Former Top French Minister Wades In As France and Italy Bicker Over How to Deal With Rescued Migrants

Fayçal Benhassain | November 15, 2022 | 9:44pm EST
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The Ocean Viking arrives at Toulon, southern France on Friday, carrying more than 200 migrants rescued while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. (Photo by Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images)
The Ocean Viking arrives at Toulon, southern France on Friday, carrying more than 200 migrants rescued while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. (Photo by Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images)

Paris ( – Amid a row between France and Italy over how to deal with migrants rescued while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, a former senior French minister and ally of President Emmanuel Macron slammed the government for allowing 234 migrants to disembark at a French port last week.

Gérard Collomb, who was Macron’s interior minister until resigning in 2018, called the move “a mistake which risks creating a precedent.”

In an article published in the magazine Le Point he also revealed – for the first time – that his 2018 resignation had been the result of differences with the president over how to deal with the migration issue.

Last week the government allowed the Ocean Viking, an NGO-chartered ship that had been unable to dock at a European port for three weeks, to make port in the southern city of Toulon, to enable the 234 men, women and children onboard to disembark.

The migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, had been rescued while trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats.

The ship approached France after the newly-installed Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni refused to allow it to dock at an Italian port.

In a “solidarity” agreement reached over the summer and aimed at helping Italy cope with migrants arriving on its soil, France had agreed to accept 3,000 migrants, including 500 by the end of 2022.

After the Ocean Viking incident, however, Paris is pulling out of the arrangement, with immediate effect.

Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told reporters that France has “suspended the relocation system for migrants from Italy,” and is reinforcing controls at the France-Italy border.

Meloni earlier described the French reaction to the incident as “aggressive” and “incomprehensible and unjustified.”

 Italy could not be the only destination in Europe for migrants from Africa, she said.

Meloni said Italy wanted to find a common “European solution” to the problem, saying she did not want to have arguments with France, Spain or other E.U. countries adjacent to the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Collomb’s revelations have drawn considerable attention from French politicians.

He said that, aside from an emotional response to the plight of the migrants on the Ocean Viking, the decision to allow the ship to dock in France “marks a turning point” in its immigration policy.

Collomb said that allowing the migrants into France was “to open a breach and create a precedent” saying that the decision would “only encourage networks of smugglers for whom migrants are a source of considerable earnings.”

“Once the migrants have entered French territory, it is almost impossible to expel  them,” he said.

Collomb disclosed that he had resigned in 2018 after opposing plans under consideration by Macron to create a so-called migration “hot spot” in Toulon or Marseille – a center where rescued migrants would be received and processed.

He said that the reason he had not gone public at the time with his reasons for resigning was because he had not wanted to give a boost to National Rally leader Marine Le Pen – who has strong views about illegal migration – in her next presidential election campaign.

In response, Le Pen accused Collomb of having “deceived France” in order to prevent her from being elected president.

She tweeted that Collomb’s words confirm that Macron has “always had a vision in favor of immigration.”

“We must now listen to the French people and put an end to this anarchic and massive immigration which is creating chaos in our country,” Le Pen said.

Left-wing parties welcomed the government’s decision last week to allow the migrants to disembark, calling it a “decision worthy of the values of France.”

The center-right Republicans criticized the government move, however. Bruno Retailleau, who is campaigning for the presidency of the party, said he regretted the “irresponsible signal” sent by Macron to “smugglers” and to “NGOs, who are their accomplices.”

The ship was chartered by SOS Méditerranée, a European NGO that says it has been operating in the waters between North Africa and Europe since 2015, “to save people in distress in the Central Mediterranean – the world’s most deadly migration route.”

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that 60 of the migrants taken off the ship, mostly from Syria, Sudan, and Eritrea, have been allowed to request asylum.

The applications of 44 others had been rejected and they would be deported, he said. Applications for the rest were under consideration.

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