Storm in Paris over evicted Africans

French government, police and Catholic leaders found themselves at the centre of a row yesterday, following the eviction by force of 300 African immigrants from a gymnasium in central Paris where they had sought refuge. The group, some of whom have lived in France for more than 10 years, have no residence papers and are demanding the right to stay.

Yesterday's eviction, carried out shortly after 6am, was the second time in three days the Africans had felt the force of the French law. They were part of a larger group that had been forcibly removed from the nearby church of St Ambroise on Friday morning after an occupation lasting almost a week. Both operations involved almost 1,000 police, including a large contingent of CRS riot troops.

After the outcry caused by Friday's eviction, and its only partial effectiveness, yesterday's operation was personally overseen by Philippe Massoni, the Paris police chief who was responsible for the anti-terrorist measures in the French capital last summer and autumn.

What initially seemed a straightforward action against illegal immigrants, of the sort pledged by the government of President Jacques Chirac when he became President, has given rise to a controversy.

The first to become embroiled were Church leaders, after it became known that the priest at St Ambroise had requested the first eviction order "on grounds of sanitation and health", and that he had had the support of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean- Marie Lustiger.

Mgr Lustiger had visited the Africans only a day before their eviction and had reportedly expressed his support. The second to face criticism were the police, for the heavy-handedness of the first operation, its limited success and its dubious legality.

Local magistrates who questioned the legal basis of the eviction warrant yesterday freed 40 members of the group in custody pending deportation. The magistrates found the police had acted illegally by mounting their operation in the church before 6am.

The row has extended now to the government, with the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, being accused by the veteran Paris campaigner for the homeless, Abbe Pierre, of acting in bad faith. The abbe, who has been involved in the Africans' case since the start of the protest, said Mr Juppe had given him an undertaking that there would be no action by the police against the group after the eviction from St Ambroise.

After yesterday's police raid, the cleric said that either Mr Juppe had not kept his word, or that he did not know what his ministers were doing, "in which case he lacks authority and should go".