The ax became the symbol of France's immigration policy this weekend, after police splintered a church door Friday to eject illegal immigrants who had sought asylum in the church while protesting their illegal status.
Short of settling the issue, the raid on St. Bernard de la Chapelle church and events following raised more questions than answers to France's controversial immigration policy.
Many observers expect that President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Jupp will have a difficult time governing this fall as left-wing parties and associations mobilize to protest the government's handling of the affair.
In a sign of how the issue divides the country, an opinion poll published yesterday in the Journal de Dimanche had Messrs. Chirac and Jupp both gaining in popularity after the raid, albeit incrementally.
If left-wing parties win numerous seats in national parliamentary elections in 1998, Chirac's right-wing administration will have to share power with the left. "Chirac thinks that he can [now] get enough votes from the extreme right to avoid political cohabitation after 1998; that's why he used clubs," says Annie Pourre, a member of Droits Devant, a group working to help the immigrants.
Indeed, the government's action was praised by the right, but quickly condemned by the left.
"The application of the law is not negotiable," says Michel Pricard, a member of President Chirac's Rally for the Republic Party. "The firmness was imposed so as to not maintain this [illegal-alien zone] in Paris."
France's workers' unions and political associations staged demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere over the weekend to protest the government's actions.
Police in riot gear stormed St. Bernard Friday morning, battling supporters of the immigrants outside. A large wooden door was axed by the police, who then pushed aside pews and other objects piled behind the door to enter. Police separated the people inside by skin color and hauled away those who were black, assuming they were illegal. Some of those taken were French citizens, which the authorities only later found out at their headquarters, in what one lawyer described as a "comic situation."
The fiasco at the police station and detention center made for over 300 counts of violations of police procedures. A team of about 25 lawyers successfully argued that the case against 30 immigrants be dropped or that they be granted suspended sentences. But lawyers say that all of the immigrants' cases are still open.
There was no official word why four people, of between 210 and 220 detained, were deported immediately. But Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debr said Saturday that 40 of the immigrants removed from St. Bernard will be allowed to remain in France for family or medical reasons and will receive resident cards.
For now, many of the released immigrants are staying at charity shelters.
The immigrants, called sans papiers (undocumented workers), held out against the government's attempts to expel them for 50 days before the police intervened. Many of them from former French colonies arrived in France legally but became illegal after stricter immigration policies took effect when the right won control of the legislature three years ago.
At the heart of the issue are the heavily debated lois Pasqua, a series of tough anti-immigration laws passed in 1993. Jupp on Saturday called for a reconsideration of how those laws are applied to make them more consistent and so that the country may treat the issue of immigration with "humanity and heart."
But others expect a hot fall when the government - and French vacationers - return. "If the government today isn't capable of a true public debate [on the issue of immigration] and a revision of the laws ... it's obvious that the controversy will continue," Ms. Pourre says.
Simon Foreman, one of the immigrants' lawyers, said that "Chirac and Jupp could have taken a different approach, but I guess they just feel that they have duties toward right-wing voters - there is the issue of the National Front. Every right-wing politician in France fears the National Front and feels compelled to be as far on the right as they can."
In recent elections, the National Front, an extreme-right political party, has made substantial gains by putting forward an anti-immigration platform.