France's open door is closing

An immigration bill, expected to pass, requires knowledge of French and proof of support.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year, France's famously open doors began closing on individual immigrants. This week, France starts making it harder to bring families and spouses to a country where joblessness and welfare are seen as draining the treasury and creating reservoirs of ill feeling, particularly among the middle class.

In a new measure expected to pass the French Assembly in 15 days or less, new family arrivals must speak French. Immigrant parents must guarantee their kids will behave. And breadwinners must show earnings of up to 1,600 euros a month.

When then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy pushed tough limits on immigrants last year, the left called it an attack on France's African and Arab populations. In a country roiled by changing complexion and identity, and on the eve of national elections, Mr. Sarkozy's new "contract" set a high bar: Know the French language, embrace civic values, and show means of support.

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Some 600 pro-immigrant groups hit Paris streets, protesting how quickly Europe and France were closing to the foreign-born and how aggressive the measures seemed to be. But the law passed.

Now, President Sarkozy has again upped the stakes. Not only will incoming families face a higher hurdle, but an amendment quietly introduced DNA testing as a way to prove biological ties among them. In addition, French embassies abroad will be newly empowered to conduct extensive background checks of prospective residents.

Yet today, there's far less outcry in Sarkozy's France. The Socialists are divided and mute. French media have, comparatively, ignored the story. Shouting heard on the streets this month is about the rugby World Cup hosted by France through late October.

Discussion of the bill begins today. As a fulfillment of an election mandate by Sarkozy to change France, the law, supported by the ministries of interior, justice, and immigration, will probably be discussed for a day or two, and then, with little opposition, pass soon, experts say.

The new government, according to analysts, is signaling to southern-tier states that France no longer offers its social safety net or easy life, and that only skilled workers should apply. One former government official describes the law as a "psychological barrier … so that when a North African phones home from France, he will not tell his friends that things are easy in France." Some 10 percent of France's 63 million citizens are foreign born, according to the OECD, a sharp rise from the mid-1990s, official studies show.

The French law arrives a week after Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission for Justice, announced that Europe will need 20 million new workers in the next decade and suggested that barriers to immigrants be lifted, according to the Financial Times.

In France, the most symbolic and controversial shift may be DNA proof. The issue arose when Sarkozy confidant and National Assembly member Thierry Mariani wrote the amendment, saying that "documentary fraud" is rampant among immigrants trying to bring wives and children. More than half of birth and marriage documents in African states like Togo, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast are forged, according to a study by Assembly member Adrien Gouteyron.

Yet several ministers from the left brought in by Sarkozy have opposed it, including Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister. "'What bothers me is that it casts opprobrium on the strangers who want to come in France," says Fadela Amara, minister of state for housing and urban affairs.

Perceptions of the law among different sectors of French society are divided. On the left, the laws were seen as a sad testament to broken ideals. For the silent conservative majority, embittered by a social-welfare system regarded as naively generous, it seemed about time.

For African and Arab migrants, entry to France never seemed this difficult. In the banlieue, or suburbs, these measures are viewed as of a piece with harsh police behavior, identity-paper checkpoints, and deportations.

In Argenteuil, a largely immigrant banlieue outside Paris, Younouss, a well-dressed master plumber from Mali who will give only his first name, agrees the job market is so bad that France must stop accepting people such as himself, who arrived 17 years ago on a tourist visa. But he feels "there is a lack of dignity in the DNA test. It is used for political purposes. Make a law, OK. But don't make us feel like animals."

France and Europe are "absolutely more difficult to come to today," he adds. "But things in Mali are so bad, people are still trying. Do you think we will risk our lives and leave our families if we don't need to?"

Mr. Ma, from Jinan Provence in China, works in an Argenteuil Chinese restaurant. He speaks fluent French and came in 2006 as an MBA graduate student. He promised French officials in China he would return, but plans to do all he can to stay. He feels confident he can qualify or find a way. The new immigration laws "will be OK for us, but it will be more difficult for them," Ma says, pointing across the street to three dark-skinned youths strutting and shouting.

Since riots among mostly Arab and African immigrants in Paris suburbs in 2005, much of the French middle-class electorate has hoped for a French leader who will get tough and bring stability. Sarkozy, as the former interior minister, responded to these sentiments throughout the presidential campaign this spring. Both he and far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen promised to change the social model France has followed for many years, including firm support of the ever-more-restless minority populations in the banlieue.

Eric Raoult, who represents the tough Seine Saint-Denis suburb for Sarkozy's majority party in the assembly, on Sunday sent a letter to Islamic, Christian, and Jewish leaders in his suburb asking them to support the new immigration proposals.

Mr. Raoult said it was important to stop the influx of poor migrants from developing countries who were arriving from France without money enough to live in decent housing and manner.

He warned about the "ghetto effect" in Saint-Denis that has made living in this banlieue insecure and dangerous, especially for its own residents.

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