There are several ways of looking at French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s (very) public announcement that he would start “systematically” deporting non-resident foreigners deemed “dangerous” to French security. “Our firmness is extremely clear. We will identify across the national territory all the dangerous types; we will withdraw any foreigners’ residence permit and will expel from [France] any foreigner considered dangerous by the intelligence services,” he hammered at a press conference.
The minister announced that proceedings would be conducted fast enough that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would not have time to hear, let alone rule on their appeals. Should their expulsion from French soil be ruled a violation of the European Convention, to which France is a signatory, “we will pay the fine”, Darmanin said breezily. “They will not be let back in again.”
Any legalistic minds objecting to this should be reminded that France, despite having reshaped more than 80% of her laws to conform with EU law, has regularly violated the latter when it felt it was in the higher interest of the country. Even without going into barely-disguised agricultural subsidies, European fines for — among other misdemeanours — violation of competition law have regularly hit large French industrial behemoths which had received a nod and a wink from the State (the names Alcatel, Areva, Schneider, Alstom immediately come to mind). The joke from French negotiators during the long slog of Brexit was to tell their British counterparts that they just needed “not to apply the Brussels decisions [they didn’t] like, like we do” — yet this held a fairly significant kernel of truth.
Mostly, though, Darmanin is on manoeuvres. He knows, because both his Département and Regional Préfets, as well as his pollsters, regularly tell him that the country at large is outraged by rising criminality and a terrorism threat that is the highest in Europe (the two sometimes overlap). He begged for the Home Office job because this has traditionally been a launching pad to greater things: it provides one with a granular overview of the country, so useful when your job includes overseeing elections.
His latest bombshell decision may alarm activist NGOs, Paris liberal opinion writers and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but it will be popular more broadly. Even if it peters out into few actual deportations (as is perfectly possible, and on past form even likely), it will be remembered. The two individual cases that triggered Darmanin’s policy statement concern two Chechen Russian passport-holders, the latest having filmed himself in videos of allegiance to the Islamist State. The ECHR believes sending him back to Russia would “put his life in danger”, which is believable. Essentially, Darmanin is saying here: “See if I care.”
An added bonus is that Gérald Darmanin may be creating a headache for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), which has been demanding similar measures for years. If the NR supports him in this, they will be seen as following his initiative. If they refuse, they will have to explain their churlishness. This would be doubly helpful to Darmanin, marking him as a less controversial alternative to Le Pen, but also enabling him to show Emmanuel Macron that he can make the RN look bad. Which, considering that in recent months Macron has been dissatisfied with Darmanin’s performance (and overweening ambition), might smooth matters between the two — or might not.
Finally, it’s rarely harmful to a French political career to pick a very visible battle with Brussels, especially on sovereignty. The EU is less popular in France than her neighbours believe: the old strain of intransigent Gaullism appeals. And when you would like to become president one day, it’s the best mood music you can pick.