French Official's Visit to Africa Sparks Protests

Lisa Bryant

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is on a two-day visit to West Africa for talks on political and development issues - and on the very controversial matter: tough new French immigration restrictions.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters he wants to quell anger over new French immigration legislation during his visits to Mali and Benin Thursday and Friday. But that may prove a tall order.

Several hundred people gathered to protest Sarkozy's arrival in Mali late Wednesday chanting "Sarkozy, racist!" and legalize the sans papiers - or illegal immigrants. Malian newspapers and parliamentary deputies have also criticized the interior minister's visit.

The protests are directed against new immigration legislation backed by Sarkozy, and passed by France's National Assembly this week. The bill still awaits a vote in the French Senate.

The legislation would give special consideration to the most qualified and educated people trying to move to France. It also would drastically curb opportunities for families of immigrants to move to France - and for illegal immigrants to be legalized after living here for 10 years.

A large share of immigrants to France are of African origin. Mali accounts for the highest number of African immigrants here - and only about half of these Malians have legal papers.

The French legislation mirrors a larger European trend toward more selective immigration policies and tougher expulsion measures. European and African officials are to discuss immigration measures in July, during a conference in Rabat.

Daphne Bouteillet, a European immigration expert at Amnesty International, says Europe and Africa remain far apart on immigration strategies.

"European politicians stress the need for more border controls and barriers to stop immigration from Africa, Bouteillet says, while Africans want more emphasis on poverty and development - which they argue are the root causes of immigration," she said.

Those same tensions are expected to surface during Sarkozy's talks with top officials in Mali and Benin.


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