Balladur moves to defuse row over immigration law: Centre and right of Gaullist-led government fall out over identity checks, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

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EDOUARD BALLADUR, the French Prime Minister, met his two senior centrist ministers on his return from the European summit in Copenhagen yesterday to cool passions over new legislation on immigration.

Simone Veil, the Health and Towns Minister, and the Justice Minister, Pierre Mehaignerie, wrote a joint letter to Mr Balladur last Saturday asking him to scrap an amendment to a bill authorising tough new measures to check foreigners' identity. The amendment had been added to a bill proposed by Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, during the law's first passage through the National Assembly last Friday.

The amendment, tabled by Alain Marsaud, a Gaullist deputy for Limoges and former anti-terrorist investigator, allowed police to check identity on the simple belief that a person was a foreigner on any basis except racial origin.

Mr Marsaud argued that this was a protection against prejudice; few others shared this view. Catherine Nay, a commentator for Europe 1 radio, said it would have entitled police to stop anyone 'with a Herald Tribune under his arm'.

Although Mr Pasqua himself quickly indicated that the Marsaud clause could be easily erased during the bill's passage through the Senate, the affair demonstrated the differences between the centre and the right in the Gaullist-led government, and also the fact that France had, by the election of a massive conservative majority in March, suddenly moved to a parliamentary system.

With Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist President, on the sidelines of most issues because the government is no longer from his political camp, real authority is with Mr Balladur.

In past years when governments had only slight majorities or, as in the case of the Socialist governments from 1988 to last March, were in a minority in parliament, successive prime ministers had grown used to a quiescent body of parliamentarians strictly following party discipline.

After 1988, legislation was frequently passed through parliament by making it the subject of a confidence vote as the Socialists cobbled together alliances to ensure a majority, a process provided for under Article 49-3 of the Fifth Republic constitution.

Under confidence-vote procedure, speaking time for deputies was strictly limited, meaning that issues were often inadequately debated, while the government's overall record rather than specific legislation dominated debates. The effect was little better than passing laws by decree.

Mr Marsaud, a courageous examining magistrate who was the founding head of the 14th Section of the Prosecutor's Office, set up in 1986 to fight terrorism, is a prime example of a new breed of deputy who arrived in the National Assembly for the first time in March. Usually in their forties and with accomplished careers outside politics, they have shown considerable impatience with the cautious style of the Gaullist Prime Minister and have been anxious to mark the break with the Socialist past.

The new law on control of foreigners' entry and residence into France reflected election promises to clamp down on illegal immigration to ease the associated problems of unemployment, crime and drug addiction. The deputies demonstrated their muscle by putting through the Marsaud amendment, at first opposed by Mr Pasqua.

Their gesture was empty, however. Even if it had made it through the parliamentary process, the amendment would almost certainly have been excised by the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of all new laws.