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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 / September 18, 2007


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.

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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.

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.