© Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron has proposed relocating asylum-seekers to the countryside from overpopulated cities like Calais, sparking a furious political row.

In a speech to France's prefects, the highest state representatives in the country's regions, Mr Macron, 44, argued that French immigration policy at present was "absurd" and "both inefficient and inhumane".
"Inefficient because we find ourselves with more illegal foreigners than our neighbours. Inhumane because this pressure means that we often welcome them poorly."
The centrist French president suggested that a win-win solution could be to dispatch immigrants to
"rural areas that are losing population; zones where we will have to shut classrooms, and probably primary and secondary schools"; and where "the welcome (for migrants) will be better than if we put them in zones that are already densely populated".
The idea succeeded in uniting the fractious French Right and hard-Right opposition who both argued that Mr Macron would do better getting a handle on illegal immigration rather than simply passing the buck to the countryside.

Le Pen
© Pascal Guyot/AFP
Marine Le Pen: Macron is displacing illegal immigration problem to the countryside.
Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party whom Macron defeated in April's presidential election, warned:
"(He) wishes to spread foreigners illegally in France to rural areas. We consider that they should be sent back to their countries. Incapable of applying the law, he wants to change it."
Anti-immigrant and Islam polemist Eric Zemmour claimed that this proved Mr Macron believed that the "great replacement" of native French by foreign immigrants was "a necessity".

Eric Ciotti, MP for the conservative Republicans Party, LR, also waded in: "To wish to displace problems linked to immigration towards rural areas is a heresy and cowardly. Macron continues his drive to deconstruct the nation," he said.

"In the marvelous world of Emmanuel Macron, immigration is never a problem. All regions should profit from it," added LR senator Bruno Retailleau.

In truth, the rural relocation idea was one side of a speech in which Mr Macron also conceded France was struggling to get a handle on illegal immigration and would have to toughen its immigration and asylum policy in an upcoming law to be debated later this year.

"We have a system of financial, social and medical aid that is much more generous than that of our neighbours," he conceded, intimating such aid could be cut back under a new law. Medical aid for illegal immigrants in France is estimated to cost the taxpayer a billion euros per year.

Mr Macron's statement came months after France insisted the UK should change its asylum and labour system to stop them viewing the country as a magnet-like "eldorado".

"Clearly, immigration is badly managed in Britain," French interior minister Gérald Darmanin claimed in November, adding that it should take responsibility for the Channel crisis and make itself "less attractive for migrants".
© Julien de Rosa/AFP
Gérald Darmanin
In his speech to French prefects, Mr Macron said:
"We must reform our procedures to go much faster (in handling asylum requests)", both by improving "efficiency in expelling (illegal immigrants)" and integrating those with temporary stay permits through language and work."
He also pledged to bolster moves to refuse visas to nationals of countries that failed to "cooperate" in taking back citizens who illegally entered France, particularly those who commit crimes.

The two-pronged message followed dire warnings from some prefects that the situation was getting out of hand. L'Opinion cited one as telling the president:
"On immigration, we are leaking on all sides. In my département (county), half of all those remanded in custody are foreigners. And we don't expel anyone anymore."
France is estimated to have around 600,000-700,000 illegal immigrants on its soil. Some 13,400 were "expelled" last year, according to the interior minister. But only 30 per cent of those ordered to go actually left with many filing lengthy appeals.

Mr Macron is said to be acutely aware of the recent gains of the hard-Right around Europe, notably in Sweden, with one senior aide telling L'Opinion the Scandinavian country was "a social democrat paradise that has been totally overwhelmed by immigration and now has to take on gangs armed with grenades".

Analysts say Mr Macron wants to "at the same time" better welcome asylum seekers but show he means to get tougher on illegal entrants before his Renaissance party is taken to task by 89 MPs from Ms Le Pen's National Rally in a parliament where he no longer enjoys an absolute majority.