeune, the former editor-in-chief of a far-right magazine that was convicted of publishing racist hate speech under his tenure.

Lejeune, 34, was officially tapped by the JDD’s owner Arnaud Lagardère, though his nomination is widely seen as the work of billionaire Vincent Bolloré, France’s most dreaded corporate raider, whose takeover of the Lagardère Group won the conditional support of EU regulators in June.

Following the appointment, eight former editors of the JDD wrote a letter blasting a “provocation and proof that the far right is taking hold in the media”. They expressed outrage that the identity of the paper was being “erased” by Bolloré, who has a track record of gutting staff and overhauling the editorial line at the news outlets he has purchased in recent years.

Almost three weeks into the strike, the beleaguered newsroom has appealed to President Emmanuel Macron to take a stand, framing the tussle at the JDD as part of a wider battle for press freedom.

“When the JDD, the newspaper of temperance and balance, goes on strike, it means the situation is truly bleak,” they wrote in a letter to Macron on Saturday, pleading with the government not to let their paper “die in silence”.

They added: “Beyond the JDD, what is at stake is the independence of the press and the journalists who produce it – a pillar of democracy.”

‘Hateful attacks and fake news’

Staff at the JDD have described Lejeune’s appointment as a negation of the paper’s values of moderation and journalistic rigour, pointing to his close ties with far-right political figures and his record at the helm of the arch-conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles.

“Under Geoffroy Lejeune, Valeurs Actuelles spread hateful attacks and fake news,” the paper’s union of journalists wrote in a statement at the start of the strike. “We refuse to let the JDD follow this path.”

Staff at the Journal du Dimanche stand outside the newspaper’s building in Paris on July 5, 2023, the 13th day of their strike. © Alain Jocard, AFP

In his press release announcing Lejeune’s appointment on June 23, Lagardère praised a “raw talent of French journalism (…) with a mission to embody journalistic excellence: namely facts, investigation and the duty to inform” – a description labelled an “oxymoron” by French daily Le Monde, which argued that the young editor had “taken radical opinion journalism to the extreme”.

During his time at Valeurs Actuelles, Lejeune boosted the weekly’s notoriety by pushing provocative headlines and caustic attacks on politicians and intellectuals. In 2021, the magazine was found guilty of racist hate speech after it published a fictional story and cartoons depicting a Black MP as a slave in chains.

The paper’s staples are immigration, crime, Islamism and the plight of white males. Its preferred targets include “woke” teachers, liberal elites and the likes of Jewish financier George Soros.

In the run up to last year’s presidential election, Lejeune endorsed the extreme-right candidate Eric Zemmour, formerly a star pundit at Bolloré’s television channels. He is also a close friend of Marion Maréchal, the niece of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who ditched her aunt’s National Rally party last year to support Zemmour’s presidential run instead.

All of which makes him anathema to the JDD’s striking newsroom, which noted that Valeurs Actuelles’ own shareholders had described Lejeune as “too pro-Zemmour” upon firing him last month.

“Our newspaper has always strived to remain impartial and apolitical, offering a platform to both left and right,” said Bertrand Gréco, a JDD journalist for the past 26 years and a union representative.

“This nomination implies a radical change of editorial line,” Gréco added. “It means a newspaper recognised for its informative content will become an opinion paper – and one that spreads not just any opinion, since Lejeune is a champion of the far right.”

The Murdoch parallel

The JDD’s weekly sales of around 140,000 belie an outsize influence in a country where few newspapers top the 100,000 mark.

The title’s prime position as the only nationwide Sunday paper has long made it the go-to outlet for politicians eager to tout a new policy, bill or election run. It also makes it a prize catch for Bolloré, a corporate raider whose transport, media and advertising empire stretches across Europe and Africa.

A deeply conservative Catholic from Brittany, in western France, Bolloré has been gradually expanding his media assets to take in TV channels, the magazine Paris Match, radio station Europe 1 and latterly the JDD.

After acquiring news channel iTélé, part of the Canal+ group, he provoked a record strike of 31 days in 2016, got rid of most of the staff and turned it into a conservative platform that critics have dubbed “France’s Fox News”.

That platform, renamed CNews, “is no longer a news channel – it’s an opinion channel”, said Pauline Ades-Mevel, chief editor at the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who previously worked for iTéléShe described the turmoil at the JDD as an “aftershock of what has already happened at the other media organisations taken over by Bolloré.”

Read morePushing far-right agenda, French news networks shape election debate

Bolloré’s aggressive expansion into media has prompted comparisons with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose myriad news outlets in Australia, Britain and the United States have fundamentally altered the media and political landscapes of those countries.

Historian David Colon, a professor at Sciences-Po Paris who has written a book about Murdoch’s media empire, pointed to parallels between the tycoons’ respective holdings, most notably in the synergy between publishing houses, newspapers, radio stations and television networks.

“When it comes to media concentration, the key factor is not the number of titles you own or the size of their readership, but rather the diversity of the mediums,” he explained. “It’s this cross-ownership that allows you to set the agenda and rapidly influence public debate.”

In both cases, Colon pointed to a clear intent to push the debate in a socially conservative direction. Unlike Bolloré, however, Murdoch “would never allow his personal convictions to take precedence over the commercial success of his ventures”, Colon cautioned – whereas the losses posted by the French tycoon’s media assets suggest their motive is primarily ideological.

‘Concerns us all’

The tycoon’s purported ideological objectives have prompted mounting alarm among academics, politicians and other public figures, many of whom have voiced support for the strike action at France’s flagship Sunday paper.

“For the first time in France since the (post-war) liberation, a large national media will be run by a far-right personality. This is a dangerous precedent which concerns us all,” said an open-letter to Le Monde signed by hundreds of figures including actor Mathieu Amalric, writer Leïla Slimani, rapper and producer JoeyStarr and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Lejeune’s appointment “heralds the kind of forced transformation that Bolloré is accustomed to”, the letter added, citing the “brutal measures” enacted at his other media assets.

Another op-ed, signed by Nobel literature laureate Annie Ernaux and a host of prominent academics, urged legislators to put in place a legal framework that ensures “journalists are able to work independently – and, in particular, independently of the wishes of their shareholders”.

Alone among Macron’s ministers, Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak voiced her concern at Lejeune’s nomination in a tweet posted shortly after his appointment, which prompted a flurry of racist slurs levelled at the French-Lebanese dual national.

“Legally speaking, the JDD can become what it wants, as long as it respects the law,” she wrote. “But for our Republic’s values, how can you not be alarmed?”

The fact that shareholders can “legally” impose their choice of editors is at the very heart of the problem, according to Daphné Ronfard of the media advocacy group Un Bout des Médias. She blamed a lax legal framework, the bulk of which dates back to 1986, for allowing the likes of Bolloré to concentrate media resources and dictate their will.

“We need a new framework that can limit concentration and guarantee the independence of journalists, which is crucial to democracy,” Ronfard explained. “Editorial content should not be shaped by shareholders with political motives – which, in Bolloré’s case, are all too obvious.”

Her association has come up with a series of proposals designed to ensure journalists have their say on the appointment of editors, which it hopes to push once the government convenes long-awaited consultations on freedom of information in France – a pledge from Macron’s re-election campaign last year.

Pandora’s box

In the run-up to the 2022 presidential race, the French Senate played host to a circus of billionaires appearing in turn to deny the obvious: that ownership of France’s main private media outlets buys them influence and protects their interests.

Bolloré was the first to testify before a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating concentration in the media. True to form, he struck a faux-naïf tone as he belittled his television assets and denied any political motive behind his multiple purchases in the media.

“I have no power to appoint people to these channels,” he swore when quizzed about his role in the many resignations and high-profile firings that rattled the Canal+ media group following his takeover in 2015. He added: “Some journalists have left, others have returned. It’s like the ocean tide, back home in Brittany.”

Regarding CNews and its rolling coverage of Zemmour’s presidential run, Bolloré flatly denied it pursued any “ideological agenda”.

Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and former presidential candidate, dominated media coverage in the run-up to the 2022 campaign.
Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and former presidential candidate, dominated media coverage in the run-up to the 2022 campaign. © Thomas Samson, AFP

Much like Valeurs Actuelles, CNews has positioned itself as a straight-talking alternative to mainstream media stifled by political correctness, claiming to serve the French public what it really wants: stories on crime, immigration and Islam. Critics, however, say the channel has repeatedly violated the terms of a licensing agreement that applies to France’s four free-to-air news networks, requiring them to provide balanced coverage.

Zemmour’s sulphurous statements have resulted in multiple convictions for inciting hate speech and repeatedly landed CNews in hot water. In 2021, France’s broadcast regulator fined CNews €200,000 for speech inciting racial hatred after Zemmour branded child migrants “thieves, murderers and rapists”. Arcom, the regulator, has also admonished the network for failing to ensure political balance in its broadcasting.

The punishment amounted to too little too late, according to former Arcom member Joseph Daniel, who argued in a scathing op-ed that the regulator had repeatedly missed opportunities to flag and sanction the network’s failure to respect public broadcasting rules.

By allowing CNews to become an “opinion channel”, Daniel wrote at the time, “(Arcom) opened a dangerous pandora’s box for news networks that are freely available to the public and constitute a key element of our democracy.”

‘Hurting democracy’

Arcom’s failure to crack down hard on CNews mirrors a wider complacency by French authorities regarding media regulations, said Sciences-Po’s Colon, who voiced dismay at the government’s reluctance to wade into the battle for the JDD.

He pointed to a French specificity in the provision of public subsidies for newspapers, a long-established tradition intended to safeguard the democratic role of a vibrant press. Those subsidies, he argued, give the French state a certain leverage to ensure press freedom is preserved.

“The state would be perfectly entitled to make public subsidies conditional on compliance with a certain number of basic principles of journalistic ethics and deontology,” he explained, adding that shareholders “should not be allowed to impose an editor who is rejected by 97% of staff”.

“We’re talking about public money: Should it be used to serve the political whims of a billionaire or to defend quality journalism in the service of the general interest?” he asked. “The answer to that question is of fundamental importance to our democracy.”

On Sunday, Macron’s Education Minister Pap Ndiaye stepped into the fray by stating his support for the JDD strikers and arguing that a “manifest far-right bias” at CNews was “hurting democracy”. That in turn triggered a barrage of criticism from the right and far-right, which accused the minister of undermining media pluralism and being out of touch with a public that has itself shifted to the right.

The latter argument is missing the point of the dispute roiling the Journal du Dimanche, said Ades-Mevel of Reporters Without Borders.

“Of course all political stripes should be represented in the media, but that is not what Bolloré is up to. He is taking over mainstream publications to use them as channels for his agenda,” she explained.

“We’re not arguing that the far right is not entitled to a newspaper,” added the JDD’s Gréco. “What we’re saying is that they shouldn’t come grab an existing paper that has its own history, journalists and values.”

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Le Pen’s far right served as mouthpiece for the Kremlin, says French parliamentary report

Dogged by accusations of proximity to the Kremlin, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party had hoped to clear its name by setting up a parliamentary inquiry to investigate foreign interference in French politics. But a draft report on the committee’s findings, which was leaked to the press this week, shows the move backfired spectacularly, finding instead that Le Pen’s policy stances sometimes echo the “official language of Putin’s regime”.

After a six-month inquiry and more than 50 hearings, the cross-party parliamentary inquiry found that the National Rally (RN) party, formerly known as the National Front, had served as a “communication channel” for Russian power, notably supporting Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, according to the leaked report.  

The text, due to be published next week, was adopted on Thursday by eleven votes to five – to the dismay of the inquiry’s chair and instigator, RN lawmaker Jean-Philippe Tanguy, who promptly dismissed the process as a “farce”.

The vote came just days after Le Pen was grilled by members of the investigation, swearing under oath that she had no ties to the Kremlin while also reiterating her support for Moscow’s takeover of Crimea – which she referred to as a “reattachment”.  

That support is “visibly appreciated in Moscow”, wrote the report’s rapporteur Constance Le Grip, noting that the Russian press had given ample coverage to the far-right leader’s May 24 interview, “echoing with great satisfaction the assertion, in their view reaffirmed by Marine Le Pen, that Crimea is and always has been Russian”.   

Echoing Putin ‘word for word’ 

Twice a runner-up in France’s most recent presidential elections, Le Pen has in the past spoken admiringly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his nationalist rhetoric. Prior to last year’s invasion – and despite Russian incursions into Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas – she laughed off suggestions that he posed a threat to Europe. 

In her 218-page report, Le Grip, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, pointed to a “long-standing” link between Russia and the far-right party co-founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, noting that the “strategy of political and ideological rapprochement” with Moscow had “accelerated” since his daughter became leader of the party in 2011. 

The report details frequent contacts between party representatives and Russian officials, culminating in the warm welcome Le Pen received at the Kremlin ahead of France’s 2017 presidential election, complete with a photo op with Putin. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017, just weeks ahead of France’s presidential election. Mikhail Klimentyev, AFP

It also highlights the far-right leader’s “alignment” with “Russian discourse” at the time of Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the year the National Front obtained a loan from a bank close to the Kremlin. 

“All [Le Pen’s] comments on Crimea, reiterated during her inquiry hearing, repeat word for word the official language of Putin’s regime,” Le Grip wrote, noting that the National Rally had fiercely opposed then-president François Hollande’s decision to scrap the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia over its takeover of Crimea.  

The pro-Russian stance “softened” in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the centrist MP conceded, noting that Le Pen and her party had “unambiguously condemned” Russian aggression – though without changing tack on Crimea.    

The Kremlin’s payroll 

Despite Le Pen’s efforts to distance herself from Moscow, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine exacerbated scrutiny of her party’s links to Russia, handing her opponents a line of attack in the run-up to France’s presidential election later that year. 

During a bruising televised debate ahead of their April 24 presidential run-off, Macron launched a blistering attack on his far-right opponent, accusing her of effectively being on the Kremlin’s payroll owing to her party’s links with a Russian bank. 

“When you speak to Russia, you are not speaking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker,” Macron told Le Pen, arguing that her party’s loan from a Russian bank with links to the Kremlin made her “dependent on Vladimir Putin” and incapable of “defending French interests”.  

Le Pen has repeatedly argued that she had no choice but to seek creditors abroad because French banks are reluctant to deal with her party – some on ideological grounds, others due to the party’s chronically unstable finances. 

The controversial loan was once again in the spotlight during her audition last week, a testy, four-hour-long grilling that failed to produce evidence of a political service rendered in exchange for the credit. Likewise, Le Grip’s report dwells at length on the Russian loan, without demonstrating a return of favours. 

“There is nothing, not a shred of evidence that would prove Russian influence over the National Rally,” Le Pen told reporters on Thursday, as rumours about the leaked report began to swirl. “This report passes judgement on my political opinions, not on any form of foreign interference,” she added, blasting a “political trial”. 

>> Read more: Trump, Farage, Le Pen: Why the West’s right wing loves Vladimir Putin


By pushing for an inquiry late last year, the National Rally had hoped to deflect attention from its Moscow ties and put the focus on other parties’ links to foreign powers, whether Russia, the United States or China.  

Among the witnesses summoned to testify was François Fillon, the former conservative prime minister, who was quizzed on his role as an adviser to two Russian oil companies – one of them state-owned – after he quit politics in 2017. The former PM, who stepped down from both positions on February 25, the day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, testified that he “never took a single cent of Russian money”.  

Other witnesses included the head of the DGSI, France’s internal security agency, who told a closed hearing that French parliamentarians of all stripes were prime targets of Russian espionage.

Despite the National Rally’s best efforts to focus the attention on other parties, the inquiry frequently returned to figures from its own ranks – including EU lawmaker Thierry Mariani, a former conservative minister and longtime Putin admirer who, on a trip to Crimea in 2015, declared its annexation free and fair in line with Le Pen’s own stance on the matter. 

“The inquiry’s immediate political consequence is to highlight, once again, Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russian stance – particularly on the annexation of Crimea,” French daily Le Monde observed on Friday. 

Speaking to the newspaper, Tanguy, the National Rally lawmaker who chaired the inquiry, conceded that he had been “naïve” in expecting another outcome. He also claimed he had been “betrayed” by Le Grip.

As Greens’ lawmaker Julien Bayou quipped, “The (National Rally) launched this inquiry to clear its name, but ended up with a boomerang in the face.”   

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France kicks off push to ‘appease’ nation with row over immigrant welfare fraud

The French finance minister’s pledge to crack down on immigrants abusing France’s welfare system has triggered a fresh row in a country reeling from a bitter battle over pension reform, casting doubt on President Emmanuel Macron’s ability to deliver on a pledge to “appease” and unify the nation in a hundred days.

Macron has given himself until Bastille Day on July 14 to mend his broken rapport with the French, aiming for a rebound after a gruelling pension battle that has roiled the nation and deepened a crisis in French democracy.

The “hundred days” kicked off with a flurry of ministerial announcements on Tuesday that left little doubt as to the direction France’s minority government plans to take as it seeks to regain the initiative and find new allies in parliament.

While tax fraud – traditionally a priority of the left – got a brief mention, ministers put the focus squarely on the issue of welfare fraud, long a favourite topic of the right. They promised greater checks on a back-to-work welfare benefit scheme known as the RSA, using language typically espoused by critics of “assistanat” – a derogatory term used to refer to “scroungers” living on state handouts.

Speaking on LCI television, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin drew a line between RSA beneficiaries who “show an effort” and those who “should naturally be sanctioned”. His cabinet colleague Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, took matters a step further, linking welfare fraud and immigration.

“The French are quite rightly fed up with this fraud. They’re sick and tired of seeing people eligible for benefits (…) sending the money to North Africa or elsewhere,” he said. “That’s not what our social model is for.”

The decision to single out immigrants for criticism was swiftly denounced by the left-wing opposition, which accused the government of once more pandering to the right and far right in a bid to divert attention from the battle over pensions.

>> Le Pen’s opposition to pension reform, focus on public order ‘pays off’ in polls

Tangiers-born Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the head of the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI), denounced a “new campaign” to target French nationals “who are Muslim or hail, like me, from the Maghreb”.

“Here’s a little dose of racism to start appeasing France,” tweeted the Greens’ Sandrine Rousseau, his partner in the left-wing Nupes coalition.



“The far right is dangerously filling up the government’s void,” added the Socialist leader Olivier Faure, who accused the government of peddling “racist prejudice to elude the fact that welfare fraud is mostly carried out by employers and bears no comparison with the scale of tax fraud”.

Echoes of Sarkozy

Statistics compiled by France’s top financial auditor, the Cour des comptes, show tax evasion in France eclipses social security fraud on a scale of up to 100 to 1.

“Welfare fraud amounts to between 1 and 3 billion euros per year, according to the Cour des comptes, whereas the cost of businesses cheating on social security contributions amounts to around 20 billion euros,” says Vincent Drezet, a spokesperson for the NGO Attac, best known for its calls for a Tobin Tax on financial transactions.

As for tax evasion, it amounts to a loss for the state’s coffers of “between 80 and 100 billion euros”, added Drezet, who previously headed France’s national union of revenue workers.

The scale of the problem is inversely proportional to the level of attention politicians dedicate to tax and welfare fraud respectively.

The emphasis on the latter “has been a constant theme for the past 25 years”, says Vincent Dubois, a professor of sociology at the University of Strasbourg and author of a book on state control of the “assistés” (those living on state handouts).

“While the unemployed have always been suspected of shirking efforts to find work, there was a marked shift in the 1990s when then Prime Minister Alain Juppé ordered the first parliamentary report into abuses by people benefiting from welfare programmes,” he said. “Welfare fraud has been a major topic ever since, particularly under Nicolas Sarkoy’s presidency, when ‘assistanat’ and ‘work ethic’ were constantly opposed.”

A similar rhetoric underpinned Macron’s past reforms that toughen the requirements to be eligible for unemployment benefits. During his re-election campaign, he pledged to make the RSA conditional on working 15 to 20 hours per week – a plan some unions have described as “forced labour”.

‘Foreign delinquency’

Meanwhile, treasury workers tasked with chasing after tax evaders have seen their resources dwindle, says Drezet, pointing to a 30% reduction in the number of tax controllers over the past decade.

“The state is increasingly underequipped to take on this task,” he lamented.

On Tuesday, the junior Budget Minister Gabriel Attal promised to unveil “strong measures” in the coming weeks to battle tax evasion, including doubling staff at a special unit that has recently carried out large-scale raids at banks suspected of tax fraud.

His announcement was largely eclipsed by Le Maire’s comments on immigrants abusing social security, which coincided with a promise by Darmanin to tackle “foreign delinquency” in a forthcoming immigration bill – a plan Macron revived on Monday after opting to put it on the back-burner at the height of the pension furore.

Macron after pension reform © france24


“There is clearly a renewed emphasis on welfare fraud, though this time it is explicitly associated with the subject of immigration,” said Dubois. “This summons a well-known fantasy: that behind the figure of the fraudster lies that of the immigrant who abuses the system.”

The strategy recalls the final stages of the “Grand National Debate” that Macron convened as an answer to the Yellow Vest crisis during his first term in office. Back then, the president proposed holding an annual debate in parliament on immigration as an answer to the “fiscal, territorial and social injustice” he said was voiced in the protests.

Commenting on the first steps of Macron’s latest action plan, former conservative leader Jean-François Copé spoke of a “belly dance” aimed at wooing lawmakers from the right-wing Les Républicains.

Day one of the plan was unlikely to appease the millions enraged by the government’s pension push. It may, however, have gone some way towards appeasing the handful of MPs it needs to cobble together a majority in parliament.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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