France - Syria - EU

Hollande plays French politics with migrant welcome offer

French President François Hollande and the ruling Socialists could use the migration issue to marginalise France's mainstream right ahead of regional elections this year and the presidential election of 2017. In a press conference on Monday, the sixth in his presidency, Hollande announced that France will take in 24,000 people over the next two years as part of a European plan to distribute 120,000 refugees across the continent.

French President Francois Hollande speaking at  the Elysee Palace in Paris, 7 September 2015.
French President Francois Hollande speaking at the Elysee Palace in Paris, 7 September 2015. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The decision to take in the refugees as part of a Europe-wide quota plan is a bit of an about-face for France. It comes after Germany this weekend said it would take in 800,000 people.

Migration is a tricky issue in France, though, where a recent opinion poll showed a majority hostile to letting in more refugees. To encourage France to accept the decision to support European quotas. Hollande also introduced the concept of getting involved militarily at what he said is the root of the problem: the Islamic State armed group (IS), which he refers to by the acronym Daesh, used by the organisation's Arabic opponents.

“Terrorism does not come from nowhere: it has its origins, ideologies and organisations," he said during the two-hour press conference. “The most monstrous is Daesh, in Iraq and Syria. Daesh, through the massacres it commits, is forcing thousands of people to flee.”

Analyst Philippe Moreau Chevrolet says Hollande is greasing the wheels of public opinion.

“If Francois Hollande wants the French population to accept this shift in his policy regarding the migrants, he has to explain that we will welcome more migrants," he told RFI. "But we will also fight on the ground in Syria, so that this influx of migrants will stop.”

Hollande chose to start the press conference with the refugee crisis and Syria because he would rather focus on foreign policy than on the lagging domestic economy.

Analyst Moreau Chevrolet says the president has been seen as strong on foreign policy, and so he is hoping to highlight it.

“He can link the international situation with the domestic situation using these migrants,” he said, adding that migration also offers a way for Hollande and the Socialists to marginalise the mainstream right.

“He can follow his strategy to have one, and one only, opponent, which is the Front National (FN) and Marine Le Pen,” said Moreau Chevrolet. “He wants to make everyone forget the third person in the room: Nicolas Sarkozy.”

Polls show that Marine Le Pen could make it into the second round of the 2017 presidential election, leaving space for only one candidate to face her.

By playing up migration, the Socialists are showing their clear difference with the FN, leaving Nicolas Sarkozy and the mainstream right, Les Républicains, unable to take a firm stance, as they would be agreeing with one or the other of their enemies.

While this is clever politics, elections and politics are rarely about one issue only, and the issue at hand is the economy, which is not doing Hollande any favours.

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