SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Emmanuel Macron says his government is working on a new immigration and asylum law that French Parliament will vote on this spring. But already critics say such measures betray France's human rights traditions and run counter to the values that Macron embraced during his campaign. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In a gritty neighborhood in northern Paris, a couple dozen migrant men are standing around eating hot bowls of soup handed out by charity workers. Amar Zakaria says he fled Sudan when the government started attacking his Nubian ethnic group. The 30-year-old says his whole family has been scattered.
AMAR ZAKARIA: Some in Kenya, some are in South Sudan - all of them are now suffering a lot. South Sudan is a hell. So I decided to go through Libya to take the boat. I was lucky because I made it.
BEARDSLEY: President Macron says his government wants to help people like Zakaria by expediting the asylum process for those fleeing war and persecution. But to do so, Macron says refugees must be distinguished from those simply fleeing economic misery. So as of last month, authorities are allowed to carry out ID checks inside emergency shelters. The measure has provoked outrage from humanitarian leaders. Kenneth Roth is the director of Human Rights Watch.
KENNETH ROTH: Nobody should use an emergency shelter as a place to enforce the law. Even undocumented migrants should be able to go to a shelter or a hospital or a school - you know, have their basic necessities met without worrying about having their identity checked and facing possible deportation.
BEARDSLEY: A handful of members of Macron's En Marche party recently joined the Catholic church and union leaders to pen an open letter critical of the president's migration policy. The signatories said migrants who had faced exploitation and even torture are now having their freedom and dignity violated in France. While Macron declared that migrants must be housed in proper centers and no longer sleep on the street, police have been filmed destroying migrant encampments and slashing their tents.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you want to destroy our tents, so why don't you want to give us houses?
BEARDSLEY: Prominent author and filmmaker Yann Moix is making a documentary about migrants in the northern French town of Calais. Moix says he's shocked by the difference between the Macron who told the United Nations that France would speak for those who have no voice and the president he sees today.
YANN MOIX: (Through interpreter) He should explain why, only an hour and a half from Paris, defenseless young people and even women are humiliated and tear gassed. There are Afghans who've read Victor Hugo, and that's why they come to France. And we beat them.
BEARDSLEY: In a speech to police in Calais this month, Macron said the mistreatment of migrants would not be tolerated. But he also thanked the police for what he called their remarkable job protecting French citizens.
PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "Day and night, you are mobilized so that others can live normal lives," said Macron. Some critics say Macron is implementing policies that are harsher than those of his right-wing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. But migration specialist Catherine de Wenden doesn't think Macron has taken a turn to the right. She says the new president believes he is making the French asylum system more efficient.
CATHERINE DE WENDEN: So he's saying we have to respect the Geneva Convention on refugees. We have to respect the human rights for all aspects of family reunifications, the rights of children and all that. But there is no special attention to those who try to enter as economic migrants illegally. And so we have to repatriate them.
BEARDSLEY: The problem, says de Wenden, is that in many countries, there is both political oppression and an economic crisis. So it's increasingly difficult to define who is an economic migrant and who is a refugee.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.