Police clear Paris camp as migrant debate flares in France

Paris (AFP) –


Security forces cleared more than 1,000 people from a sprawling migrant camp in the French capital on Wednesday, the latest in a series of episodes that have thrust the issue of illegal immigration back into the spotlight.

About 1,700 people, mainly from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, were living in the "Millenaire", or Millennium, camp underneath the main Paris ring road near the Porte de la Villette in the northeast of the capital.

But regional prefect Michel Cadot later said that just 1,016 migrants had been removed, since many residents had fled after learning the dawn operation was imminent.

They will be housed temporarily at more than 20 sites across the Paris region while the authorities check their identities, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said in a statement.

The operation came just days after a young Malian was honoured with fast-track citizenship following his daring rescue of a child hanging from a balcony.

It also coincided with the trial of a 72-year-old woman in the Mediterranean city of Nice for helping two Guinean teenagers cross into the country from Italy.

Three other people will face trial Thursday for helping migrants enter France illegally, even as Grenoble this week honoured a farmer convicted of guiding migrants across the Alps by bestowing him with the city's official medal.

- Mixed messages? -

Two similar camps migrant camps in the capital, one along the Canal St Martin, which houses 800 mostly Afghan migrants, and another of 300-400 at the Porte de la Chapelle, are set to be evacuated soon, Cadot said.

The authorities said the operation Wednesday was the 35th such evacuation in Paris in the last three years as thousands of migrants have arrived seeking a better life, hoping to settle in France or reach Britain.

"We don't know if we're going to be allowed to stay in France. I would like to stay, I know that I could build a life here," a Sudanese man at the site who gave his name as Ibrahim told AFP.

Many migrants may have taken hope from the accolades showered on Mamoudou Gassama, the 22-year-old Malian "Spiderman" captured on video as he scaled four storeys of an apartment building to rescue a dangling four-year-old.

President Emmanuel Macron hailed the heroic act, saying Gassama -- who entered France illegally in September via Libya -- would be granted citizenship.

But in a warning to other African migrants, he said he "can not give (papers) to all those who come from Mali or Burkina Faso" -- two of the countries from where thousands of migrants set out each year for Europe.

The 40-year-old centrist is pushing ahead with a new immigration law, decried as too hardline by some but which he sees as essential to separating genuine asylum seekers from so-called economic migrants.

"Behind a few symbolic gestures there remains a policy of repression and expulsions," said Michel Rousseau of Tous Migrants (We're All Migrants), a pro-migrant aid group in southeast France.

France expelled 18,000 people last year, interior ministry figures show, compared with 100,000 asylum requests.

Rousseau and other activists will be demonstrating outside the courthouse in the Alpine town of Gap on Thursday, when two Swiss nationals and an Italian go on trial for aiding a group of migrants cross into France last month.

They risk up to 10 years in prison.

- Tensions -

On Wednesday a 72-year-old Amnesty International volunteer was facing similar charges in Nice, after helping two Guinean adolescents return to France after authorities sent them back to Italy.

France granted 32,000 people asylum last year, official data shows, far fewer than other EU countries such as Germany, yet immigration remains a key voter concern.

The far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen won a third of votes in last year's presidential election.

Rather than Gassama's heroics, however, some far-right activists have highlighted a different case involving migrants this week: that of two Afghans arrested for allegedly harassing a woman they judged to be inappropriately dressed on a train.

They also point to outbreaks of violence among the migrant groups, most recently the stabbing death of a Somalian after a fight in Paris on Monday.