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France is urged to restrict migrants

A French parliamentary commission has recommended wide-ranging measures to tighten the country's immigration laws and reduce what its chairman called the "temptations" of France as a place of refuge. The measures would include restrictions on the right to free health care and education, compulsory finger-printing of visa applicants from particular countries, and an extension of the time that suspected illegal immigrants can be detained while their right to remain is verified.

Introducing the report yesterday, the commission's chairman, centre- right MP Jean-Pierre Philibert, said illegal immigrants in France could number anything between 250,000 and 600,000 (though some say it is lower) and constituted a drain on the country's economy, particularly on its health care budget. The recommendation is that people without residence papers should in future qualify only for emergency health-care and treatment for contagious diseases. He conjured up a picture of illegal immigrants basking in a profusion of free medical treatments courtesy of the French taxpayer.

Tougher sanctions would also be introduced for those found to be employing illegal aliens, including the removal of a legal residence permit from all those involved that would open the way to deportation. Only parents - not uncles and siblings - would be able to register children for a school place, and under-age delinquents could find themselves deported into the care of their home country's social services.

The report was met with furious objections from the political left - the four Socialist members of the commission refused to endorse it - and immigrant support groups, and mild approval from the far-right National Front, which said the recommendations were "on the right track" but did not go far enough.

A number of the recommendations, however, appeared to embarrass even sections of the mainstream political right. The chairman of the parliamentary legislative affairs committee, Pierre Mazeaud warned that he could not subscribe to all the proposals and care would have to be taken to ensure the constitutional rights were not violated. These include the rights to education, health and family life. All these caveats mean the report's recommendations will probably not become law in their current form.

They do, however, serve a political purpose, which is to convince the French public that the government is serious about combating illegal immigration. The silence on the issue of immigration from mainstream candidates was widely seen as a reason why the National Front took a record 15.15 per cent of the vote in the presidential election and took control of three city councils in the municipal elections that followed.

The tough stance taken by the French interior ministry since Mr Chirac's election, which has included security checks introduced in the wake of last summer's terrorist bombings - and applied largely to people of north African appearance, has led some critics to say that the government is doing the National Front's job for it.

A report for the UN Human Rights Commission published in Geneva last week spoke of a "wave of xenophobia and racism" sweeping France that was "highly prejudicial" to its claim to be the "homeland of human rights".