PARIS (Reuters) - France gave broad backing on Wednesday to an EU scheme to share out asylum-seekers among EU states to deal with a surge of migrants, after a week of ambiguity that reflected growing public opposition to immigration.
French diplomats acknowledged there had been confusion between Paris and Brussels on the project, but officials dismissed media reports that Paris opposed the plan outright.
The episode is the latest to underline growing sensitivities in the European Union as anti-immigrant movements such as France’s National Front win support just as the continent sees a surge in migrants fleeing strife in Africa and the Middle East.
The EU executive, the European Commission, last week unveiled a plan including a “temporary distribution mechanism” to help the bloc’s 28 states better share out the effort of assessing asylum claims after over 600,000 sought refuge in the EU last year. It proposed allocating them according to a complex formula.
In a statement issued after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government confirmed that it backed such a scheme, “built around criteria that need thorough discussion”, but insisted it could not accept “quotas”.
The term has been latched onto by anti-immigration groups as a sign that refugees are being imposed on France from outside.
It was then taken up last weekend by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who said in a speech that France could never accept migrant quotas.
Various French media took this to mean that Paris opposed the scheme outright, but a French diplomat who declined to be named said Paris was merely trying to avoid a loaded term.
“Things are simple in substance but complicated in the semantics. The communication has been a bit clumsy,” said the diplomat. “France will take its share.”
A second official said Paris was happy with the spirit of the Commission proposals but still had concerns on how the distribution would be calculated; the amount of refugees to be brought in for resettlement; and how those who were simply economic migrants could be quickly identified.
A Commission spokeswoman in Brussels said a legislative proposal would be presented to governments by the end of the month.
The plan will need the backing of at least 15 countries representing 65 percent of the bloc’s population. Spain has raised objections, while Britain has said it will opt out.
French officials say that France, Italy, Britain, Germany and Sweden between them handle three-quarters of all asylum applications on the continent.
Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to win National Front voters over to his conservative UMP with tough policies on national identity and immigration. Valls is also noted for strong rhetoric on crime and illegal immigration.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen said Valls’ “No quotas” speech was a smokescreen.
“Manuel Valls is being deliberately vague when he talks about a fairer distribution of foreigners washing up on Europe’s shores - which is tantamount to an increase in the migratory burden already weighing on France,” she said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Kevin Liffey