Immigration grabs election spotlight

19th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 18, 2007 (AFP) - Immigration reared its head as a hot-button issue in the French presidential race this week, 18 months after rioting youth in immigrant suburbs cast the spotlight on France's strained integration policies.

PARIS, March 18, 2007 (AFP) - Immigration reared its head as a hot-button issue in the French presidential race this week, 18 months after rioting youth in immigrant suburbs cast the spotlight on France's strained integration policies.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- the right-wing frontrunner -- says a taboo-free debate is the only way to wrench the issue back from Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 78-year-old far-right leader and anti-immigrant firebrand.

"A country's immigration strategy is what will define its identity 30 years from now," Sarkozy, 52, told a rally in the southern port of Marseille this month. "Republican parties need to talk about these questions. If they don't, they shouldn't be surprised that extremists seize on them."

Le Pen, who sent a thunderbolt across Europe by scraping through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, currently polls fourth in the race for next month's election, with 14 percent of first round voting intentions.

The three leading candidates -- Sarkozy, the Socialist Segolene Royal and the centrist Francois Bayrou -- have ruled out a blanket amnesty for France's estimated 200,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants and pledged to boost development aid to the migrants' countries of origin.

But Sarkozy, who as interior minister championed a tough line on immigration, has made it a key campaign theme, advocating a system of "chosen immigration" that would select workers to match the needs of the economy.

While in government Sarkozy doubled the number of illegal immigrant repatriations and scrapped the right to French citizenship after 10 years in the country -- something Royal promises to restore.

If elected he would make it harder for migrants' families to join them in France, by requiring the immigrants to prove they have a place to live and income and that their relatives can speak basic French.

Sarkozy -- himself the son of Hungarian immigrants -- is alone in calling for US-style affirmative action to tackle discrimination against ethnic minorities, and in wanting foreigners to be able to vote in local elections.

But he has also been repeatedly accused by the left of borrowing the far-right rhetoric and his announcement last week that he planned to create a new ministry of "immigration and national identity" ruffled feathers even within his own camp.

According to Frederic Dabi, director of opinion at the IFOP polling institute, Sarkozy's position reflects a hardening of general French attitudes towards immigrants.

"If there is one theme where the political centre of gravity has shifted to the right, it is immigration," he said. "More than half of the public now say they don't believe that immigration is good for the country.

"When Nicolas Sarkozy, on television, takes aim at female circumcision, at Muslims slaughtering sheep in their apartments -- those are things people would never have said 10 years ago."

France is home to an estimated 1.5 million immigrants from mostly Muslim North Africa, as well as 500,000 from sub-Saharan Africa, out of a total immigrant population of around five million, according to the 2004 population census.

The explosion of violence in French suburbs in late 2005 highlighted France's problems in integrating earlier generations of African immigrants who remain under-represented in politics, the judiciary and the media, and face widespread discrimination in the workplace.

Polls suggest the far-right received a boost from the riots, as viewers watched television footage of disaffected black and Arab youths torch cars and buildings and battle riot police for three weeks.

Ratings for Le Pen -- whose National Front calls for welfare to be reserved for French nationals and for migrants to lose the right to bring their families to France -- jumped five percent immediately afterwards.

But for Stephane Rozes of the CSA polling institute, ill-feeling towards immigrants is mainly linked to the problem of unemployment. They are seen as unwelcome competition for jobs and welfare.

Dabi also points out that French attitudes are sharply divided: the young are more welcoming towards immigration than their elders, the highly-educated more than the unqualified, and the political left more than the right.

And many people still cherish the idea of France as a land of welcome, as shown by a high-profile campaign last summer against the deportation of illegal immigrants whose children were enrolled in French schools.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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