The Algerian foreign ministry has summoned the French ambassador for talks in “formal protest” against France’s decision to sharply reduce the number of visas granted to Algerian nationals, as opposition parties in Paris accused Emmanuel Macron of using the row to court rightwing voters.
The French government announced this week that it would substantially cut the number of visas granted to people from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, three north African countries which were all part of France’s former colonial empire and where many people have strong family ties in France.
The government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, said the move to limit visas was “a drastic decision, and unprecedented”, arguing that it was necessary because those countries were not doing enough to take back migrants expelled from France.
He told Europe 1 radio: “These countries are refusing to take back nationals who we do not want or cannot keep in France.”
Attal said that Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia had recently refused to provide consular documents for their citizens being deported from France after arriving illegally. He added that France had been trying to reach a diplomatic solution for several years since it passed a tougher immigration law in 2018, with discussions taking place at ministerial level.
“There was dialogue, then there were threats, and today we’re carrying out those threats,” Attal said. “We’re hoping that the response will be more cooperation with France so that we can apply our immigration rules.”
The French government plans to reduce the number of visas given to Algerians and Moroccans by half, and to Tunisians by 30%.
Algeria called the visa reduction an “unfortunate act” that had caused confusion. Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, told reporters in Rabat the decision was unjustified and “does not reflect the reality of consular cooperation in the fight against irregular migration”.
French politicians on the right and far right accused the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to run for re-election in April, of trying to make sudden tough gestures on immigration to court rightwing voters.
“Why [do this] suddenly at the approach of a presidential election?” asked Aurélien Pradié, a member of parliament for the Lot for the rightwing Les Républicains, saying the government was scrambling to hastily show “a bit more authority”.
The government move on visas was announced the same day that the far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said she would call a referendum proposing drastic limits on immigration if she was elected.
Marlène Schiappa, the minister for citizenship, when asked if the government was chasing Le Pen, said: “We don’t set our agenda based on Marine Le Pen ... We make announcements when we are ready.”
A study for Le Monde this month found that immigration ranked fifth in the major concerns of French voters, far behind other issues such as health, the environment, social welfare and how to make ends meet.
But immigration is currently dominating political debate in the media as the right and far right jostle for airtime before the final line-up of presidential candidates is known.
The traditional rightwing party, Les Républicains, has yet to choose a candidate for the April presidential election, but those who want to run are hardening their lines on foreigners entering France. The former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, for example, has called for a moratorium on immigration.
The far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, who is considering launching a presidential bid, has used a promotional book tour and TV appearances to go much further than Le Pen in saying France will become an “Islamic republic” within a century if it does not crack down on immigration. The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has said Zemmour’s views are “shameful” and stigmatise Muslims in France, who he said served the nation, notably in the public service and in the military.