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Macron party split over migration policy as president heads for Rome meeting

media Interior Minister Gérard Collomb (L) with gendarmerie chief Richard Lizurey on 3 January REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Migration was expected to be high on the agenda of a meeting of southern European leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome on Wednesday evening. Meanwhile in France, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met MPs from the ruling coalition to try to head off a possible split over a proposed immigration law.

The Rome get-together was the fourth meeting of the "Southern Seven" - Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain.

Although it was to be short, it was expected to tackle a number of questions, including the eurozone's future, efforts to propel growth, employment and investment, and the 2019 European Parliament elections.

But migration was expected to be the hottest topic.

Agreeements with Libya and Turkey have led to a fall in arrivals in Italy and Greece in 2017 but Spain saw a rise in entries from Algerians and Moroccans.

The toll of dead or missing in the Mediterranean dropped from nearly 5,000 during crossings in 2016 to 3,116 in 2017, mostly off the coast of Libya.

But there are still hundreds of thousands of asylum applications waiting to be dealt with and requests reached a record 100,000 in France last year.

The question is also likely to feature in a meeting between Macron and Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Thursday.

Immigration bill in pipeline

Philippe met MPs from Macron's France on the Move (REM) party and coalition partner Modem on Wednesday, the latest in a series of efforts to calm criticism of the government's tough line on what it terms "economic migrants".

A new immigration bill is in the works and its proposal to speed up the handling of asylum applications along with the expulsion of economic migrants, including those whose applications are rejected, has aroused criticism from NGOs and that has found an echo in the ruling parties.

The bill will also propose beefing up police presence on France's borders, which were open until the collapse of the Schengen agreement as the migrant crisis grew and terror attacks heightened security fears.

Last year France kicked 26,000 people out of the country, a 14 percent increase on the year before, according to Interior Minister Gérard Collomb.

When he met gendarmes on 3 January Collomb expressed satisfaction over the 40,000 arrests of undocumented foreigners in 2017 and called for more in 2018.

Macron himself insisted that France "cannot take in everyone" in his New Year's message and has pushed African countries to stop would-be migrants leaving for Europe, urging the newly established G5 African military force to stop people-smugglers as well as executing its more highly publicised task of fighting terrorism.

Collomb has also angered NGOs with an order to provide lists of migrants in emergency shelters, a demand they say undermines their task of providing assistance to all who need it.

Divisions in REM ranks

This tough line has led a number of REM MPs to protest.

In December former Socialist Sonia Krimi declared in parliament that "detention centres are becoming retention centres and are unworthy of our republic".

The handling of undocumented migrants "has become a source of deep anxiety for the foreigners, NGOs, the police the préfectures and lawyers", she added to applause from MPs from the hard-left opposition party, France Unbowed.

Another REM MP, Joël Giraud, who represents a constituency near the Italian border where groups to help migrants crossing the Alps have been formed, called on the government to "revise its position in a more humanitarian way".

REM parliamentary chiefs are playing on loyalty to the president to rally the troops.

"Attacking Collomb means attacking Macron," the parliamentary group's spokesman Aurore Bergé has told them.

And a media cell has been set up to handle press relations.

Bergé and government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux will be among its members and former prime minister Manuel Valls will play an informal role, even though he is not actually an REM member.

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