PARIS (Reuters) – France does not plan to stop illegal immigrants getting medical care, but the program should be reviewed as part of an effort to ensure the country is not too “attractive” for migrants, President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday.
Like other European leaders, Macron faces an electoral threat from rivals on the populist right and is under pressure to crack down on migration, but he risks alienating some of his more liberal backers if he veers too far to the right.
“In order to be able to welcome everyone decently, we shouldn’t be too attractive a country,” the French president told Europe 1 radio station on the sidelines of a United Nations summit in New York.
“I heard some say we should abolish state medical aid. That would be ridiculous”, Macron said in the interview.
“We must evaluate it. We need a debate to assess what we do compared to our neighbours. Do we really have to fully reimburse everything ? Aren’t there some excesses ?”
According to OECD figures published earlier this month, France and Spain were among the few countries globally who registered a big increase in asylum applications last year.
France already toughened its immigration policies in 2018 but Macron promised in April to address the issue again, in the wake of the violent “Yellow Vest” protests earlier this year against his government.
Macron faces his next big electoral test next year, when his party will contest municipal elections. A debate on immigration issues is scheduled for next week in the French parliament.
Free access to state healthcare is one benefit that, critics say, helps lure asylum seekers and illegal immigrants to France.
Set up in 2000, under a then left-wing government led by Lionel Jospin, the healthcare program for illegal immigrants benefits some 300,000 people at an annual cost close to 950 million euros (841.6 million pounds). Right and far-right parties have demanded its removal.
Several non-governmental groups who work with migrants have said that a downsizing of this program could have dire consequences not only for the people directly concerned but also for public health in general.
(Reporting by Marine Pennetier and Simon Carraud; Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Christian Lowe)