French leaders split over foreigners: Ministers object to immigration proposal

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THE TWO senior centrists in the French government have asked for new immigration legislation, introducing tougher police controls, to be amended.

Simone Veil, the Health and Towns Minister, and Pierre Mehaignerie, the Justice Minister, asked for 'a correction' to the new law which passed its first reading in the National Assembly last week. The law now has to go to the Senate before returning to the lower house for final approval.

The ministers are two of four ministers of state, the senior title in the French government. As such, they are seen as the guarantors of moderation in the Gaullist-led government. They made their request for the immigration law to be changed in a joint letter to Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, on Saturday.

Their principal concern was to strike out an amendment enabling police to check the residence papers of anyone they suspected of being a foreigner. This clause had not been expected to survive the passage through parliament, but, in the event, was approved by deputies on Friday. Mrs Veil and Mr Mehaignerie said the new legislation should avoid giving legally resident foreigners 'the feeling that they are victims of discrimination'.

Mr Mehaignerie, anxious to play down talk of splits in the 12-week-old government, explained that the two ministers considered it part of their government role to make their reservations known.

The Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, gave an indication of how the problem could be resolved by pointing out that it was now up to the Senate to make its suggestions and amendments. A heavy centrist contingent in the Senate can be expected to try and trim the law.

The ministers' letter followed an attack on government employment policy last week by Philippe Seguin, the National Assembly president and the Gaullist leader who opposed the Maastricht European Union treaty before last year's referendum. He said successive governments had not made employment a priority, sticking instead to keeping the currency strong rather than tackling a crushing social problem head on.

Mr Seguin's speech, to a conference on unemployment, was the most serious sign of division in the government since elections in March brought the right to power. At a centrist meeting on Saturday, Mr Mehaignerie criticised Mr Seguin's remarks as opportunist, making it clear that, while he might have differences over the immigration bill, he backed Mr Balladur's economic policy.

Alain Genestar, the editor of the Journal du Dimanche, wrote yesterday that Mr Seguin had 'sawn off the branch on which the government sits'. Suggesting that Mr Seguin's words were part of a campaign to advance his own political career, he asked: 'Has he set off too soon?'

The same newspaper carried its monthly opinion poll on politicians, showing that Mr Balladur had picked up eight points to reach 57 per cent of positive opinion. President Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist head of state, had 41 per cent, picking up two points.