Macron targets migration ahead of French elections

LIEVIN, France (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is addressing a central issue in the country’s presidential campaign by pushing to strengthen the European Union’s external borders against migrants illegally entering the bloc’s passport-free zone. .

Macron is expected to seek a second term in the April elections. Conservative and far-right candidates have made migration a priority issue, criticizing what they see the French president’s inaction to stem migration flows.

“Our passport-free zone (in Europe) is under threat if we don’t know how to protect our external borders and control who enters,” Macron said in an interview with regional newspaper La Voix du Nord.

Macron meets with the bloc’s interior ministers in northern France on Wednesday evening, as the country currently holds the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency. He also meets with local officials to discuss economic issues in the former mining region.

Macron wants the creation of a ‘rapid reaction force’ to help protect EU states‘ borders in the event of an influx of migrants and is also pushing to rethink the bloc’s asylum process

EU leaders agree that changes in migrant policies are needed, but disagree on how to go about it.

The arrival in 2015 of more than one million people, including many refugees fleeing the war in Syria, triggered one of the biggest political crises in the EU. Greece has been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people landing on its islands on rafts and dinghies from Turkey. But other EU countries have refused to host the refugees.

In December, the EU executive announced an overhaul of regulations governing free movement in Europe amid accusations that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was exploiting migrants in a ‘hybrid attack’ by offering them border crossings. from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Macron also said he wanted the EU to be more “effective” in deporting those refused entry.

The French president is also seeking to reduce the number of visas issued to EU states that are reluctant to take back migrants. On average, only around 40% of those refused entry to the block are actually sent home.

At home, Macron has faced harsh criticism from political rivals over migration policies, particularly after a boat sank that killed at least 27 migrants in the English Channel in November.

Last month, far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour visited the northern town of Calais, where migrants are gathering in makeshift camps as they attempt to reach Britain . Zemmour said migrants die at sea “because we are not tough enough on them. If we had told them… you will not come to France, you will be deported as soon as you arrive, they would not have died.

A record 52,000 people attempted to cross the English Channel last year, more than half of whom made their way to Britain, according to preliminary figures from the French Interior Ministry.

The other far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, traveled last month to the border area between France and Spain in the Pyrenees used as an entry route for migrants from Africa. She called for the reestablishment of national border controls to better combat illegal immigration.

Conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse recently made a campaign trip to Greece to visit a camp for asylum seekers who want to enter Europe from Turkey. She stressed the need for strong European borders.

“It’s not fortress Europe at all, but it’s not supermarket Europe either…. There are doors and you have to go through the door, and for me that is my European role model,” she said.

Zemmour, Le Pen and Pécresse are seen as Macron’s main challengers in the presidential election to be held on April 10 and 24, according to polls.

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AP writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

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