Two young men push a woman up against the wall of a moving subway car, as other passengers look on. "We are Algerians and my uncle puts bombs in the subway," whispers one menacingly. They follow her to the end of the car and press in closer.
She cries out to be left alone, a man intervenes, and the young men exit at the next stop, shouting abuses and throwing food. "They just spoil everything," sighs a passenger, as the car pulls away.
"They" are at the heart of an intense and emotional debate over the impact of foreigners in France. More than 3 out of 4 Frenchmen say they think that there are too many foreigners in France - and that the government is not doing enough to curb immigration.
But a new government proposal to tighten illegal immigration has set off a firestorm of protest. More than 10,000 writers, filmmakers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals signed petitions calling on citizens to adopt civil disobedience and refuse to comply with such a law, called the Debre law after Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre.
Its most controversial aspect requires citizens who house immigrants to report when immigrants move out or overstay their visas.
The week-long protest has dominated newspapers and television coverage, and has gained ground rapidly. Some 40 professional associations are now sponsoring anti-Debre petitions, and organizers are calling for a protest march in Paris on Saturday.
The anti-Debre drive may also be remembered as the first French political protest to use Internet addresses, as well as more traditional marches, street petitions, and faxes, to spread its message. (For example, the petition for artists can be accessed at http://www.europea.com.)
Flashback to the past
Opponents say that the requirement to inform on neighbors recalls the treatment of Jews in France during the World War II Vichy regime, when residence lists and informants helped organize mass deportations to Nazi death camps.
French leaders reject such comparisons. "The distinction between legal and illegal immigration is our best defense against racism and xenophobia," Prime Minister Alain Jupp said Tuesday. "There are those, at the extremes, who think that all foreigners are undesirable. But we are in the majority, and it is our honor to vigorously combat this ideology."
However, he added that civil disobedience against the proposed law could increase social tensions. "Civil disobedience is a serious act against integration: How can we explain to those in troubled, poor neighborhoods that you must respect the law when public personalities are calling on citizens to break it?" he said.
But conservative leaders are clearly shaken by the mounting scope of the protest outside of political circles, and are scrambling for a compromise.
Today, two groups in the governing majority are proposing amendments to the bill that will shift the burden of enforcement from mayors and citizens to government officials.
"It's not the opposition that is forcing changes [in the law], it's the reaction from society," conservative deputy Patrick Devedjian told the daily Le Monde.
France's conservative leaders came under renewed criticism this month, after the extreme-right National Front party won its fourth city hall in the southern city of Vitrolles on Feb. 9. Critics charge that the government's recent moves against illegals lend credence to the National Front's anti-foreigner platform.
A left-leaning association of French judges said the Debre law contributes to the "Lepenization of public life," a reference to National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, and called on judges to refuse to enforce the proposed law.
Catering to the 'Caviar Left'?
In a statement yesterday, the National Front leader said, "Put forward by the Juppe government much more to fight the National Front than to control immigration, the Debre law will come back like a boomerang to strike its authors."
Mr. Le Pen added: "The government's cowardice and its incoherence won't allow it to face up to the privileged of 'show-biz' and the newcomers of the 'Caviar Left.' Once more, our weak government will yield to the buffoonery of petitions. The only way to fight immigration is to enforce the program of the National Front."
France has more than 4 million legally resident foreigners and at least 1 million illegal immigrants. In addition, about 10 percent of the French population is Muslim, many of whom came to France from North Africa after World War II to take low-paying jobs in mines and automobile factories. Many now live in public-housing projects outside major French cities, and their children have difficulty finding jobs.
The new law would target Africans and Arabs, while excluding tourists and workers from the United States, Canada, and Japan, or those with enough resources to support a long stay in France.
Mayors critical of the bill say they resent the new task of enforcing immigration laws, and insist that there are better ways to curb resentment of foreigners.
"This law would turn mayors into policemen. We weren't elected to conduct searches of citizens homes or to make sure immigrants go home. We are supposed to be close to our citizens and to help them," says Socialist Mayor Philippe Schmitt, who launched a petition among French mayors this week. Several hundred mayors have already signed on in protest, he says.
Mr. Schmitt, who governs the town of Longjumeau, some 10 miles south of Paris, has set up 24-hour slaughterhouses to ease neighborhood tensions over ritualistic slaughter of sheep during Islamic holidays. "We had to find a solution to this problem, so Muslims wouldn't be killing sheep in their bathtubs," he says.
But the long-term solution is better civic education, says the mayor, who has just returned from a US tour. "In the US, you teach civic education. We don't do that in France. We need to teach children that people have the right live according to their own cultures, and to gradually integrate them into ours."