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France to immigrants: go home.

From Sweden to Portugal to Austria, doors are slamming shut. As the recession worsens in Western Europe and unemployment climbs to 12 per cent, attitudes toward immigration - and the laws governing it - are changing dramatically.

Germany no longer promises asylum to "people persecuted on political grounds." Greece recently expelled more than 25,000 Albanians. The number of racial incidents in Britain nearly doubled in just four years. And France, once a relatively welcoming new home, now offers a vivid example of the harsh new approach to immigration.

The view from a park bench in the Belleville gardens is classic Paris: charming rooftops, church spires, the coquettish peak of the Eiffel Tower. But even this world-renowned panorama won't persuade Chechene Coulibaly of the beauties of France. After seven years - and numerous short stays in prison because he doesn't have working papers - the twenty-two-year-old native of Mali is ready to give up life as an illegal immigrant and return to his poverty-stricken village.

"The police ask for our papers every day - on the street, on the Metro, right here in the gardens," he says, lowering his voice as a gendarme passes by the pansies and begonias in full bloom. "My family is very poor. I wanted to get money to help them buy food - that's the only reason I came here. I never stole, I never sold drugs, but they ask for my papers every day and now I want to leave France."

If the new conservative-dominated government of France has its way, a package of tough new immigration laws may prod other foreigners here to make the same decision as Coulibaly. The laws, which were passed earlier this year, tighten the screws on legal and illegal immigrants by restricting access to citizenship, allowing the police to make random identity checks, and speeding up deportations.

While a few of the laws were recently declared unconstitutional, the general trend is clear: France is no longer a haven for foreigners.

The laws are the fulfillment of the conservatives' campaign promises last spring to crack down on clandestine immigrants. The most vocal proponent is Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, the pit bull of a politician who oversees the police.

"The goal we have set, given the seriousness of the situation," he told the daily newspaper Le Monde, "is to tend toward zero immigration."

With a grim recession kicking in, the new measures appear to have general support from the French public: Many are quick to make a correlation between France's three million unemployed and the country's 3.6 million foreign residents.

Yet opposition is building. National protests organized by SOS Racism, an antiracist group, rallied mid-sized crowds, including about 15,000 in Paris, and such prominent intellectuals as Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld and writer Marguerite Duras have denounced the laws. "With these measures," Duras says, "we sully the image of France."

The new government's first public feud emerged after Justice Minister Pierre Mehaignerie and Social Affairs Minister Simone Veil wrote to the prime minister protesting the wording of a section of the law authorizing spot identity checks by the police. It stated that the checks could be made on the basis of "all elements that allow the presumption of foreignness, with the exception of racial appearance."

This awkward turn of phrase inspired much public debate, with editorial writers noting that targets for identity checks could include people wearing African head scarves or speaking Arabic - as well as those listening to British rock bands or reading American newspapers.

"If you are reading The New York Times in the street, you may be presumed to be a foreigner," confirmed Gaullist Deputy Alain Marsaud, the author of the text, when asked in a radio interview what criteria the police should use to pinpoint foreigners.

"I don't want yellow people to be checked because they are yellow, or blacks to be checked because they are black," he added. "It will be up to the police to use their imagination."

But some observers say that new creativity by the police could have dangerous results. "The mind-set of these laws is one of suspicion," says Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, an immigration expert at France's Institute for Political Science. "Suspicion of allegiance, suspicion of fraud, suspicion about the possibilities for plurality. I fear they will aggravate tensions and encourage the emergence of violence as a new form of political expression." And, she adds, because the laws fail to target employers who provide jobs for illegal immigrants in the garment-making, building, and cleaning trades, they probably won't stem the tide of newcomers.

"These laws were made for the French public to say we are doing something," de Wenden says. "They are a series of linked, symbolic measures more than a real and effective policy. The voters will see in six months that it has not stopped anything, and that will create feelings of discontent and aggravate demands for a still stronger policy."

For immigrants in France, the situation is distressing. "It's not people on the street making remarks - it's the government that made these laws," says Hamouda Hertelli, the director of a federation of eighteen immigrant-workers' groups. Born in Tunisia, he has lived in France for decades and raised two children here, but he now fears for their future. "We are in a grave phase," he adds. "Our national discourse is one of xenophobia and racism."

Sometimes, though, it's difficult to spot the xenophobia among images of a multiracial France. In the Belleville gardens, on the edge of an immigrant neighborhood in eastern Paris, five young black girls wearing African-print dresses with bows at the back sit on a railing singing "Frere Jacques" at the top of their lungs on a sunny afternoon. Nearby, Africans, Europeans, Arabs, and Orthodox Jews stroll among the terraced gardens while children play in the soccer field, wading pool, tree huts, and fountains, all built by the city.

None of this impresses Chechene Coulibaly, however. Anticipating his return to his dust-bitten village of 500 inhabitants, he shrugs. "I've gotten nowhere here," he says.
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Author:Glazer, Lisa
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1003
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