Despite recent criticism for its anti-immigration tendencies, France is less restrictive than other European countries
By itself, the French picture might fool you. But set against the rest of the European family album, it grows much clearer. Last summer's expulsions of members of the Roma community, the rising popularity of the far-right's Marine Le Pen, the possibility of deporting foreigners convicted of crimes: all these developments were quickly assigned as proof of a renewed xenophobic trend. But these tensions in France are weak compared to the more radical identity movements emerging in the rest of Europe.
And the new European presidency is a symbol of this shift. Since January 1, Hungary is leading the European Union. The country's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is known for an aggressive brand of nationalism: both his territorial provocations toward their Slovak neighbor, like issuing Hungarian passports to the Magyar minority in Slovakia; and through ethnic pressures against minorities in Hungary, especially the Roma.
"Hungary hasn't gotten over the fact that Europe's Christian roots were put in question," says French Deputy Minister for European Affairs Laurent Wauquiez. If territorial quarrels are still dominant in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe it is religion, especially Islam, which drives the tensions.
And these tensions are so strong that they push traditionally open countries to question their integration models: the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders' Freedom Party became the country's third political force; Germany, where, after using national sentiment during the Greek crisis, chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the country's multiculturalism.
Further north, in Finland (just four months ahead of legislative elections) and in Sweden (where it was once officially banned), xenophobic attitudes are rising in opinion polls. And the heart of Europe is no different. Switzerland's evolution is very important, because, according to a Europe expert, the country is often an indicator of future immigration policies. In November, just a year after a referendum banning Muslim minarets, the Swiss voted in favor of deporting foreign criminals.
It is no coincidence that nationalistic or even xenophobic tendencies have gained ground in the past two years. For Wauquiez: "the financial crisis revived fears linked to identity." "The difficult economic and financial environment makes people more wary about immigrants, and their attitude toward illegal immigration get tougher," adds European Commissioner in charge of Interior Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom. But she also blames governments: "Often a lack of political leadership can open the door to populist approaches on immigration. Extremism finds fertile grounds where politicians fail to engage in real debate and don't give concrete answers to problems like immigrant integration and illegal immigration management."
In the meantime, words aren't the only thing getting tougher on immigration. Practices are following suit, with the possible return to a "European fortress." Britain and the Netherlands weren't the only countries to toughen up their immigration policies: the number of residence permits granted across the EU in 2009 declined by 9% to 2.3 million.
In a union where each state remains in control of its immigration policies, the European Commission can only act indirectly to help the free movement of non-EU workers. "Europe needs legal immigration and will need it even more in the future because of negative demographic trends," says Malmstrom. Many service jobs depend on it as well as high-tech sectors already lacking researchers and engineers. "Closing the door is not in our interest," says the commissioner.
But France is not following the European trend. The financial crisis doesn't seem to have weakened its choice of a "chosen" and "concerted" immigration with a dozen countries. The decline in residence permits was barely visible in 2009 (down 3%) with 175,000 permits, 75% more than in Germany. And for the first 11 months of 2010, 182,000 permits have already been granted, as many as in 2008. A sign of France's openness, welcoming foreign students has a lot to do with it.
But France's immigration policy image is given by its more restrictive approach in matters of asylum (Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux pledged to limit to "real dissidents') and expulsion of illegal immigrants.
Approved by Parliament in early October and headed for the Senate in February, the law would raise the detention period for foreigners being deported from 32 to 45 day, the time needed for the country of origin to approval the reentry. It is far from the toughest in Europe: a year ago, Spain brought it to 60 days, just like Portugal; In Germany it can go up to 18 months.
For Gérard Longuet, the President of the ruling UMP group in the Senate: "When you look at immigration practices in other European capitals, Paris really shouldn't be ashamed." Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux likes to repeat this anecdote: in the European pact on immigration and asylum pushed by France and adopted in 2008, it was Spain's Socialist-led government that requested and obtained that "illegal immigrants on a member state's territory" not only "risk" but are "obliged" to leave the country.
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Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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