By ANGELA DOLAND
The Associated Press
Thursday, August 31, 2006; 4:19 PM
CACHAN, France -- For dozens of illegal immigrant families, a gymnasium outside Paris has become a temporary home. They sleep shoulder-to-shoulder, their dingy mattresses piled high with necessities and small treasures: cooking pans, diapers, stuffed animals.
The families, mostly Africans, were evicted from France's largest squat on Aug. 17. Riot police stormed the building _ an abandoned dormitory at a prestigious university _ and forced out more than 500 people. Nearly 30 illegal immigrants were put in detention centers. About 200 went to the cramped, dank gymnasium.
The mass eviction has become a symbol of France's tougher new immigration policy, stoking the debate about how far the government can go to send a sign that illegals are not welcome.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the center-right's likeliest contender in spring presidential elections, argues that France must select its immigrants more carefully, and he has vowed to send home at least 25,000 illegals this year, up from about 20,000 in 2005.
Authorities say the eviction was ordered largely out of fear of fires like those that swept through dilapidated housing in Paris last year. Those blazes killed about 50 people, mostly African immigrants.
But the abrupt police operation exasperated aid groups and fueled anti-Sarkozy street demonstrations _ a reaction suggesting that immigration could be the most divisive, emotional issue of the elections.
Sarkozy's opponents, including the left's most popular presidential contender, Segolene Royal, say the raid deprived the Africans of simple human dignity. For many, it revived memories of another operation almost exactly 10 years ago, in which police burst into a Paris church where illegal immigrants had sought refuge.
In Cachan, the walls of the gymnasium are plastered with flyers attacking Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant.
"Sarkozy is not a man, he has no heart," said Adam, a 31-year-old from Ivory Coast who declined to give his last name for fear of being deported. "He wants to be president even if he has to trample on thousands of people with dark skin to get there."
Sarkozy has pointed out that he was not personally responsible for the raid, and that officials were merely following a court order.
But the order dated from 2004, and since then, authorities had been negotiating with squatters and mediators, aid groups said. When police raided, another session of talks was scheduled for just five days later, said Fidele Nitiema, the families' spokesman.
"In the birthplace of human rights, the government responded by sending in police," he said.
Sarkozy's immigration crackdown has been inspired by worries that many newcomers are not integrating _ as witnessed by three weeks of riots in France's poor, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods last fall _ and by broad concerns that immigrants poach welfare benefits and jobs in a country where unemployment hovers around 9 percent.
Those fears have long been the domain of the extreme-right, but Sarkozy says mainstream politicians must not shy away from them.
The government has offered payments to illegal immigrants who agree to return home, such as $6,300 for a family of four with young children. Sarkozy championed a new law that makes it harder for foreigners to bring their families here, but easier for those with special talents.
Angering human rights groups, he pledged to deport families of illegals unless they could prove their school-age children had strong ties to France. By an August deadline, the Interior Ministry received almost 30,000 applications from people hoping to stay. Sarkozy said authorities expected to approve only 6,000.
In Cachan, aid groups say that up to 200 people are crammed into the gymnasium, about half of them illegal immigrants, many of them children. Pressure is building: With the school year starting Monday, the mayor of Cachan wants his gymnasium back.
Regional officials have offered to put the immigrants up in hotels, or to move them as a group to temporary housing. But they are holding out for a better offer. The group doesn't want to separate for fear they will lose negotiating power, and they want to be close to public transportation so they can get to jobs, schools and supermarkets.
Bintou Toure, a 29-year-old mother of four, said she would not budge for anything less than a permanent home with a kitchen. She came to France to flee fighting in her native Ivory Coast and won residence papers, but her husband is here illegally.
"I lost everything in my country," she said, spoon-feeding baby food to her youngest. "Now I am homeless in France."