Trains restart but Franco-Italian border spat deepens

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France insisted Monday that it had not broken European law in blocking trains carrying Tunisian migrants from Italy, as the neighbours' divisions over immigration law deepened.

Southern Europe has been confronted by a wave of North African migrants in recent months following unrest in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and EU 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.

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

In Italy, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the daily La Repubblica: "The problem of immigration is becoming a bit like the nuclear issue. Everyone wants to say something about it but no-one wants it in their back garden."

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.

Now, Paris is seeking to halt Tunisians coming over from Italy, and warns that they will check them to confirm they have passports and sufficient means to support themselves.

Italy argues that the migrants' six-month Italian "humanitarian residency permits" should allow them to visit France.

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."

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero insisted no laws had been broken by the temporary rail blockade, and in Brussels a top official told AFP that this appeared to be correct.

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."

The newspaper said in an editorial that the decision by French authorities to block trains coming from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia was "a slap in the face" for Italy.

"A year from the presidential election in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy is facing up to bad ratings ... and is trying to regain votes from the far right by insisting on an anti-immigrant approach," the editorial said.

© 2011 AFP

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