WHAT would Voltaire think? The 18th century French philosopher, known for saying that "Every man has two countries, his own and France," might have had to reassess that statement after the country's National Assembly on Friday passed tough new laws to discourage immigration.
Coming on the heels of other legislation making it more difficult for foreigners to acquire French nationality, the new laws combine to portray a country ill at ease with its estimated 4 million foreigners. (US crackdown, page 6.)
The new laws are in line with Interior Minister Charles Pasqua's goal of "zero immigration" - a goal that most economic, legal, and demographic experts agree is neither realistic nor desirable. Like much of Europe, France is currently bogged down in a job-eliminating recession - but also has a birth rate among the "French" population that is below the replacement level.
The new immigration measures:
* Tighten laws under which legal immigrants can bring family members into France: so-called family reunification rules.
* End the automatic issuance of 10-year work permits to children who turn 18, after having entered France under family reunification.
* Prohibit granting of French nationality to an illegal resident marrying a French citizen.
* Tighten regulations under which foreign students can acquire long-term residency.
* Make attaining political asylum more difficult.
The immigration legislation follows new nationality laws that complicate the means by which children born in France of foreign parents can attain French nationality. Such children will now have to wait until they are 18 to request French nationality. New laws also allow the police to check without cause anyone's identification papers.
In proposing the anti-immigration measures, Mr. Pasqua argued that they would help the country's legal immigrants integrate better by addressing the threatening aura of "uncontrolled immigration," and would help dry up the xenophobia that is one of the seedbeds of Europe's extreme right. Some supporters tout the laws as the last chance for what they call "French-style integration," which favors full acceptance of French culture and republican principles over any sense of multiculturalism.
Other supporters, sounding closer to the far right that Pasqua eschews, argue that such tough measures are needed to protect the French identity.
On the other hand, the political left and immigrants rights' groups have attacked the new measures as dangerous for the country's long-term domestic peace and destabilizing for legal immigrants. "[The new laws] are a radical return to the old concept that considers foreigners to be game [hunted] by the police," says Jean-Michel Belorgey, central committee member of the French Human Rights League. "They go against not only the principles outlined in the universal and European human rights declarations, bu t the [French] republican spirit."
"This is not about favoring the integration of the foreigner hoping to legally settle down in France, but rather creating the conditions for a veritable destabilization of immigrants by placing them under systematic surveillance," adds Sami Nair, a political scientist and specialist in French immigration.
Immigration into France is actually lower than a decade ago. But because today's immigrant tends to be from the developing world, rather than from southern Europe, critics have attacked the new laws as racist.
Following passage of the legislation, Pasqua called it "balanced," given France's current economic and social context. But appearing to admit that the new laws could become repressive if not applied with moderation, he added, "I do not accept the excesses, the outrages, and the fears this text could cause."