French MPs debate controversial immigration law

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French lawmakers debate a controversial immigration bill Tuesday which would expand the state's power to strip foreign-born citizens of their nationality if they commit major crimes.

The bill is ostensibly aimed at bringing French law into line with European Union immigration directives, but it goes further, with rights groups accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy of pursuing a populist anti-immigrant agenda.

The law was put to cabinet by Immigration Minister Eric Besson in March and subsequently toughened by Sarkozy and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux amid a security clampdown and accelerated mass expulsions of the Roma minority.

The bill extends the state's right to strip those who have immigrated within the last 10 years of their nationality if they kill or attempt to kill a person in authority, such as a police officer, a fireman or a judge.

Under current French law immigrants can be stripped of their nationality if they commit a crime against "the fundamental interests of France" or an act of terrorism.

The fifth immigration law in France in seven years, the bill makes it easier to expel foreigners, including EU citizens who "threaten public order" through repeated theft, aggressive begging or "abusive occupation of land".

Rights groups say that equating begging or setting up caravans with public order issues plays on fears and prejudices -- and unfairly targets Roma.

EU laws on freedom of movement currently only allow removal of EU citizens who represent a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society."

Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low, is seeking to consolidate his conservative base ahead of presidential elections in 2012.

The bill allows for the creation of ad hoc detention zones for fast-tracking asylum claims as if the would-be immigrant were not actually in France, making it easier to expel them to a country of origin or of transit.

Many of the bill's measures are seen as targeting Roma, who as EU citizens usually from Romania or Bulgaria have the right to stay anywhere in the EU for at least three months.

International bodies including the United Nations and the European Commission have criticised France's Roma expulsions, with the Commission due to rule on their legality amid uproar from rights groups.

Parliament "should reject measures in an omnibus immigration bill that appear to target Roma and weaken migrants' rights," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

"It is shocking that the French government is pushing for measures that clearly target Roma at a time when the European Commission is threatening legal action over France's expulsion of Roma," said HRW's Judith Sunderland.

"It smacks of a populist move at the expense of the most discriminated against and vulnerable people in Europe today."

The bill accelerates entry procedures for highly qualified immigrants and requires those seeking French nationality to sign a charter of citizens rights and duties.

Getting married simply to stay in France would become punishable by a seven-year prison sentence and a fine of 30,000 euros.

Rights groups have called for a demonstration outside the National Assembly on Tuesday evening.

© 2010 AFP

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