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Macron Suffers Surprise Setback Over Immigration in France

President Emmanuel Macron of France suffered an unexpected setback on Monday as lawmakers brought his government’s immigration overhaul bill to a screeching halt, casting fresh doubts on his ability to get key legislation through Parliament.

The bill, which tries to strike a balance between cracking down on illegal immigration and extending work opportunities for migrants with needed skills, had been in the making for over a year. The government struggled to find a mix of measures that would pass muster in the lower house, the National Assembly, where Mr. Macron’s centrist party and its allies do not hold an absolute majority.

But those hopes were dashed on Monday when the lower house passed a motion to reject the bill without further discussion. The motion by the Green party, one of several left-wing opposition groups in Parliament, received 270 votes in favor and 265 against. Parliamentary debate that was expected to begin Monday and last two weeks was immediately cut short.

Immigration has long been a fixation of French politics. The bill would be the 29th immigration and asylum law in four decades in France, a country that is often described by politicians and commentators, particularly on the right, as fending off an out-of-control influx of migrants.

The rejection was a particularly stinging blow for Gérald Darmanin, Mr. Macron’s tough-talking interior minister, who had staked a lot of political capital on getting the bill passed without resorting to a constitutional tool known as the 49.3. The government used that tool, which allows certain bills to be passed without a vote, earlier this year to ram through Mr. Macron’s unpopular pension reform, a method that was ultimately successful but bruising.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, said after the vote that Mr. Macron’s centrist alliance had “forgotten” how to govern without the 49.3.

“Contrary to what Mr. Darmanin had said, this law was a pro-immigration law,” Ms. Le Pen told reporters at the National Assembly, where she is the head lawmaker for her anti-immigration party, the National Rally. “That was out of the question.”

The far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who dismissed the defeated bill as “pro-immigration,” speaking to reporters on Monday.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The outcome of the vote on Monday was hard to predict because it required an ungainly alliance of opposition parties to approve the motion on diametrically opposite grounds. Left-wing parties complain that the bill is too harsh; the right and far right say it is too lenient.

Benjamin Haddad, a lawmaker for Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party, criticized what he called a “completely outlandish alliance.”

“We went in with an open and constructive mindset, and now we’re unfortunately robbed of that debate,” Mr. Haddad told reporters.

Mr. Darmanin acknowledged a “failure” and said after the vote that he had offered his resignation but Mr. Macron had refused it. The French president appeared unwilling to part with an ally who has become his indispensable face of law and order.

In an interview on TF1 television, Mr. Darmanin said that Mr. Macron had asked the government to find a way forward for the bill.

Options are limited. The bill could go back to France’s conservative-controlled Senate, which last month passed a strict version that the government was hoping to soften. The government could also convene a small committee of lawmakers from both houses to try to hash out a compromise.

France’s conservative Republicans party holds the keys to the bill’s success in the lower house, where its 62 lawmakers are sometimes divided but are often Mr. Macron’s only potential reservoir of votes when ballots go to the wire.

“We are asking the president of the Republic to go back to the drawing board,” Olivier Marleix, the head of the Republicans in the lower house, told reporters. “If tomorrow we had a very firm text like the one in the Senate, we could vote for it, but that’s not the case here.”

The government had presented its immigration bill as both a carrot and stick.

Protesting the immigration reform bill outside the National Assembly in Paris, on Monday.Credit…Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

It would create temporary residency permits for foreign workers in fields experiencing labor shortages, and it would also enable asylum seekers from high-risk countries to work immediately.

But it would also make it harder for foreigners to get residency papers, for instance by toughening French language requirements; it would speed up a sluggish deportation process; and it would restrict access to medical coverage for undocumented migrants.

The bill would make it easier for the authorities to deport illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes or who present security risks, which the government says would have prevented some of the recent terrorist attacks that have put the country on edge. One provision removes a ban on deporting foreigners who arrived in France before the age of 13, as Mr. Darmanin has noted was the case for the Russian-born suspect in the killing of a French teacher in October.

“If we don’t have these measures, tragedies await,” Mr. Darmanin told TF1. “If we don’t have these measures, that means we are letting politicking prevail over the public interest.”

But to many opposition lawmakers, the bill’s rejection was a sign that Mr. Macron’s “at the same time” style of governing, as it has come to be known — constantly trying to reconcile both sides of an issue and to glean measures from both sides of the aisle — was a failure.

“‘At the same time’ has run its course,” Boris Vallaud, a top Socialist lawmaker, told reporters. “By trying so hard to supposedly please everyone, it is the entirety of this assembly that is displeased.”

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