Coalition survives as France eases strict immigration curbs

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The French National Assembly yesterday approved a softening of immigration laws. But Green and Communist members of the governing coalition abstained, complaining the new law was still too tough.

For the second time in a month, the French government emerged badly bruised, but intact, from an emotive debate on the treatment of foreigners. Communist and Green members, who had threatened, to defeat their own government by voting against a new immigration law, finally agreed yesterday to abstain, or simply not turn up.

The two debates - the previous one was on nationality law - have produced the biggest rifts to date in the Socialist-Communist-Green coalition which has been governing France since June.

During the election campaign, all three parties promised to replace the restrictive laws on immigration and nationality introduced by centre-right governments in the late 1980s and 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of people, led by well-known film directors, actors and intellectuals, had demonstrated against a proposed toughening of the laws last March.

Although the Socialists chose their campaign words carefully, the far- left and Greens convinced themselves that victory in the general election meant that the existing laws would be repealed completely. In the event, Lionel Jospin's government proposed relatively modest changes to both.

Under the law approved yesterday - which still has to go to the Senate - it will be easier for migrant workers to bring their families to France, and restrictions on refugee-status will be relaxed.

The 10-day debate was an invitation to posturing and demagoguery on all sides. For the "moral" left, anything less than the legalisation of all illegal immigrants was a betrayal. For the centre-right, any weakening of the existing law would open French frontiers to allcomers.

Behind the debate, there loomed the spectre of the far-right National Front. The government accused the centre-right of playing the NF game by opposing the new laws, while the right accused the government of deliberately reopening the NF's favourite subject, in order to swell the far-right vote, and limit the centre-right vote, in regional elections in March.