Confusion surrounds Paris church eviction

Two days after a controversial police operation to remove more than 200 illegal immigrants from a Paris church, President Jacques Chirac said it was "out of the question" for France to alter its immigration policy, which was one of "very great firmness". The laws could be "improved" but the policy would not change.

He was speaking after discussions with the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, to prepare the new political term. While Mr Chirac seemed to express support for the decision to use force, the outcome of Friday's operation remained confused yesterday, with most of the immigrants released from detention and only four summarily deported. Leaders of the protest said they intended to reassemble and would insist on collective negotiations with the authorities.

The main focus yesterday was on a court called into special session to consider the cases of 80 of the immigrants evicted from the church of St Bernard on Friday. Proceedings began two hours late after lawyers for the detainees said they needed time to acquaint themselves with the files. Few of the immigrants turned up. More that 30 were freed on Saturday after a different court refused to extend detention from 24 hours to six days, saying the applications were faulty or unjustified. The Paris authorities are to appeal.

The detentions were not the only part of the operation to go awry from the authorities' point of view. On Saturday demonstrators blocked a main roadnear Evreux military airfield, where a plane was being prepared to repatriate several dozen illegal immigrants. When the plane left, it was delayed for six hours at its first port of call, Dakar, in Senegal, because staff refused to service it. Only four of those on board, all from Mali, were from the St Bernard group; the others were subject to earlier deportation orders.

If there were hitches on Saturday, events the previous night had elements of farce. Marchers responding to a call for a rally on Friday evening defied police and continued to the centre where most of the St Bernard group had been taken.

When they got near Vincennes, it was dark, and demonstrators could be seen on street corners, consulting maps to find out where to go. Their route took them by the edge of the racetrack, where the evening's trotting was entering its last stages. Riot police, concealed in the trees, emerged and fired tear-gas, which frightened the horses, and threatened a melee of marchers, horses, race-goers and police.

About the same time, the first of the detainees, mostly women and all the children, were being released to ensure France met its obligations under intentional conventions not to keep children in custody overnight. Some of those released were deposited at outlying Metro stations, apparently the only addresses they had given on the form when they were registered.

Yesterday the tally of Friday's massive operation was: four men deported to Mali; no more than 16 people detained, 40 people given permission to remain in France and all other cases pending. The only emerging agreement, from lawyers, politicians and commentators alike, was that it was high time to clarify the immigration law to prevent similar situations in future. President Chirac's statement suggested that he would approve such a project.

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