Sarkozy attacked over migrant amnesty

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The Independent Online

The normally sure-footed French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has stumbled into a political minefield which closely resembles Britain's explosive debate on immigration.

M. Sarkozy, a leading contender in next year's presidential election, finds himself under fire from left and right - and blaming his own officials - this weekend after offering a "humanitarian" concession to illegal migrants with school-age children. The former home secretary Charles Clarke, who had to resign over deportation of migrants, should know how he feels.

Last month, the Interior Minister made an exception to a tough new line on immigration policy by offering a limited amnesty to illegal migrant families with children already enrolled in French schools. His officials predicted that 800 people might benefit.

Since then, French immigration offices have been besieged by long queues of families clutching school reports and letters from their children's teachers. Many of them are Chinese or Fillipino, usually discreet and little-seen members of France's archipelago of illegal migrant communities.

In an interview with Le Monde on Friday, a senior police officer, Yannick Blanc, the head of "general policing" in Paris, said it was clear "several thousand" families would benefit. The minister exploded. "Anyone who talks in figures is talking about something he knows nothing about," M. Sarkozy said.

Too late. The far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen accused M. Sarkozy of opening the door to a flood of new "family" immigration. Jack Lang, the former Socialist education and culture minister, accused him of making a "shambles" of migration policy by trying to play hard cop and soft cop at the same time.

The row could be very damaging to M. Sarkozy. He has made his reputation as a tough-talking interior minister, capable of winning back right-wing voters from M. Le Pen's National Front. Recently, however, he has been emphasising his caring side.

Partly, this is a response to the popularity with centrist voters of the soaraway, likely Socialist candidate, Segoléne Royal. However, M. Sarkozy has always advocated a pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to racial and migration issues.

The minister has been caught out, it seems, by France's mixture of official rigidity and unofficial softness on migration policy. Anyone seeking a residence or work permit is treated severely or subjected to endless delays. At the same time, illegal migrant families seeking state health care, or places for their children in state schools, are accepted without many questions.

Hence the long queues outside police stations and town halls all over France in recent days. M. Sarkozy seems to have been genuinely astonished by the number of families who fulfill the conditions he set out in a circular last month.

Pro-migrant pressure groups estimate that - far from the 800 predicted by M. Sarkozy - at least 4,000 families, and up to 15,000 people, qualify for legal papers under the new rules.