France Approves New Immigration Bill

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 3:06 PM

PARIS, May 17 -- France's lower house of parliament approved a tough new immigration bill Wednesday that would allow the country to selectively chose which foreigners can live and work here and require that they learn the French language.

The bill, which passed the National Assembly 367 to 164 after 54 hours of debate, was a reaction to rising complaints that the country's problems are being caused by immigrants. It was authored by France's tough-talking Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, and is vital to his plans to run for the presidency next year, political analysts say. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it will be debated next month.

The proposed law would dramatically change several longstanding French immigration policies. It would make it easier for the country to screen out low-income, poorly educated immigrants in favor of highly skilled workers; it would tighten restrictions under which immigrant workers can bring their families to France; and it would abolish the right of illegal immigrants to receive residency papers after living in France for 10 years.

The bill has been harshly attacked by human rights groups, labor unions, leftist politicians, and Muslim and Christian leaders in France. Leaders abroad, particularly in France's former colonies, have complained that it seeks to take their best and brightest, threatening a debilitating brain drain.

But polls show that immigration is a top concern among French voters, fueled in part by riots in immigrant communities outside Paris last fall, rising unemployment and strikes by students and labor unions this spring, increasing fears of terrorism and militant Islam, and overextended welfare services.

With elections coming in about one year, Le Monde newspaper recently said it detected "ulterior motives -- presidential ones" in Sarkozy's embrace of the immigration issue, and some analysts accuse him of pandering to nationalist sentiments. His recent comment that if people don't like France, "they shouldn't hesitate to leave a country they don't love," was a striking echo of the slogan popularized by France's far-right, anti-immigration leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen: "France, love it or leave it."

But Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, defended a more "selective" process in an interview this week on French television, saying the country cannot continue to welcome "all those who want to come and for whom we don't have either lodging or jobs to offer."

"Why should France be the only country in the world that cannot freely decide who has the right to come into our home, and who is not welcome?" he said.

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