Italy-France showdown as Tunisian migrant row escalates

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The Italian and French interior ministers met Friday amid an escalating row after Italy granted temporary permits to some 20,000 Tunisian migrants and said this would allow them to travel to France.

France has said it does not want "a wave" of Tunisian migrants and will send those holding the Italian residence permits back unless they also have valid identity papers and sufficient funds to support themselves in France.

The migrants from the former French colony have been arriving in boatloads on the Italian island of Lampedusa, with many blaming a dire economic situation after the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, who held talks with his French counterpart Claude Gueant in Milan, accused the French of "hostility" and said France was violating the rules of the EU's Schengen visa-free zone.

The 25-country visa-free Schengen Zone covers most of the European Union, but does not include Britain or Ireland.

Responding to Italy's move, Gueant on Thursday said: "France has every right to send them back to Italy... That is what we will do."

The standoff with the French dominated Italian newspaper headlines.

"Paris and Rome at War" "Italy-France Confrontation" "Row with France" read some of the headlines, with Corriere della Sera daily accusing France of "duplicity" and Il Giornale saying that the migrants were "a human bomb".

France "is questioning the spirit of a treaty and one of the fundamental points of the European system," Corriere della Sera said.

Several commentators argued that France's intransigence over the migrants was dictated by the rise of the far-right National Front.

Party leader Marine Le Pen has been put ahead of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in some recent opinion polls for the 2012 election.

"The fight against immigration, not just illegal immigration, and security are at the heart of the Sarkozy presidency," La Stampa said, adding that the real engine behind French policies was "Le Pen's far-right".

"The French domestic situation is having a major effect with the fact that Marine Le Pen, leader of a xenophobic right, has become one of the favourites," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview.

"We taught law to the world," Frattini told Il Messaggero, arguing that the temporary residence permits approved at a cabinet meeting do give the right to migrants to travel to other parts of the European Union.

Immigration is set to top the agenda at a summit between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome on April 26.

Maroni struck a deal with Tunisia earlier this month under which migrants who have already arrived will receive permits but any new arrivals will be deported under a new arrangement that facilitates expulsions.

As part of the agreement with Tunisia, a first plane left Lampedusa late Thursday for Tunis carrying some 30 migrants.

Italy has also agreed to provide Tunisia with boats and jeeps to beef up its coastal patrols and prevent more migrants from leaving its coasts.

A total of 25,800 migrants on 390 boats have arrived in Italy so far this year, including around 21,000 who said they were from Tunisia.

France detained 2,800 undocumented Tunisian migrants in March alone, Gueant said on Thursday, adding that most had already been sent back to Italy.

Hundreds of the migrants have travelled to the town of Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border in recent weeks and have tried to board trains to the soutghern French city of Nice.

© 2011 AFP

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