By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; A12
PARIS - The French government introduced tough new immigration legislation Tuesday that would make it easier to expel illegal residents and strip recently naturalized citizens of their French passports.
The bill would translate into law a July 30 announcement by President Nicolas Sarkozy that in a bid to curb crime, he had authorized a crackdown on illegal immigrants, in particular Roma from Eastern Europe, who officials say commit up to 20 percent of the robberies in the Paris region. Since then, about 1,000 Roma, or Gypsy, immigrants have been shipped back to Bulgaria and Romania, and about half of their estimated 150 unauthorized camps across the country have been dismantled.
Sarkozy's campaign, denounced as demagoguery by his opponents, reflects swelling concern in West European countries over large numbers of immigrants pouring in to seek work, political freedom and generous social services. Several governments have taken new steps to limit the flow, and anti-immigrant political parties scored electoral gains this year even in such normally liberal bastions as Sweden and the Netherlands.
The new French measure, representing the fourth revision of immigration legislation here in seven years, was brought to the National Assembly by Immigration Minister Eric Besson, a former Socialist who switched camps to join Sarkozy's conservative government. Against that background, criticism from Socialist leaders was particularly biting.
"One more useless law," said Segolene Royal, the Socialist politician who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race.
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, once Sarkozy's boss and now a bitter enemy, said it is wrong to link criminality and immigration and added that such legislation "contributes to creating a climate of suspicion and stigmatization."
With Sarkozy's coalition enjoying a comfortable majority, the legislation appears headed for easy approval in the lower house, probably after several days of stormy debate. Passage is also considered likely in the Senate, where the prime minister's coalition also holds a majority.
But opponents have vowed to challenge the legislation in court, saying it violates long-established constitutional guarantees. In addition, the European Commission in Brussels has launched an inquiry into accusations that the Roma expulsions violate European Union rules.
The advocacy group Amnesty International called the proposed restrictions "unworthy of a country based on rule of law."
"France, which never misses an opportunity to recall it is a country based on rule of law, cannot go down a road where arbitrary measures would prevail when it comes to regulating immigration flows," it said.
Besson portrayed the changes as an effort to harmonize French law with that of its E.U. partners and said the criticism is misplaced. "France respects public liberties," he declared in a television interview. "We should stop flagellating ourselves."
Among the more controversial changes is a measure that would empower the government to strip French nationality from citizens naturalized fewer than 10 years who are convicted of attacking a police officer or government official. Previously, such action could be taken only against a naturalized citizen convicted of a grave crime against the state, such as espionage or terrorism.
Sarkozy, a former interior minister who frequently invokes his law-and-order reputation, ordered the new provisions after an immigrant-populated suburban neighborhood in Grenoble exploded in July in several days of rioting, including gunfire aimed at police. The unrest broke out after an officer shot and killed a young fugitive of North African extraction who was wanted in the armed holdup of a nearby casino.
Immigrant protection advocates expressed particular concern Tuesday about another provision they said is designed to frustrate judicial oversight of expulsion orders, such as those being handed down against Roma families in the campaign designed to rid France of all 150 unauthorized camps by the end of October.
As the law stands, judges annul up to a third of government expulsion orders, often on the basis of procedural technicalities. Under the new provision, the judges would have less time to review expulsions, giving the government more opportunity to put illegal immigrants aboard a plane home before a final ruling comes down.
In addition, the legislation would extend from 32 to 45 days the time an immigrant without papers can be held in custody. Officials have complained that it often takes longer than 32 days to obtain a return permit from the immigrant's home country, which sometimes results in an individual's being released before the expulsion can be carried out.