French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb leaves the Elysee Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris
By Julie Carriat and Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron's government on Wednesday proposed toughening France's immigration and asylum laws despite strident criticism from human rights groups, in a move that will test the unity of his left-and-right majority.
The bill will double to 90 days the time in which illegal migrants can be detained, shorten deadlines to apply for asylum, and make the illegal crossing of borders an offence punishable by one year in jail and fines.
The government says it wants to be both firm and fair on immigration. Its proposal will also make it easier for minors to get asylum and aims to halve the time it takes for authorities to process any asylum request.
"The law is balanced," Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said, arguing that if France did not tighten its laws it would attract refugees put off by tougher rules elsewhere in Europe. "If we don't take this into account, we won't be able, tomorrow, to guarantee the right to asylum in France."
But while Macron's parliamentary majority, a mix of lawmakers who have their roots both in right-wing and left-wing parties, has so far been very united, the government's migration plans have triggered disquiet in its ranks.
Mathieu Orphelin, a lawmaker from Macron's Republic On the Move party, said on Tuesday increasing the detention time from 45 days to 90 days was problematic, adding that he intended to propose amendments to modify the bill.
Another lawmaker from Macron's party, Sonia Krimi, has accused the government of "playing with people's fears" with its migration reform. "Not all foreigners in France are terrorists, not all foreigners cheat with social welfare," she said in a parliamentary debate.
Collomb told a news conference he was confident parliament would approve the law despite such criticism. But Jean-Francois Dubost of Amnesty International said the rights group would press lawmakers to amend virtually all aspects of the bill.
Macron is accustomed to glowing international tributes as a breath of fresh air since his election in May last year on promises of a break with government framed by left-versus-right politics.
But the migration bill has concentrated criticism at home. His approval rating has fallen to 44 percent, its lowest level since October, a poll showed on Sunday, as his government tries to shake up France's costly civil service.
The prominent left-wing magazine l'Obs in January featured a black and white photo of Macron's face, wrapped in barbed wire, on its cover, above the words: "Welcome to the country of human rights".
NGOs, lawyers and employees from France's asylum office, on strike for the first time in five years, staged a protest on Wednesday with placards reading: "Death of the right to asylum."
This bill "represents a vertiginous drop in the rights of refugees and migrants in France," said Jean-Claude Mas of the Cimade charity, which helps migrants and asylum seekers.
But the bill might prove popular with voters. A BVA opinion poll earlier this month showed 63 percent of French voters believe there are too many immigrants in France.
The number of people filing asylum requests in France hit a record in 2017, topping 100,000.
That is still well below the 186,000 arrivals of asylum seekers registered that year in Germany. At the height of Europe's migrant crisis in 2015, Germany registered 890,000 arrivals.
(Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones)