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France Tightens Immigration Requirements

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Lisa Bryant

The French National Assembly has adopted legislation tightening immigration requirements. The senate has not yet examined the bill, which includes a controversial provision for voluntary DNA testing. But, from Paris, Lisa Bryant reports the measure reflects a choosier France - and Europe - when it comes to immigration policy.

France is hardly a fortress, but it is getting harder to enter the country as a legal immigrant - and easier for illegal aliens to be deported. The bill adopted by the National Assembly would require French language tests for visa candidates and parents seeking to join family members to sign immigration contracts. It would also authorize voluntary genetic tests to prove family ties. If passed by both houses, it would be the third French law in five years tightening immigration policy.

The legislation - particularly the controversial DNA provision - has sparked widespread opposition. Leftist politicians, human rights groups, the Vatican and even French police and government ministers have voiced concerns.

Tuesday, several hundred people gathered in front of the National Assembly in Paris, to protest the bill being debated by lawmakers. They included 31-year-old Majid Messoudene, a Socialist party official from the Seine Saint-Denis region outside Paris. Messoudene's parents immigrated to France from Algeria, in the 1960s.

Messoudene said France has a tradition of immigration. He calls it part of the country's wealth. He says, whether the government likes it or not, France will remain a country of immigration.

Nearby, Moussa Bakhaga, from Mali, said he believes Africans like himself - from countries once colonized by France - should be allowed to come here and work.

Bakhaga, who is jobless and has been living in France for the past seven years, says he no longer recognized the country. He says the new immigration policy is extremist.

The new legislation makes good campaign promises by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant. The French president wants what he calls a "chosen immigration" policy, targeting skilled workers who can fill critical labor gaps. Mr. Sarkozy cracked down on immigration as the country's interior minister. This year, he has also vowed to enforce quotas to deport illegal aliens. The target is set for 25,000, compared to 15,000 in 2004. Mr. Sarkozy's immigration minister recently chastised French officials who failed to meet their quotas.

The government's tough stance has outraged immigration rights activists like Mouloud Aounit, head of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, a Paris-based anti-discrimination group. Aounit calls France's center-right government "xenophobic."

Although Aounit supports a national - and a even Europe-wide - debate on immigration, he says immigrants' rights should be respected. He says France cannot have immigration legislation that threatens fundamental liberties.

But a poll published in the Le Figaro newspaper, this week, found the majority of French people support immigration quotas. Most also favor French language requirements for would-be immigrants and oppose blanket regularization of illegal aliens.

France is not alone in adopting a choosier approach to immigration.

"We're beginning to have a more sophisticated debate about: okay we accept immigration as a reality and will be a reality going forward," says Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, in London. "Now, member states and the European commission are discussing - basically the big issue is how do you get the right kind of immigrant? That is the big issue." .

According to European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini, Europe only draws about five percent of the skilled foreign labor force - compared to the 55 percent who head for the United States.

Frattini has vowed to introduce so-called "blue cards" next month -- Europe's answer to American-style "green cards" for qualified foreign workers. The document would allow holders to stay in a European country for a two-year period. They may eventually be qualified for a longer-term residency and to work in other EU countries.

But immigration specialists, like Catherine de Wenden, say that, as more and more Europeans head toward retirement, the region will need all kinds of immigrants to fill labor shortages - including unskilled ones. Ms. de Wenden is an analyst at the National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris.

Moreover, Wenden says, tougher immigration legislation is not always effective. She says people who leave their country have lost hope to stay and that hey want things to change. She says the desire to go to Europe is very strong.

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