Immigration: France: Fraternity and an insidious fear of foreigners

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WITHOUT illegal immigrant labour, the facilities for last year's Winter Olympics in Albertville would have cost more. Building firms hired workers, often Kurds, for one week, the legal limit for working without a permit. The workers took their pay in cash and changed construction sites.

Last week, Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister, published a draft law on immigration, one which supporters of the new Conservative government hope will clamp down on illegal immigrants. Detractors fear it could give police and other authorities justification for racist behaviour.

A reflection of this fear has just been on news-stands all over the country. A dark-skinned man with a Rastafarian hairstyle stares from the cover of the left- wing Globe Hebdo magazine. On inspection, it turns out to be a tinted photograph of Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, with a Caribbean coiffure superimposed. A caption expresses the fear that police seeking illegal immigrants will pursue people because of skin colour.

The immigration law followed a nationality law tightening the procedures for becoming French. When Mr Pasqua's plans - increasing police controls, making marriage to a French citizen more difficult, imposing stricter conditions on political asylum, and denying social and medical benefits to those without valid residence papers - were presented to the Cabinet last week, Pierre-Louis Remy, the head of the government agency which monitors immigration, resigned.

Angered by a two-year delay imposed for reuniting families, Mr Remy said Mr Pasqua's stated aim of 'zero immigration' was unrealistic.

In the 1960s, France encouraged immigration, to build up a cheap workforce. This ended because of unemployment in 1974. Since then, 100,000 legal immigrants have arrived each year. Some estimates put the number of illegals - many of them African or Arab - even higher.

With six land frontiers, France is vulnerable to illegal immigration. An expelled immigrant often can return from Belgium or Italy over scarcely policed borders. Shortly after taking office at the end of March, Mr Balladur's government announced suspension of its participation in the Schengen agreement, which would have ended frontier controls between nine of the 12 European Community states later this year. It said it feared this would increase drugs traffic.

With statistics showing that foreigners make up two-thirds of France's drug-peddlers, many without papers, illegal immigration has become synonymous with drug-associated crime as well as unemployment and other social troubles.

This situation is particularly marked in the under-privileged suburbs where clashes between immigrant youths and police are a regular event. But, although there have been more serious incidents, such as soldiers throwing a young North African to his death from a train 10 years ago, these have been isolated. Unlike in Germany, there has been no concerted violence directed at immigrants. The fears that some policemen might abuse the new laws follows three recent deaths of immigrants at police hands. The most serious, just a few days after the new government came to power, was the shooting of a 17-year-old Zairean detained for shoplifting. He died in a Paris police station.

Until now, police were allowed to check people's papers only if they believed they might be a threat to 'public order'. Many foreigners, however, say this was not respected. 'I always say I'm sorry I'm not white,' said Milton, a 24-year-old Brazilian studying for a master's degree in economics in Paris. He said his papers were frequently checked by police patrols in the Metro.

In a television interview last week, Mr Balladur said the absorption of foreigners into French society had been one of 'the successes of the Republic'.

For previous generations, it was a question of integrating Catholic Italians and Poles. Now, not only are the candidates often of different races, many are of different religions. Criticising the Pasqua proposals last week, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris mosque, said: 'Islam, too, holds dear the notion that France should remain a land of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all.'