Most children look forward to going on holiday at the end of the school year. But some foreign students in France are dreading vacation that begins next Tuesday. That's when a moratorium ends on deporting illegal youngsters, under tough new immigration legislation. The deportation threat has sparked a huge outcry.
Class is over for the day at Ecole des Trois Bornes, a primary school located in the 11th arrondissement in northern Paris. Children spill out of school, and run to their parents waiting to meet them.
Wahib Arbane and his wife Fatma, an Algerian couple in their '30s, are among them. They have two children enrolled at Trois Bornes. But maybe not for long.
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration, and sharply increase the number of illegal immigrants deported from France this year, including children. The center-right government issued a waiver allowing illegal immigrant children to finish school here, before possibly being deported. But that waiver ends next week, when school lets out.
At Ecole des Trois Bornes, Wahib Arbane says he has no intention of returning to Algeria. He left five years ago, when the North African country was torn apart by an Islamic insurgency. Today, the couple scrapes by here without legal papers. Arbane works in construction and his wife Fatma cleans houses.
Arbane says he prefers to remain in France illegally, than to return to Algeria, where, he says, it will be difficult to start over. And his two young children, ages two and seven, don't even speak his native Arabic.
The dilemma of young children like the Arbanes' is being echoed across France. The French government estimates there are between 200-thousand and 400-thousand foreigners living here illegally. Immigrant rights groups estimate up to 50-thousand illegal immigrant children could face deportation. They say many of these youngsters have either been born in France, or came here when they were very young.
Polls show that many French support tougher immigration restrictions. But the threat of deporting children has sparked a growing outcry here. Celebrities, politicians and ordinary French have taken to the streets to protest Sarkozy's legislation.
Richard Moyon is a public school teacher and the founder of Education Sans Frontiers, a grassroots group organizing many of the protests.
As an educator, Moyon said, it's impossible to teach democracy, solidarity and other French values to students, and do nothing for foreign students who are threatened with deportation.
Opposition lawmakers, like Socialist deputy Jacques Lang, are also against the immigration restrictions. Many have symbolically "adopted" illegal immigrant children in a spate of highly publicized ceremonies. They vow to help them regularize their status, and hide them if they face deportation. A possible presidential hopeful in next year's elections, Lang says the immigration legislation is cruel and inhumane.
Lang says cracking down on illegal immigration here is also "stupid." He says France and other European countries will need the know-how of these immigrants in the future. It's a good thing, he says, that children from Africa and elsewhere come to study in France, and eventually stay here.
Faced with mounting protests, Sarkozy announced last week that local prefects, or heads of French regions, could regularize some illegal immigrants on a case-by-case basis. And on Friday, a government-appointed lawyer said France would not begin deporting school-aged children immediately.
But those announcements do not reassure parents at Ecole des Trois Bornes. They are working to help illegal immigrants like Wahib and Fatma Arbane apply for the new regularization waiver. Sandrine Hebard, who has three children at the school, says French parents like herself are building strong bonds with their foreign counterparts. They invite each other's children home to play after school.
Hebard says she wants a different immigration policy for her children's generation. She doesn't want to see more suburban ghettos, which many immigrants in France call home. These children were born here, she says, and they were destined to be French. But Hebard also admits that the views of Parisians like herself, living in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, may not be shared by French elsewhere.
Fatma and Wahib Arbane describe parents at Trois Bornes as "brave people.''
Just a month ago, the couple says, they hardly knew any of the French parents here. Now, they talk to them regularly. "I am a Muslim and they're Christians," Wahib Arbane says, "but I feel like they are my brothers."