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Sarkozy Defends Draft Immigration Law During Mali Visit

French interior minister and 2007 presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has defended a new draft law on immigration while on a visit to Mali. The trip comes just after France's lower house passed the bill, making Sarkozy a target for protesters. VOA's Nico Colombant has more from our West Africa bureau in Abidjan with reporting by Agathe Diama in Bamako.

Sarkozy said there was nothing racist or xenophobic about the draft law that promotes, among other things, selective immigration of skilled labor. The law would also make it more difficult for migrants to have their families join them in France.

In Bamako, Sarkozy said the text was reasonable and that there were no alternatives.

Before the trip, the proposed law had provoked outrage from outspoken Africans.

Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade said it would encourage a brain drain and that he would send a bill to France for stealing educated Africans. Ivorian singer Alpha Blondy said the new law smelled like slavery.

Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure said, with a hint of sarcasm, he would honor Sarkozy's visit because he was "not a selective host."

Other residents of Bamako staged a sit-in at the French embassy.

This man said stop the expulsions. "Stop the charter, the planes, and give papers to all," he said.

Illegal immigrants in France are often flown back to their home countries in handcuffs on commercial planes, drawing criticism from human rights activists.

Another protester said French officials should not forget that Africans have done so much to help France, through colonial times, wars, and economic expansion.

One of the organizers said France, which calls itself the land of human rights and freedom, should respect proud humans like Malians who are forced to exile to richer countries to feed their families.

Some protesters said Sarkozy was provoking them and that there was no coincidence about the timing of his visit.

Immigration and the difficulty of some immigrants to integrate into French society has been a hot topic in French politics, capitalized by extreme right parties.

Sarkozy has been in the French media spotlight in recent years, timing visits to troubled areas when attention can be maximized. Immigration policy is part of Sarkozy's current portfolio as Interior Minister.

There are nearly 50,000 registered Malian immigrants in France, and about the same number who have no legal status.

The immigrants, both legal and illegal, send home more than $200 million a year, making them an important part of Mali's economy.