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France to reduce visas for Maghreb countries

September 29, 2021

Paris has accused former colonies of not doing enough to allow illegal immigrants to return. Algeria has summoned the French ambassador in response to the decision.

People in crowded Paris street
The government in Paris said that the countries were not facilitating the return of people refused the right to stay in FranceImage: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

France will sharply reduce the number of visas granted to people from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia because of their governments' refusal to take back illegal migrants expelled from France, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Tuesday.

Starting in a few weeks, Attal said the French government would halve the number of visas available to nationals from Algeria and Morocco, and reduce those for Tunisians by almost a third.

"It's a drastic decision, and unprecedented, but one made necessary by the fact that these countries are refusing to take back nationals who we do not want or cannot keep in France," Attal told Europe 1 radio.

Why is France cutting back on visas?

When a French court denies a person's visa request, authorities must still secure a special travel pass from his or her home country in order to forcibly expel them, a document that Attel said the governments of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were refusing to provide.

Coronavirus travel restrictions have also complicated efforts.

"There was dialogue, then there were threats, and today we're carrying out those threats," Attal said, adding that France has been trying to reach a diplomatic solution since it passed a harsher immigration law in 2018.

"We're hoping that the response will be more cooperation with France so that we can apply our immigration rules," he said.

The Associated Press cited an unnamed senior official in the French presidency as saying that Paris notably wants North African countries to take back people flagged for extremism.

How have countries in North Africa responded?

Algeria has summoned the French ambassador in response to the move. The Algerian Foreign Ministry said in a statement it had summoned the French envoy "to notify him of a formal protest ... following the unilateral decision of the French government." 

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita called the stated rationale for the French decision "unjustified."

"The decision [by France] is sovereign. Morocco will study it, but the reasons given to justify it require explanation and a dialogue, because they do not reflect reality," he told reporters in Rabat.

Bourita said his country had issued 400 consular documents to Moroccans being expelled from France, but the number was limited because many of them refused to take a virus test, which is required to re-enter Morocco.

That is "the problem of France, which must deal with it," he said.

The office of Tunisian President Kais Saied, which faces a slightly smaller reduction in visa numbers, took a more conciliatory public stance: "We are among countries that are cooperative in this domain, and we have excellent relations with France," it said.

France votes in regional elections — Lisa Louis reports

Far-right ups pressure

France's decision comes amid pressure from far-right politicians on centrist President Emmanuel Macron to implement stronger migration rules.

Migration could prove an important issue in next year's presidential election, when Macron is expected to face off again against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

On Monday, Le Pen said on France 2 television that if she was elected president next year, she would call a referendum proposing strict criteria for entering French territory and for acquiring French nationality. She also said she would give French citizens priority access to social housing, jobs and social security benefits.

In 2017, Le Pen made it to the second round of the election, but was defeated by Macron, who secured more than 66% of the vote. Her National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, has historically fared better in first-round voting, when multiple mainstream candidates are in the running. Both she and her father Jean-Marie reached the second-round runoff once each, only to lose by large margins when pitted against one single rival.

Macron has not yet announced that he will stand for re-election.

mvb/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)