PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron faces a backlash over plans to tighten immigration law as the number of asylum seekers soars, with aid and emergency agencies accusing his government of planning mass expulsions.
To try to ease the tension, Macron dispatched Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to meet aid organizations on Thursday and explain legislation due to go in coming weeks to parliament where his Republique En Marche group has an absolute majority.
Before Thursday's meeting, the Secours Catholique charity denounced the policy plans -- which will clarify when migrants must be returned to their countries of origin -- as a simplistic and backward step. Another charity said it planned to boycott the meeting with Philippe.
Laurent Giovannoni of Secours Catholique said the new law would trigger the expulsion of anyone not classified as a war refugee in the strictest sense, meaning scores of people in dire need or danger would be forced out.
"This policy belongs to the past," Giovannoni, who said he had been shown the latest draft of the bill, told franceinfo radio.
The number of people filing asylum requests in France hit a record in 2017, topping 100,000.
Macron, elected in May after a duel with Marine Le Pen, the head of the anti-immigrant National Front, has promised to speed up processing asylum requests while also ensuring that those who do not qualify are dealt with more firmly.
He broke away from other matters at a new conference in Rome on Thursday to say: "Nothing in the policy being pursued by the government calls the right of asylum into question, but asylum does not mean welcoming people indiscriminately."
Currently, just four percent of people refused asylum are expelled, said Christophe Castaner, a Macron ally who said political leaders of all hues had let the matter fester for too long. "That's not acceptable."
"We're not in a position to welcome a million people in from Libya," said Castaner.
Asylum policy has become an urgent issue in Europe, fuelling the rise of far right parties, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants arrived mainly from Turkey to Greece in the biggest influx since World War Two.
That route was closed by a deal between the EU and Turkey, but hundreds of thousands have since come using the other main route, across the southern Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Numbers on that route fell in the second half of last year after Libyan authorities took a tougher stance on smuggling.
Castaner said Germany had led Europe in throwing its doors open to more than a million migrants fleeing conflict, primarily from Syria. But around 300,000 of those who entered Germany had nonetheless been refused asylum, he said.
The aid organizations are alarmed since a recent policy adjustment by the interior ministry extended inspections of hotels and shelters where thousands of migrants seek refuge, including many who could face expulsion.
Macron is accustomed to glowing international tributes as a breath of fresh air since his election in May on promises of a break with government framed by Left-versus-Right politics.
But he got a thumbs down from prominent French magazine l'Obs over migrants. The weekly put a black and white photo of his face, wrapped in barbed wire, on its cover above the words: "Welcome to the country of human rights".
(Writing by Brian Love; Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Luke Baker and Peter Graff)