THE residents of this postcard-perfect Mediterranean city are constantly reminded that France is a desirable place to live: Here the sun shines often, the sea displays its azure translucence, and deep red bougainvillea climb ochre-colored walls year-round. The reminder has always come in a human form as well, from the thousands of moneyed tourists who pour in each year from the North. Now, however, a growing number of illegal immigrants from the South are joining in to make the point.
On their way to what they expect will be a better life, illegal immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, Eastern Europe, even China, have made the Italian-border city of Menton their preferred entry point to France.
France in recent months has discovered that it has an illegal immigration problem. The discovery is the result of a number of factors: the doubling in one year of the number of illegals arrested at the borders, increased news-media attention, and growing public sensitivity to the immigration issue in general.
Statements by the country's highest officials have also highlighted the problem. President Fran,cois Mitterrand recently said the country had reached the ``threshold of tolerance'' for newcomers. He later criticized his own choice of words, but their effect has remained.
Growing illegal immigration is also developing into an important problem as the European Community (EC) works toward what is supposed to be a lifting of all internal borders by 1992.
France is ostensibly a ``closed'' country, requiring an entry visa for most non-EC members and issuing no new work permits to most foreigners. But in neighboring Italy, visitors need nothing more than a passport. This, plus Italy's generous new amnesty law for illegal immigrants, has France, Germany, and other EC members worried that more illegals will enter the Community through Italy's open door.
``It's a pattern we come up against day after day,'' says Jean Marsal, commissioner for the Menton district of France's air and border police. Mr. Marsal's district along 75 miles of the Italian border has experienced a doubling of the number of foreigners arrested for illegal entry over the past few months.
In Menton, more than half of those arrested are from Tunisia. Turks, Moroccans, and Yugoslavs make up the next largest segments. The vast majority are simply returned to the Italian border, where Italian authorities are supposed to ensure their return to their point of entry into the country. ``But mostly they are simply released,'' says Marsal. ``In many cases we arrest the same person within 24 hours.''
Reflecting France's newfound concern, the Menton border police in November added enough officers to begin keeping a 24-hour watch on the border. Marsal believes that many foreigners still get through illegally.
Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in France range from 200,000 to 1 million.
Illegal immigration has only become an issue since the French realized that the illegals intend to stay and that they are finding work even while unemployment remains high, says Gildas Simon, a professor and director of the European Review of International Migrations in Poitiers. But many economists and other observers say the kind of work the illegals find - in manual labor or in growing numbers of small-scale apparel assembly shops - wouldn't be done by the French or simply wouldn't exist without the foreign labor supply.
Greater EC cooperation on immigration is the only answer to the problem, says Michel Laffargue, Menton's assistant commissioner. ``There's little use trying to plug up our porous borders if our neighbors are working in the opposite direction. We need a Europe that works together.''