French parties testing the political waters on immigration law changes

 

POLLING DAY may be four months away, but a political row over whether to issue undocumented immigrants with residence permits has shown France’s government and opposition parties already positioning themselves for next year’s regional elections.

With more than 5,000 long-term undocumented migrant workers having taken part in strikes since mid-October to demand official residence status in France, Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry this week proposed a “large scale regularisation” scheme for sans-papierswho met certain criteria.

“Those who are here a long time, who work, who pay their taxes – there is no reason why they shouldn’t have their rights,” Socialist former prime minister Laurent Fabius added.

The main opposition party’s intervention came in response to plans announced by the government last weekend to introduce tougher sanctions for companies that employ undocumented staff. According to the CGT trade union, there are up to 400,000 sans-papiersin France, with most concentrated in the catering, building and security industries.

“[The government] are going to close half of all restaurants,” scoffed a senior socialist quoted by the financial newspaper Les Échos.

While some interpreted the Socialists’ move as an attempt, in advance of the regional elections next March, to reclaim the ground it has recently lost to rival left-wing groups, the ruling UMP party – conscious of the need to guard its own terrain against incursions from the National Front – has not missed the opportunity to press its own credentials on immigration.

Minister for Immigration Éric Besson – a member of the Socialist Party before he defected in 2007 – called the opposition party “irresponsible” for broaching the idea of regularisation, while several of his colleagues said even mentioning the notion could attract more illegal immigration.

“As long as I am president of the Republic, I will not accept a comprehensive regularisation of those who don’t have their permits. I’ll never accept it, because it’s contrary to my idea of the values of the republic,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said during a visit to a Parisian suburb on Tuesday.

Several European countries – including France, Spain and Italy – have introduced amnesty schemes for different categories of undocumented immigrants in the past 20 years, but a spokesman for the Élysée Palace said EU states had agreed last year, during the French presidency of the European Council, that they would refrain from adopting any “mass regularisation” programmes.

While the debate has exposed differences of approach and rhetoric between Mr Sarkozy’s UMP and the Socialists, the parties’ policies do not appear radically different.

Undocumented workers’ applications for residence are already considered on a case by case basis in France.

Successful applicants, as Mr Besson wrote in a circular to local authorities across France this week, must demonstrate that they have spent at least five years in the country, that they have a job in a sector where labour shortages exist, that their contract runs for at least another year and that they have “integrated” in French society.

The government estimates that about 1,000 people would satisfy these criteria.

For their part, the Socialists are scarcely proposing a general free-for-all.

“One has to have been in France for a certain period, not have any convictions, be integrated,” Mr Fabius says. “We obviously cannot accept all the misery of the world.”