Sarkozy government divided over immigration crackdown

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Tuesday to be "unbending" in his crackdown on foreign-born criminals, but signs emerged of splits in his government over the hardline measures.

Referring to his plan to strip French nationality from foreign-born citizens for a range of crimes, Sarkozy "expressed his unbending will to fulfill these programmes in the weeks to come," a statement said.

But the government has faced accusations of racism over another branch of its law and order drive -- rounding up and deporting members of the Roma minority, branding them a crime threat -- and this week cracks began to show.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Monday he had considered resigning in protest at the Roma deportations, and another minister broke ranks on Tuesday, opposing plans to tighten nationality rules.

Fadela Amara, the minister charged with improving conditions in France's run-down immigrant suburbs, said she did not support Roma expulsions and was against broadening the list of crimes that lead to a loss of citizenship.

"There are laws and serious punishments that we must apply," she said, noting that she had supported a law that prescribes loss of nationality for a foreign-born French citizen convicted of terrorism or treason.

"I'm against expanding it to other crimes," said Amara, a former anti-racism activist and herself of North African descent, who said she had "always fought against deportations."

Defence Minister Herve Morin, a centrist member of Sarkozy's right-wing cabinet who has voiced concerns about his security policies and has not ruled out running aginst him in 2012, warned against linking crime and immigration.

France's ministers for immigration and European affairs, Eric Besson and Pierre Lellouche, were due in Brussels on Tuesday to face European Commission officials over the Roma deportations and nationality plan.

Sarkozy has said he wants those convicted of endangering the lives of police or public officials added to the list of those who can lose their nationality.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux suggested polygamy and female circumcision should also be included.

On Monday, Besson upped the ante still further, suggesting some foreigners could face deportation for "a threat to public order by repeated acts of theft or aggressive begging."

None of this will reassure Kouchner, a former humanitarian leader and Socialist who was recruited to Sarkozy's right-wing government in 2007 and now looks increasingly uncomfortable with its immigration stance.

"I'm not happy with what has happened. I've been working with the Roma for 25 years. I'm not happy about this polemic," he told RTL radio on Monday. "What can I do to help the situation? Resign? I've thought about it."

All three troubled ministers have said they will not resign at this point and will instead plead for moderation from within government, but the decision may soon be taken out of their hands.

Sarkozy will reshuffle his cabinet in October, perhaps for the last time before seeking re-election in 2012, and several ministers are expected to lose their jobs as he attempts to regain the political initiative.

Police raided a squat on the outskirts of the central city of St Etienne on Tuesday, rounding up around 40 Roma. Judicial authorities will decide whether they will follow those recently expelled back to Romania.

France deported 283 Roma last Thursday, bringing the number of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma expelled so far this year to 8,313, compared to 9,875 for the whole of last year.

Paris insists that the expulsion plan is in line with European law and its international treaty obligations, despite complaints from international rights groups, the OSCE and a United Nations anti-racism panel.

Romania has also protested, urging France to help resettle Roma under an EU-wide programme rather than to simply shuffle them back piecemeal.

© 2010 AFP

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