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Parliament debates contentious immigration bill

France's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, Tuesday debated a bill proposed by French Immigration Minister Eric Besson (photo) that would strengthen the government’s hand against immigrant and travelling communities.


French lawmakers Tuesday began debating a controversial immigration bill that would extend the circumstances under which naturalised French nationals can be stripped of their citizenship if they commit serious crimes.

The draft law also contains provisions that would facilitate the expulsion of foreigners from France, including citizens of some EU countries.

Originally presented by Immigration Minister Eric Besson in the spring, the bill follows a summer of controversy in which Roma (Gypsy) camps were targeted by the authorities for dismantlement and many of their inhabitants repatriated to Romania and Bulgaria.

Under current French law, immigrants can be stripped off their nationality if they commit crimes against “the fundamental interests of France,” including terrorism.

The new bill allows French authorities to expel immigrants, including EU citizens, who "threaten public order" through repeated theft, aggressive begging or "abusive occupation of land".

The bill’s inclusion of begging and setting up caravans alongside acts of terrorism has sparked howls of protest from human rights groups, who argue the government are equating the offences.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has said the bill appears to target the Roma community, while the European Commission is scheduled to rule on the legality of some of the measures in the bill.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly before the debate started Tuesday evening, Besson defended the controversial bill.

"We want to promote legal immigration, particularly for work, we want to fight against the networks of illegal immigration, and we also want to harmonise our policies with regards to asylum seekers, cooperating with the source countries that migrants come from," he said.

The National Assembly debate is expected to last two weeks.

Tightening immigration laws

While the bill was put to cabinet by Besson in March, it was subsequently toughened by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux. France has seen a steady tightening of immigration policy over the past few years. If passed, the bill will be the fifth immigration law in France in the past seven years.

The provision for depriving citizenship from naturalised French nationals is a more recent amendment that followed rioting - also linked to Roma - in the French city of Grenoble in July.

After the riots, Sarkozy said any naturalised French national who was convicted of murder or attempted murder of public officials in the past ten years should be stripped of their citizenship.

Besides criticism from the opposition and human rights groups, the bill has also been slammed by former prime ministers Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Alain Juppé and Dominque de Villepin.

Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right UMP party has been accused of pandering to the far right to win back votes from the Front National ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Defending the bill

Both Sarkozy and Besson have strenuously rejected the criticisms and maintain that the bill is aimed at tightening security.

"There was no stigmatisation (of Roma)," Besson told reporters. “The idea that because there are 200 of you, you can simply occupy a piece of private land illegally, by force, is completely unacceptable.

“Furthermore, in every camp that we have dismantled more than two thirds of the inhabitants are actually French travelling people, not Roma.”

Even if the bill is passed by the lower house (National Assembly), it is likely to come up against stiff opposition from France’s Constitutional Council, particularly on the issue of stripping French nationals of their citizenship.

The Constitutional Council is likely to argue that this provision goes against the principle that everyone is equal before the law.

Until now the council has only authorised stripping citizenship from people convicted of terrorism.


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