France unbowed after sending migrant trains back to Italy

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France insisted Monday it would keep turning back North African migrants trying to enter from Italy despite valid paperwork after the European Commission backed the controversial move's legality.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said France wanted to avoid a rift with Italy after it stopped trains crossing the border but warned Tunisian migrants would be sent back if they could not show they had enough funds to stay.

Southern Europe has been confronted by a wave of North African migrants in recent months following unrest in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and European Union members are divided over how to deal with the new arrivals.

Italy has begun handing out temporary residence cards to around 20,000 newly arrived Tunisians and Paris fears they will take advantage of this reprieve to move on across the un-policed French border and settle down.

France has close ties to Tunisia, one of its former North African colonies, and many would be migrants have friends and relatives in French cities.

On Sunday, in response to a protest by activists who support the Tunisians, French officials blocked all trains from Italy for the day -- drawing a sharp response from Rome, which alleged EU law was broken.

But Gueant insisted Paris had respected "in letter and spirit" the Schengen Agreement, the treaty under which core EU members agreed to allow residents to travel without passports within their borders.

However, as the first country of arrival, Italy was responsible for managing the migrants, who must show they have the financial resources to stay in the second country.

In the absence of such resources, "we will return these people to Italy," said Gueant.

The minister defended the decision to block trains from the border town of Ventimiglia, citing the risk of public disorder.

"A public order problem was possible and the simplest way of dealing with it was to stop the train coming in," he explained.

The Schengen Agreement provides for countries to implement identity checks temporarily at the border if there is a threat to public order or national security.

Asked by AFP about tensions between the two countries, Gueant said: "France does not want that at all."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview Monday that despite their different handling of the Tunisian immigrants, the two governments would "work together" to clear the cloud hanging over relations.

In Brussels, European home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said that as French authorities cited "public order reasons" for inspecting the trains, the move was legal.

"Apparently, they have the right to do this," she said, adding that France explained that the trains were stopped "very temporarily."

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy will seek re-election next year and his centre-right governing party is facing a strong challenge from the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front.

Both Sarkozy and Gueant have been toughening their anti-immigrant rhetoric in the run-up to the poll, at the risk of finding themselves breaking EU freedom of movement rules.

Already last year, France found itself criticised by the UN human rights body and fellow EU members after it began rounding up migrant Roma Gypsies and expelling them back to Romania and Bulgaria.

On Sunday, Frattini directed his embassy in Paris to lodge a protest with France and seek "clarifications on measures taken which appear to be illegal and in clear violation of European principles."

EU president Herman Van Rompuy did warn Sunday, however, it was important to remain within the "spirit of Schengen" and not just the precise legal wording.

In his Repubblica interview, Frattini said a summit between Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on April 26 should "re-affirm the will of Italy and France to work together, as founders of the European Union."

© 2011 AFP

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