Macron Centers on Immigration Concerns in Controversial Turn to Save Presidency

In a controversial move that risks splitting his party, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to review his government's immigration policy in the hope of appeasing some of the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest) protesters who have rocked the country in recent weeks.

Macron mentioned "the question of immigration" in his presidential address last week, declaring that it must be "dealt with." The line prompted immediate criticism from the left. Since then, as Macron insists on making immigration central to his agenda, a rift has emerged within his party, La Republique En Marche, according to the LondonTimes.

The move is part of Macron's plan for three months of public assemblies in town halls across France, called "Le Grand Debat National" ("The Great National Debate"). Macron hopes that these meetings, in which voters will be able to voice their concerns, will lead to more inclusiveness and soften some of the animosity toward the French government.

"I want the nation to come to an agreement about its profound identity; that we broach the question of immigration," he said in his televised address, according to The Times. "We have to confront it." Other issues to be debated include democracy, taxation, the environment and the public sector.

Concerns over immigration are always near the surface in France, and the atmosphere has become particularly fraught in recent years, stoked by several high-profile terrorist attacks. In the 2017 presidential election, anti-immigration populist Marine Le Pen reached the run-off with 21.3 percent of the vote, two and a half points below Macron. Macron defeated her in the final round with two-thirds of the vote.

In this context, Macron's critics—some from from his own party—believe that shifting the focus to immigration was dangerous. Dominique Sopo, chairman the anti-racism organization SOS Racisme, said Macron's plan would "throw immigrants to the wolves," according to The Times.

Matthieu Orphelin, a member of the French National Assembly from Macron's party, also said that a focus on immigration would only strengthen Le Pen.

On Sunday, a fifth round of anti-government demonstrations took place. While smaller and less violent than the previous four, it still attracted about 66,000 protesters nationwide, accompanied by security forces of 69,000, as reported by The Guardian.

The protests began in response to a planned hike in the fuel tax but have evolved into a broader, more anarchic movement in opposition to Macron generally.The anger peaked on the weekend of December 8, with the worst riots France had seen for half a decade.

The damage the demonstrations wrought on Paris's shopfronts and monuments parallels the damage done to Macron's reputation. His popularity has plummeted. Already unpopular before the protests—dubbed "the president for the rich" and perceived as aloof and indifferent to the concerns of average working people—Macron's approval rating has reached its lowest point ever.

On Sunday, a major poll published in Journal du Dimanche showed that Macron's approval was down to 23 percent, a two-point fall from the previous month. The proportion of people who said they were "very dissatisfied" with him rose six points to 45 percent.

This follows a separate poll published on Wednesday that put his popularity rating at 20 percent.

Meanwhile, the far-right sees the Yellow Vest movement as both a threat and a potential source of strength. Polls have suggested that the vote-share of Le Pen's party, the National Rally (previously known as the National Front), would drop significantly if the movement fielded its own candidates, according to The New York Times.

But equally, the overlap this suggests also points to shared interests to exploit—anger with the status quo and resentment of Macron are essential to the National Rally's aims, and there are reports that it deliberately put activists within the Yellow Vest movement to push the anti-immigration line.