May 1, 2006

France opens debate on divisive immigration bill

By Tom Heneghan

PARIS (Reuters) - France heads into a highly divisive fight
over immigration policy on Tuesday when Interior Minister
Nicolas Sarkozy submits a bill in parliament to attract skilled
newcomers while keeping poorer ones out.

His proposal, widely seen as part of his campaign for the
presidential election next year, has attracted criticism from
left-wing parties and church leaders and prompted the far-right
to step up its stridently anti-immigrant line.

But it puts him at the center of attention at a time when
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is seriously weakened by
his recent climbdown over labor law reform and a growing
scandal about an alleged smear campaign against Sarkozy.

Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has had to
defend himself against charges he is running a xenophobic drive
to poach votes from far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie
Le Pen, who launched his presidential campaign on Monday.

"All democrats should welcome it if the National Front's
score falls," Thierry Mariani, a deputy and Sarkozy ally, said
on Monday. Le Pen shocked France in 2002 by finishing second to
President Jacques Chirac in the first round of voting.

Sarkozy says the bill aims to attract a new generation of
skilled workers who would embrace French values and traditions,
thus easing the tense race relations that led to last autumn's
suburban riots by youths mostly of immigrant origin.

It would create a three-year "skills and talents" residence
permit to attract skilled workers. It would also make it harder
for resident immigrants to bring family here, force newcomers
to take French and civics lessons and end their automatic right
to a long-term residence permit after 10 years in France.


Sarkozy says his bill would allow France to select its
immigrants, as other industrialized countries do, rather than
take anyone who comes. This should help reduce racism, he says.

Left-wing critics say the law will not work, will
stigmatize foreigners, discriminate against the poor and
undermine France's traditional role as a haven for the

Sarkozy's own immigrant father might have failed to qualify
for French nationality had his son's rules applied when he fled
Communist-controlled Hungary in the late 1940s, they say.

More than 5,000 people marched through Paris on Saturday to
protest against the bill.

Separately, Catholic Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard and Jean-
Arnold Clermont, head of the French protestant federation, met
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to express their concern
about some measures in the draft law.

On the far right, Le Pen told a rally on Monday that the
tougher line from Sarkozy and a far-right rival showed that his
anti-immigrant views were gaining ground in France. Many held
up a map of France with the slogan "Love it or leave it."

Le Pen's far-right rival Philippe de Villiers began his
presidential campaign this month with blistering attacks on
what he calls the Islamisation of France and a demand for an
end to all mosque construction around the country.

Political analysts say Sarkozy is courting far-right voters
after ensuring Paris climbed down this month over a labor law
reform that sparked sometimes violent mass protests. His
presidential prospects could suffer if disillusioned voters
switch to far-right parties as a result.

The bill comes as Chirac and Villepin, both badly mauled by
the crisis over the new law for young workers, are struggling
to show they can still govern despite the setback.