Mitterrand's Softer Line on Immigrants Could Shore up Leftist Support

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IN his New Year's address, President Fran,cois Mitterrand announced plans to loosen tough residency restrictions, end summary expulsions, and ease the maze of naturalization rules affecting immigrants into France. By reaffirming his attachment to social justice, Mr. Mitterrand scored political points.

His Socialists spent most of the past few months staring down striking workers.

Being nice to foreigners should help distract criticism about his tough economic policies from disgruntled left-wingers.

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The measures also split the mainstream conservative opposition.

Gaullists want to take a tough line against foreigners to keep voters from flocking to extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Centrists want to support the Socialists in fighting racism.

Mr. Le Pen hopes to exploit these divisions. He responded to Mitterrand's announcement by damning his Socialists as ``the foreigner's party.''

After a strong showing in the presidential election last spring, Le Pen's party lost all of its parliamentary seats in June's legislative elections. Internal bloodletting set in as factions fought over strategy and polls showed that the party's support was plunging.

``At two and a half months before the municipal elections, the President has struck a political coup,'' comments Robert Schneider, a political analyst, in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

``He remobilizes the Socialists after a long social crisis, while demonstrating the splits in the right,'' Mr. Schneider adds.

Amid the political maneuvering, it is unclear what will happen to those affected by the issue: the 4 to 5 million foreigners now living in France. Most are Arabs from French-speaking North Africa or Blacks from French-speaking West Africa.

In 1986, conservatives passed the so-called Pasqua law, named after the then Justice Minister Charles Pasqua. This law tightened entry requirements and made it easier to deport foreigners who lacked proper papers.

Instead of having the right to bring their cases to court, foreigners could be summarily expelled by police. In one case, police conducted a dawn raid in which 101 Malians were arrested and immediately put aboard a charted jet for Bamako.

The Socialists have ended these expulsions. They also say they have reduced the time necessary to process naturalization requests.

Their new law, due to take effect in April, will reestablish judicial review of all expulsions.

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