French passport row drags on, grounds travellers

6th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 6 (AFP) - A dispute in France over which company is to print the country's new biometric passports was Friday continuing to torpedo the plans of many citizens hoping to travel to the United States.

PARIS, Jan 6 (AFP) - A dispute in France over which company is to print the country's new biometric passports was Friday continuing to torpedo the plans of many citizens hoping to travel to the United States.

The US embassy in Paris said it was overwhelmed by the number of French travellers needing visas to go to the United States, with applicants now facing a delay of more than five weeks before securing interviews with consular staff.

The embassy's consul general, Don Wells, told AFP that 23 consular employees were handling some 500 applicants per day — roughly four times the section's normal workload.

"There's been fairly serious growth in the number of people needing these visas," he said.

Under a US law passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, nationals from normally visa-exempt countries — including France and most other EU countries — require a US visa if their passport was issued after October last year but does not contain so-called "biometric" information.

Several countries, such as Australia, Britain and Italy, are now providing biometric passports, in which the photograph of the bearer is put on a microchip so it can be read by face-recognition technology.

But in France, the planned roll-out last year was suspended after unions took legal action to stop the government using a private printing company for the new passports instead of the state-owned National Printers which is mandated to make all administrative documents.

The result has been major woes for French people wanting to travel to the United States, with many forced to cancel their plans.

Over the end-of-year holiday period, the US embassy put on extra staff to deal with the increased demand, but the queues have kept growing.

Now, according to an embassy spokeswoman, an applicant cannot get an interview date before February 14.

The backlog is affecting all those needing visas: not just tourists with newer passports, but also students and business travellers.

French travel companies say the situation is having a significant adverse effect.

"We can no longer accept clients who want to go to the United States and who need a visa," said Michel-Yves Labbe, the head of the Directours company, which realises nearly a quarter of its revenues from organising business travel to the United States.

"On top of that, the problem is also affecting other destinations, such as Mexico and the Bahamas, where they have to transit through the United States."

He added that the upcoming busy Easter holiday period would pose bigger problems, especially for French families wanting to go the United States and requiring new passports for members, particularly children.

"We are already seeing a 30 percent drop in the number of inquiries and reservations," Labbe said.

The standoff between the French government and unions shows no signs of being quickly resolved, however.

The head of the National Printers, Loic de la Cochetière, told AFP that the company had decided to go ahead with the printing of "several hundred" US-compliant passports despite not being specifically asked to do so by the government.

He said they were being produced as an "emergency" measure should the interior ministry suddenly request them.

That suprised some observers and diplomats who had previously been told that the state company lacked the necessary equipment to make biometric passports.

The powerful CFDT and CGT unions Thursday issued a joint statement demanding that full-fledged printing of the new passports begin at the National Printers "without delay".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

 

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