French stars join fight against ultra-right

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Over 400 French actors - including star names such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Miou-Miou and Jeanne Moreau - yesterday declared themselves ready to go to jail if the government pursues new curbs on illegal immigrants.

The declaration follows similar petitions from other branches of the French intelligentsia: 58 cinema directors, 300 writers, 300 theatrical figures and 1,200 journalists and lawyers. Three more round robins, threatening deliberately to flout the proposed new law - from doctors, scientists and cartoonists - will be published in Liberation today.

The ostensible object of the intellectual revolt is a draft law, due to be finalised in the National Assembly next week, which tightens existing restrictions on illegal immigration. In particular, the country's cultural and intellectual elite objects to a clause which would oblige anyone housing a non-touristic, non-European Union foreigner to obtain a certificate from the local authority.

The suggestion is that this would turn France into a nation of informers and smacks of the kind of registration of Jews which was imposed by the Vichy regime during the Second World War. In fact, most of the provisions in the law have existed for 15 years and were originally introduced, by decree, by a Socialist government in 1982. The only new requirement is that the host must tell the authorities when his guests leave.

Furthermore, as the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre, pointed out yesterday in the Journal de Dimanche, there will be no jail sentences for French people who break the law. They will simply be banned from holding "lodging certificates" in future.

EU citizens and visitors from other countries, such as the US, who require no visa, do not fall under the regulations. The new - and old - laws apply to other foreigners with no right of residence or obvious means of support in France, Mr Debre said. They can only enter if they have a certificate showing that they have somewhere to stay.

Why, then, such a great furore? By the admission of those organising the protests, they are mostly aimed at the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's ultra-right and xenophobic Front National, after its victory in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, last week. It may be true the intelligentsia should have objected to the immigration laws before now, say the petition organisers. But a halt must be called at some time to what they call the creeping "Le Pen-isation" of French politics. The motivation behind the new law - and the kinds of words used by parliamentarians from the centre-right majority when they made it even tougher in the National Assembly - were pure Front National, the critics say. (The amendments were struck out last week by the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate.)

Mr Debre retorts that the best way to cut the ground from under the FN is to control the illegal immigration which damages the interests of legitimate immigrants and French citizens alike. Other commentators point out that Mr Le Pen will be delighted by the protests: they come from just the social elites which the FN accuses of betraying France.

An uneasy truce may be declared when the law comes back to the National Assembly next week. The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, let it be known yesterday that he would not withdraw the offending "lodging" clause. But he also hinted that he expected supporters of his own centre-right government to make no attempt to restore their FN-inspired amendments.