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Lack of Biometric Passports Slows Down French Visas to US


Lines are snaking out the door of the U.S. Consulate in Paris, as would-be French travelers to America wait to get newly required visas. The problem: the French government has yet to issue special biometric passports. Without such a passport, travelers are now required to have a visa. That's translating into a major loss for the French tourism industry.

Until recently, French visitors did not need a visa to enter the United States. No longer. A U.S. law passed after the September 2001 terrorist strikes requires travelers from 27 countries to have special high-tech passports for security reasons. The new biometric passports carry a chip with the image and fingerprints of the passport holder. Of these nations, 26 - including Australia, Britain, Japan and Singapore - have complied with the regulations, but France has not.

The reason: The French government is involved in a dispute with labor unions who insist the biometric passports must be manufactured by the public printing agency. And for French citizens like Jean Ruffin, waiting outside the U.S. consulate in Paris on a chilly Tuesday afternoon, that has translated into a major headache.

"When I [applied for] the passport and [said it was] for going to the United States, they told me go very fast, because it is going to take you a long time to have an appointment to have an interview to get the visa," he said.

It took Ruffin 10 days and 15 euros, about $18 - to get his appointment. It took him a total of two days to get the visa to travel to Miami, where his business is headquartered. But late Tuesday, he got it.

Another woman, who identified herself only as Caroline, was also in line to pick up visas.

Caroline says she does not need a visa to enter the U.S., but her children do. She describes the wait and the paperwork as long and tedious.

French travelers are not the only ones complaining. Isabelle Gelee is board chairman of Visit USA France, a promotional association. She estimates some 250,000 French travelers will decide not to visit the U.S. this year, because of the lengthy new requirements for visas. She says that translates into a $600 million loss for the French tourism industry alone.

"We have estimated around 30 percent of French travelers won't go to the U.S., meaning 10 percent who will have to cancel their trips because they won't have the proper passport, and 20 percent who will just [decide] not to go because it is too complicated," she noted.

The French government says it hopes to be able to issue new biometric passports to its citizens by May. But Ms. Gelee says for many French travelers, and for the travel business, that will be too late for this year.

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