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France Cracks Down on Illegal Immigrants

April 19, 1996

PARIS (AP) _ Dressed in the traditional robes of their native Mali, the women pass time in an abandoned school courtyard, anxiously waiting for the government to decide if they can stay in France.

The Africans, and others like them, are at the center of an increasingly shrill debate over immigration in France _ a debate that risks polarizing the country and has already drawn international criticism over alleged human rights abuses.

The Malians in the abandoned church school were among 400 undocumented African immigrants evicted by police last month from a nearby church. Fifty single men were promptly deported. The cases of the 350 others were pending because they involved families with children. Under French law, minors can’t be deported.

The high-profile expulsion _ the first time since World War II that police crossed the sanctity of a church _ forced reluctant officials to take a stand.

The Africans had occupied Saint Ambroise Church to draw attention to their plight. Despite having been in France for years, they had yet to receive legal documents. Many have French-born children entitled to citizenship.

``I have nothing in my country,″ said Mahamadou Sambake, who left Mali for France in 1989. ``We’ve been in France a long time, we can’t return just like that.″

About 200 who took part in the church occupation refused to disband until they were given legal residency. Many support themselves by working; some rely on the assistance of French charity groups.

``My father fought for France in World War II,″ said Mamadou Niakate, a Malian who has lived here illegally since 1988. ``France is my country.″

Many French don’t agree.

With unemployment at 11.8 percent and concern rising over crime, school violence and drug abuse, many in this country of 58 million people are blaming the 250,000 to 600,000 illegal immigrants.

Police have deported more than 10,000 foreigners in the past year. About 920 of them were sent home on 16 highly publicized charter flights designed to discourage others from immigrating illegally.

By getting tough on immigration, the conservative government is trying to win over voters who support the extreme right-wing National Front headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Le Pen won an unexpected 15 percent of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election. His platform called for expelling 3 million immigrants, and recent polls show that one in three French agree with his overall anti-immigration stand.

A report by a U.N. human rights investigator in Geneva this month said the current climate was ruining France’s image as the ``homeland of human rights.″

``We have to be careful because France is a country that is slowly becoming xenophobic and racist,″ said Jean-Pierre Philibert, chairman of a parliamentary commission that has proposed toughening immigration laws. ``If we don’t do something, the situation will only become worse.″

Philibert said France can’t integrate its 5 million legal foreigners if the government doesn’t crack down on illegal immigrants.

The conservative government is determined to stiffen immigration laws, and with its overwhelming majority in parliament, the essence of the commission’s proposals likely will be adopted by summer.

The commission has recommended providing medical care to illegal aliens only in emergencies, and to allow the expulsion of minors.

Another proposal would set up a computerized fingerprint system for all foreigners entering France from so-called ``high risk″ nations, including former African colonies.

Opponents say such proposals are unconstitutional and serious violations of individual rights.

Fode Sylla, the leader of the Paris-based anti-discrimination group SOS Racism, said the proposals were an attack on the freedom of all French people, not just immigrants.

``The proposals are beneath everything this country is supposed to represent,″ Sylla said.

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