France's immigrants under threat of hardline assault

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STRAIGHT from the starting-blocks, France's new right-wing government is expected to embark quickly and decisively on a series of high-risk policies at home and abroad aimed at entrenching its electoral victory and setting the scene for a takeover of the presidency in two years' time.

Depending on how successful it is, the Gaullist-centrist government may stir up a mood of xenophobia at home while plunging the European Community into a new currency crisis and hastening the dash towards global protectionism. Or, more optimistically, it might succeed in bullying Germany and secure cheaper interest rates for the franc, thereby giving a badly needed boost to the French economy.

Almost as soon as the new prime minister is installed at the Hotel Matignon, the government is expected to unshackle the Bank of France by giving it a measure of political independence (though not as much as the Bundesbank) and to set about underpinning the 'strong- franc' policy.

Behind the triumphalism of the right, however, lies the more sinister fate for many of France's more than 3 million immigrants who are fast becoming scapegoats for the country's shortcomings. A crackdown on immigrants will be one of the new government's most popular policies given the high turn-out for the National Front and the multiplying voices on the left and right clamouring for a more restrictive approach. Some 60 per cent of French people want a get- tough attitude on immigrants.

As a result, the children of immigrants are expected to lose their automatic right to French nationality, tough new border controls are going into place and the courts will be encouraged to speed up deportations of illegal immigrants and to call a halt to the practice of allowing immigrants to join their families in France.

As a nation, the French tend to be impatient worriers and this, more than most factors, accounts for the right's crushing defeat of the Socialists. Voters said they were worried about the prospect of being thrown out of work long-term. Their patience with the Socialists had run out and they delivered a defeat unmatched since the Second World War.

In practice, however, it is rhetoric rather than ideology that separates the Socialists from the incoming centre-right coalition. During their last term of office, the Socialists have pursued a hard-nosed policy of privatisation, along with a tight money policy aimed at maintaining the value of the franc against the German mark. These policies, combined with a strong interventionist streak, have conspired to leave behind them an economy that is among Europe's healthiest. Inflation is below 2 per cent and the government spending deficit is only now creeping upwards beyond the 3 per cent Maastricht target for European monetary union.

Whether of the left or right, French governments intervene from the commanding heights of the economy, and the results of this capitalist planning can be seen in the country's glittering infrastructure and well-manicured cities. Paris, most famously, is clean and tidy and boasts an underground transport system that works like clockwork. The piece de resistance of the outgoing government is the Train a Grande Vitesse, which whisks passengers through France at speeds of up to 170mph. The country's social policy is so generous that every French household receives more than one-third of its disposable income from social support payments, paid for by business.

All French children, for example, get two weeks at a ski resort at a cost of less than pounds 40 to their parents. The government pays pounds 200 a month to parents of new-born children and then provides subsidised day care.

And this is from a country that has no domestic energy sources, and consumes 3.4 per cent of the world oil supply in addition to having a huge and expensive nuclear programme.

However it decides to act, the incoming government is already split over contradictory views on European integration, with the dominant neo- Gaullist party, the RPR, being openly hostile to the Community and blaming it for many of France's perceived woes, while the centre-right Union for French Democracy is pulling just as hard in the opposite direction.

With the prominent French Socialist and probable presidential candidate for 1995, Jacques Delors, in charge of the European Commission, the scene is already set for some brutal clashes between France and the EC. The first concern is the Gatt and agriculture negotiations with the United States, which Jacques Chirac, the RPR leader and presidential hopeful has said France will oppose, to the point of opting out of the agreements on the grounds of 'national interest'. If the Community blocks the way there, the Gaullists are threatening to re-instigate General de Gaulle's famous 'empty chair' policy. Either way, it would be a disaster for free trade and for the Uruguay Round.

The incoming government also plans to relieve employers of some heavy social charges, which should put a dent in the nation's biggest concern, its high rate of unemployment.