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FRANCE: Immigrants Uneasy over Proposed Policies

Michael Deibert

PARIS, Jun 19 2007 (IPS) - In his successful bid to lead the country this past spring, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made reform of the country’s immigration system a centrepiece of his campaign, at one point telling a news conference that France was “exasperated by the dispute about national identity and by uncontrolled immigration.”

Now, as he finishes up the first full month of his presidency, French voters are seeing exactly what Sarkozy had in mind when he spoke of the rupture with the past that he vowed to bring to the Elysee Palace.

In no short order since taking the reigns of government, Sarkozy has created a new government ministry – the Ministère de l’immigration, de l’intégration, de l’identité nationale et du codéveloppement – and charged it with profoundly reworking the nation’s immigration procedures.

A draft law from the new ministry proposes that foreigners wishing to join family members in France first pass a test judging proficiency in the French language and familiarity with the “values of the Republic” before leaving their home countries.

The law, set to go before France’s soon-to-be-seated Parliament in July, is currently being evaluated by the country’s Conseil d’Etat(Council of State). At present, those with family ties to residents in France account for roughly 90 percent of the 100,000 yearly legal immigrants France receives from beyond the borders of the European Union.

Brice Hortefeux, the official in charge of the new ministry, recently suggested paying legal immigrants to France a “nest egg” in the neighbourhood of 8,000 dollars to encourage them return to their countries of origin, echoing a 2005-2006 scheme that saw around 3,000 families leave France.

“The fact that a ministry is being created around this issue of immigration shows that it’s obviously a key priority for the French government,” says Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman of the International Organisation for Migration in Geneva.

There are currently approximately 4.5 million legal immigrants living in France, with up to an additional half million illegal migrants. An estimated two million immigrants in the country are from north or sub-Saharan Africa. France also has by far the largest Muslim population in Europe, so large, in fact, that a third of the Muslims in Europe now live in France.

In a development that might somewhat complicate the President’s plans for radical change, though, Sarkozy’s centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party won a clear parliamentary majority in French legislative elections held this month, but saw the number of seats under its control slip somewhat from those that it held in the outgoing governmental session.

Final official results gave the UMP and its allies 345 seats in France’s 577-seat National Assembly, down from 359 seats in the previous legislature. The opposition Socialists, meanwhile, saw their number of seats increase to 207 from 149.

Some of the Sarkozy government proposals have generated considerable criticism among academics and civil rights groups.

“Sarkozy has decided to polarise the French electorate on the immigration issue, and he probably won the election that way but he is now facing a very dangerous situation,” says Patrick Weil, a director of research at France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). “I am afraid this will create a more divided society.”

Sarkozy’s relations with some in France’s immigrant communities have been testy at least since October 2005, when, as minister of interior in the government of then president Jacques Chirac, he visited a low income section of Argenteuil, a northwestern suburb of Paris that is home to many immigrants and their families.

With television cameras in tow, Sarkozy stood among a series of cement tower blocks and, responding to a woman’s request from her window for help from the crime and delinquency affecting the area, promised to get rid of racaille (rabble) in the neighbourhood.

Two days later, Bouna Traore and Ziad Benna, two youths from immigrant families, were electrocuted in the eastern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois while trying to hide from police. France subsequently exploded into a wave of rioting and civil unrest the likes of which it had not seen for decades, much of it centreed on the largely immigrant banlieues, as the poor suburbs that ring many French cities are known.

When the dust settled, France had suffered 200 million euros in damage, nearly 9,000 cars and dozens of buildings had been burned, nearly 130 police and firefighters had been injured and close to 2,900 people had been arrested. One person, Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec, a retiree, was killed in the unrest when he was beaten to death by a hooded rioter after attempting to put out a fire near his home in a suburb north of Paris.

Perhaps ironically, Sarkozy is himself the product of an immigrant family, born in Paris in 1955, the son of a minor Hungarian aristocrat father who fled that country’s communist government, and a mother who was the daughter of an immigrant Greek physician.

As if responding to criticism that he was trying to marginalise immigrants from French life, Sarkozy appointed Rachida Dati, an attorney of mixed Moroccan and Algerian parentage, to the all-important position of minister of justice in his administration.

Nevertheless, some in the immigrant community fear the creation of the new ministry and the focus on what does and does not constitute the acceptable face of French culture by the new government may be in danger of making some French citizens feel like strangers in their own land.

“My grandfather came here to give his children a better life,” says Sarah Belhimer, a 28-year-old medical services employee who is the daughter of Algerian immigrants. “My country is France. I was born here, I pay my taxes here. I love France, but I think this policy is not right.”

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