Are foreign workers 'scapegoats' for French?

The high-pitched whine of a female Arab pop singer drifts out into the dimly lighted sidestreet from the restaurant Agadir in the heart of the French capital's most densely populated immigrant ghetto, the Goutte d'Or. A handful of sullen Algerians talk quietly while, near the jukebox, a curly haired youth dances alone to the music amid a haze of smoke.

Normally, the colorful North African market stalls, garment shops, and cafes of the Goutte d'Or constitute a bedlam of shouting, gesticulating, and thronging people more reminiscent of the Marrakech souk than a working-class district in Paris.

But over the Christmas and New Year period, its cobblestoned streets lie practically deserted. Many of its inhabitants have returned to Algeria, Morocco , and elsewhere for the holidays to visit their families.

If the black-daubed slogans on nearby buildings -- "Die, immigrant, die" and "Immigrants, thieves of employment" -- are any indication of the growing resentment in France against foreign workers, a large number of Frenchmen would like nothing better than for the country's 4 million immigrants to stay home.

Although the number of foreign workers and their dependents in France has dropped in recent years, animosity appears to have grown with the rise in unemployment and the slackening of the economy. "As in West Germany, Britain, and Holland," noted one European analyst, "immigrants have become convenient scapegoats for all that goes wrong."

Two months ago, Lionel Stoleru, the national official in charge of immigrant affairs, declared during a strike of Moroccan coal miners in the eastern part of the country that with more than 1.5 million Frenchment out of work, France could not afford "one more foreign worker."

Periodically, the immigrant issue in France tends to boil over. This is what happened on Christmas Eve when some 50 Frenchmen at Vitry-Sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris bulldozed and ransacked a dormitory destined to house 300 African laborers. They were protesting against the rising number of immigrants who have moved into their community.

According to mainly Socialist and majority party critics, responsibility for the attack lay with the Communist Party. Several witnesses maintain that Paul Mercieca, Communist mayor of Vitry, led the assault. This Mercieca denies. He had only gone to the dormitory to calm the situation, he said.

Instead, he charged that Saint-Maur, a neighboring noncommunist community, had surreptitiously arranged to transfer the immigrants to his municipality because they were unwanted there. As Vitry was already bearing more than its fair share of the national immigrant burden and a financial drain on community resources, he added, a further influx could not be tolerated. As a result, he had issued an order prohibiting their settlement in Vitry.

Most political parties on the left and the right are now exploiting this racial backlash to their benefit in view of the coming presidential elections next May. Glossing over how the rampage was carried out, the Communists maintain that the destruction of the dormitory has brought much-needed public attention to the immigration issue. Foreigners now constitute up to 20 percent of working-class communities in the so-called "red [suburban] belts" of cities like Paris, Marseille, and Lyons.

France's immigrants, however, particularly the black Africans from such countries as Mali, Mauretania, Senegal, and Benin, are not happy about being tossed around in a political ball game. "We are at the same time victims of government policy as well as repressive communist methods," maintains Emmanuel Manyo, president of the Federation for Black African Workers. "It is inadmissible that we be made to serve as pawns in political manipulations."

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Algeria, and other countries flooded to France during the 1950s and '60s to provide mainly factory, mine, or agricultural labor. Black Africans were given the more menial jobs such as street cleaning. In 1965, the French government allowed the workers to bring in their families but has never allowed them to vote on the municipal level (as is the case in Sweden).

With the deterioration in the economy and the shortage of jobs, however, the new administration of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing implemented measures in 1974 to restrict immigration. In 1970 roughly 212,800 workers were legally allowed to enter. By 1980, less than 20,000 were issued papers.

At the same time, the authorities took steps to halt illegal entries. Frontier surveillance was intensified and street checks for papers in Paris or other big cities have become a common occurence in immigrant areas. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants are at present living underground in France. This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to rent exploitation and blackmail.

Having stabilized the immigrant influx, the government is now trying to persuade immigrants to accept monetary incentives to renounce their residential status and return home. Each immigrant is given the equivalent of $2,600 and a one-way ticket to leave French territory. An estimated 80,000 per year now are leaving under this arrangement, although some sources do not believe the financial incentives are their motive behind their reasons for leaving.

In addition, the Paris government has signed agreements with Algeria and Senegal to facilitate rehabilitation of returning workers to their home countries. But some observers maintain that his policy still does not solve the problems of immigrants in France who want to stay. Not only do the immigrants hold the least-desirable jobs, but they also live in the poorest areas , while racism remains disquietingly on the upsurge.

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