Juppe hints at softer line over migrants' sit-in

Fortress Europe: As Madrid tries to block a new influx of immigrants, hunger-strikers in Paris look set to win their right to stay
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The French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, signalled last night that the government could apply some flexibility in regularising the status of illegal immigrants, but he warned that those who still did not qualify "should be and would be deported".

Mr Juppe was speaking in a nation-wide television broadcast after receiving the report of the Council of State, a judicial and constitutional advisory body, convened to consider the case of 300 illegal immigrants who are demanding the right to remain legally in France.

Ten of the protesters are on hunger strike, which enters its 50th day today. Their deteriorating state appears to have been one factor in the government's decision to convene the Council of State in emergency session this week.

According to Mr Juppe, the council concluded that the protesters - mostly from Francophone Africa and the Maghreb - had no right to remain in France, but that the merits of their cases should be considered individually. He said that the application of the law was "the best guarantee both of solidarity between French people and of national cohesion".

While suggesting a possible margin of flexibility, the findings did little more than restate the government's existing position - that there will be no mass legalisation of the protesters. The immigrants, who began their protest in April and have occupied the church of St Bernard in northern Paris for almost two months, reacted with "disappointment and disillusion". They have demanded from the outset that their cases be dealt with together.

They pledged to continue their fight and called on President Jacques Chirac to intervene. He is on holiday on the Riviera.

The immigrants' protest escalated into a national drama a week ago, after police seized the hunger strikers in a dawn raid on the church and took them forcibly to hospital for medical checks. The move provoked a frenzy of righteous indignation across France for and against - but mostly for - the protesters.

Until this week, the government's tone has been uncompromising, with the interior minister, Jean-Louis Debre, describing the church protest as "unacceptable blackmail".

The first sign that the government might be reconsidering its stance came on Tuesday, when Mr Juppe broke his holiday and returned to Paris. That evening, he met Gilles Robien, a senior member of the UDF, the Gaullists' coalition partner in parliament, who had put forward what he described as a "purely personal initiative" for ending the impasse.

On Wednesday, Mr Juppe convened an emergency ministerial meeting in Paris, at which the decision was taken to consult the Council of State. Official rhetoric also changed to stress that humanitarian concerns would be met and there would be no question of breaking up families. The possibility of financial sweeteners for deportees was also raised.

The careful balance of Mr Juppe's broadcast last night, between the law and firmness on the one hand, and humanitarian considerations on the other, only illustrated the dilemma facing the government. It must satisfy the demands of many right-wingers in the Gaullist party and many voters for tougher action against illegal immigration. At the same time, it needs to satisfy the demands of (often the same) voters for compassion. It must also end the hunger strike before the protest acquires its first martyr.

While the protest, and the government's response to it, have divided the right, they have united the left spectacularly. Eight left-wing groups and parties signed a petition to President Chirac calling for talks leading to a compromise.

Showbusiness celebrities like Emmanuelle Beart and Marina Vlady have also flocked to St Bernard's and threatened to handcuff themselves to individual hunger strikers should the police move to end the protest by force.

When the protest began in April, it was partly in response to the government's tougher line on illegal immigration. The protest also reflected growing frustration among immigrants, lawyers and some of the Catholic clergy about immigrants apparently caught between provisions of the law and those of the constitution.