May 19, 2006

Hundreds protest as French minister visits Benin

By Paawana Abalo

COTONOU (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters shouting
"racist, out" gathered in Benin's main city Cotonou on Friday
to demonstrate against a visit by French Interior Minister
Nicolas Sarkozy and a new French immigration bill they say is

Armed riot police and soldiers guarded the oceanside city's
Interior Ministry building as some 300 protesters, many of them
students, chanted slogans and waved placards while Sarkozy met
with his counterpart from Benin, a Reuters witness said.

"Sarkozy we don't want you in Benin. Racist, out of our
country," the crowd chanted as the security forces looked on.

The French minister faced a similarly hostile reception in
Mali on Thursday, the first stop in his West African tour, but
has staunchly defended as fair the immigration legislation
passed by France's lower house of parliament on Wednesday.

The bill, which aims to attract skilled workers while
keeping less skilled ones out, has stirred angry protests in
France and some of its former colonies in West Africa from
critics who say it is racist and discriminatory.

Sarkozy, a leading contender for France's 2007 presidential
election, discussed the law with Benin's new president, Yayi
Boni, during talks in the political capital Cotonou about
French policy in Africa.

"President Boni told me that the best way to manage
migration in the long term is to give Africa the chance to
develop," Sarkozy told reporters after the meeting.

"He said to me Africa was partly responsible for its
situation and that a relationship between France and Africa on
the basis of shared responsibility was fair," he said.

France, which ruled over more than a third of Africa at the
height of its empire and is still deeply engaged in several
ex-colonies, wanted to help train African students so they
could contribute to their countries' development, Sarkozy said.


With unemployment topping 50 percent in parts of West
Africa, young men with no hope of finding work at home are
often galled that their former colonial power refuses them
visas after having reaped the benefit of immigrant labor in the

"France should not close the door to us. The law on
immigration is slavery under a new form and we do not want
Sarkozy here," said Bonaventure Bleme, a university economics
student who was among the protesters at the Interior Ministry.

Sarkozy's immigration bill, to be debated by France's
Senate in June, would create a three-year "skills and talents"
residence permit to attract skilled workers but also allow in
workers in sectors and zones facing unskilled labor shortages.

It would also make it harder for resident immigrants to
bring their families to France.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from French-speaking
West Africa live in France, many of them illegally after
smuggling themselves to Europe in perilous journeys across the
North African desert and the Mediterranean.

Sarkozy said on Thursday he wanted to help immigrants who
were living legally in France, proposing Malians working there
should be excused from paying income tax on any money earned
which was used to finance development projects back home.