Symbolic win for French bill to give foreigners vote

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A French bill to allow non-EU foreigners to vote in local elections passed its first hurdle Friday when it was adopted by the upper-house Senate after a tumultuous debate.

But the approval -- by a Senate dominated by left-wing parties -- remains mainly symbolic, as the bill stands no chance of passing in the lower house, the National Assembly, which remains under conservative control.

Some 300 supporters and opponents of the bill, separated by police, rallied near the Senate building to voice their opinions on the divisive issue of France's immigrant population.

After debate the bill was adopted by a Senate dominated by the opposition Socialists, Communists and Greens, with 173 against 166 votes.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, in a rare upper-house appearance, said he was firmly opposed to the bill that he said "undermines one of the foundations of our republic".

He accused left-wing parties of "running the risk of voiding French nationality and citizenship of their substance".

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said: "We vote because we are citizens; we are citizens because we are French. Nobody is a citizen because he lives in France."

But leading socialist Senator Francois Rebsamen rejected the criticism and communist Senator Eliane Assassi said: "How can we justify that an Algerian or Moroccan worker who has lived in France legally for decades cannot vote nor be elected to public office?"

President Nicolas Sarkozy, also opposed to the bill, has called it "risky".

It would allow foreigners to become municipal councillors, but not to become mayors or take part in national elections.

If the law were to pass through the National Assembly, the final decision would lie with the president, who could put it to a referendum or lay it aside.

In elections in September the Socialist Party and its Communist and Green allies won enough seats to give the left control of the upper house for the first time in French history.

The Socialists hope they can carry forward their momentum to a presidential win in April and May elections.

© 2011 AFP

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