Citizenship row divides France

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It will be a little easier to become French following a vote by the National Assembly yesterday. The amendments to the French nationality law - the latest of many - seem harmless enough. But John Lichfield in Paris says they have provoked accusations that both left and right are playing the game of the far-right National Front.

The law used to be simple: if you were born in France, you were French. That principle was progressively abandoned by centre-right governments in the 1980s and early 1990s under pressure from unemployment, immigration and Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.

According to the present rules, a child born in France, of foreign parents, cannot become French until he or she is 18. Following a stormy debate last week, the National Assembly was expected to vote last night to allow French-born children of immigrants to become French at 13. Until then, they would have a quasi-French status as the holder of a "Republican identity card".

The modest changes have disappointed the far-left and green components of Lionel Jospin's coalition, which thought they - and he - had campaigned last May for the restoration of automatic citizenship - le droit du sol, or right of the soil. The softening of the law has also angered centre- right parties, who say it makes French nationality "too cheap".

Mr Jospin suggested at the weekend that the centre-right parties were pandering to the National Front as part of a possible electoral pact ahead of regional elections in March. On the contrary, said the centre-right, it was Mr Jospin who was "cynically" trying to stir up the NF electorate, using the nationality issue to reduce the vote for the "traditional" right next year. Francois Bayrou, head of the centrist Force Democrat party, accused Mr Jospin of "blowing on the flames" of racism.

Under the present rules, introduced in 1993, children born of foreign parents in France remain foreign until they are 18. To obtain French citizenship, they must declare their wish to do so between the ages of 16 and 21.

The law has been blamed for deepening the sense of alienation of immigrant children in deprived suburbs of French cities, which have seen increased violence this autumn and winter. (However, the teenagers involved are often second or third- generation French citizens).

Under the new law, foreign parents can apply for French citizenship at 13 for a French-born child who has been living in France continuously since the age of eight. Young people can make the same application, without parental consent, at 16. They can become French citizens from 18 onwards, as long as they have spent a total of five years in France since the age of 11.