France crime crackdown targets foreigners

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Friday to crack down on foreign-born criminals, pushing his "war on crime" amid fear of violence between police and immigrant minorities.

Sarkozy vowed to strip foreign-born individuals of their French nationality if they attack police or public officials, in the wake of deadly shootings and other violence between police and suspects in largely immigrant districts.

His declaration coincided with evidence of violent behaviour by the authorities themselves: a video of French police violently evicting Africans from a squat in a suburb of Paris.

The video, published on the website DailyMotion and broadcast by CNN news, shows police dragging screaming African women along the ground, including one with a baby in a sling on her back beneath her and another apparently pregnant.

The local Seine-Saint-Denis police authority rejected charges of brutality and said the eviction in La Corneuve, north of Paris, was carried out "in relatively good conditions."

Struggling in the opinion polls after his government was implicated in a financial scandal and in the wake of a spate of violent unrest, Sarkozy on Friday announced a headline-grabbing package of security measures.

Top of the list, in a week when Sarkozy had already threatened to expel foreign Roma minorities who commit crimes, was a vow to tighten nationality rules for other non-French-born criminals.

"Nationality should be stripped from anyone of foreign origin who deliberately endangers the life of a police officer, a soldier or a gendarme or anyone else holding public authority," Sarkozy said.

Michel Tubiana of the French Human Rights League said Sarkozy was "singing the old tune of the 1930s, aimed at stirring up hatred against foreigners" -- a reference to fascist persecution in Europe between the World Wars.

Speaking in the eastern city of Grenoble, scene of recent clashes between police and armed rioters, Sarkozy said that foreign minors who commit crimes would henceforth find it harder to get citizenship on coming of age.

During fierce street battles on the weekend of July 16, rioters opened fire and torched shops and cars in Grenoble after police shot dead a 27-year-old suspected robber in a chase.

A prosecutor ruled that police had fired in self-defence.

In a separate clash last week, masked rioters tried to storm a police station in Saint-Aignan, central France, after police shot dead a Gypsy during a car chase.

Sarkozy reacted by declaring a "war on crime" last week.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux vowed to tear down illegal Gypsy camps and expel Gypsies from other EU states who break the law, after Sarkozy said the minority posed security "problems".

Those raids began on Friday, when police drove out about 50 Roma from a squat in Montreuil, east of Paris, rights group Voice of the Roma said.

On Friday Sarkozy also promised to review the welfare payments made to non-documented immigrants in France and to raise minimum sentences for aggravated offences.

Tensions run high between French police and locals in deprived suburban districts with high immigrant populations who struggle to integrate and find work. Sarkozy on Friday explicitly linked immigration and crime.

"We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration which has led to a failure of integration," he said.

His speech came amid renewed accusations that Sarkozy has swerved to the right to distract from his political woes.

The spokesman for the opposition Socialist Party, Benoit Hamon, told AFP that Sarkozy "is overwhelmed by insecurity, swamped by the failure of his simplistic policies" and fishing for far-right votes.

Sarkozy's approval rating among the French is low at just 35 percent, a poll by Ipsos showed last week. He has also struggled in recent weeks with an embarrassing party funding scandal implicating his Labour Minister Eric Woerth.

© 2010 AFP

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