French leader Macron urges new migrant policy

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Ahmed Adam, left, from Sudan during his visit to a migrant center in Croisilles, northern France, Tuesday. Macron is making a foray into the symbolic heart of France’s migrant problem with a visit to the port city of Calais, where hundreds of people hide out while trying to make an end run to Britain. (AP PHOTO)

CALAIS, France (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron traveled Tuesday to the epicenter of France’s migrant crisis, the northern port of Calais, to lay out a new approach to immigration: help for those who want to stay, expulsion for those using France as a transit point and sanctions for any poor behavior by security forces.

The northern city is a magnet for migrants because it is the closest point between France and Britain and has two cross-Channel transport systems, the Eurotunnel and ferries.

Macron laid out the broad lines of his immigration policy in a speech before security forces, some of whom have been criticized for overzealous actions against migrants.

“Calais is not a back door to Britain,” he said, referring to the hundreds of migrants trying to make an end run to Britain by sneaking across the English Channel.

Macron declared that staying in Calais instead of applying for asylum in France is “a dead end” and vowed not to allow any migrant camp to take root after authorities dismantled Europe’s biggest migrant slum, on the edge of Calais, in 2016.

Macron wants to change a 2003 border control agreement that allows British officials to help carry out checks in Calais, effectively moving the British border to the French port. That has spared Britain from receiving floods of migrants at its doorstep like other European countries, putting the burden of blocking their entry to the U.K. on France.

Macron is meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday in Sandhurst near London to discuss the issue.

The French president said the three points he plans to raise with May include “better management of the issue of unaccompanied minors, reinforced police cooperation in Calais and with the countries of origin and transit” and getting British funds for development projects in Calais.

The former French tourist destination has long suffered because of the influx of migrants there.

Macron, speaking in the Gendarmerie headquarters, told security forces they will be sanctioned if they fail to honor their rules of conduct. He listed some of the claims: that police confiscate sleeping bags and even shoes from migrants, awaken them in the night, use tear gas on their belongings and food.

“There are no half-truths,” the president said.

But Macron also said authorities would file defamation complaints against those who make false allegations against the police.

The president’s trip was a preview of a tough new immigration and asylum bill to be presented to the Cabinet in February.

More than 1,130 French security forces have been posted in Calais, including riot police, border police and gendarmes. Their mission is to keep migrants out of the port and Eurotunnel and stop them from setting up camps.

Macron also talked briefly Tuesday with Sudanese migrants at a special center in Croisilles, south of Calais, where migrants can apply for asylum in France. Many migrants only stay briefly in such centers and quickly resume efforts to sneak across the Channel.

One migrant applying for asylum in France, identified only by his first name Ahmed, 25, said he travelled from Sudan through Libya and Italy to end up in Calais last year.

He told Macron he wants to “learn French, get training and find a job as auto mechanic.” He said he had no choice but to leave his country because his mother was killed and his family disappeared. Macron told Ahmed his story seems to meet the criteria to be granted asylum.

Just over a year ago, the filthy makeshift migrant camp in Calais was dismantled and some 7,000 migrants were sent to centers around France.

But with 400 to 700 migrants in Calais today, the situation is in many ways worse, said Francois Guennoc of the aid group Auberge des Migrants. The group is one of two that declined to take part in a meeting with Macron.

“It’s catastrophic,” he said, because migrants have no right to pitch tents.

Tensions also flare among the migrants in Calais. Up to 100 Afghans and Eritreans wielding iron bars and sticks clashed Sunday night and police had to use tear gas to separate them, officials said.

Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart has spent years pressing the French government for funds, police and other help in dealing with migrants. She is among the critics of the 2003 deal that put the British border security burden on France.

France is pressing Britain to take in more unaccompanied minors and seeking more funds from Britain to improve border controls.
May’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to comment on any new deal on migrants before Macron’s visit to Britain.