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Algerian Immigrants in France Hail New Agreement - 2001-08-09

Immigrant rights activists have hailed a new agreement revising requirements for Algerians immigrating to France. The agreement, which must be ratified by lawmakers, gives Algerians much the same rights as other immigrants in France.

Yasmina's family arrived in France in the 1970's, when demand for Algerian labor was high, and immigration laws lenient. A native of Algeria's Kabylie region, Yasmina grew up in Paris and attended French schools, and later worked as a secretary in a French office. She settled in the Paris suburb of Brunoy, and gave birth to two children.

Now 31, Yasmina is a legal immigrant in France, but she still does not have French citizenship. Her husband, Raba, who arrived more recently from Algeria, remains an illegal immigrant.

She spoke to VOA on condition that her real name not be used, for fear of being identified by French immigration authorities and jeopardizing her husband's status.

The reason she has not been able to get French citizenship, she believes, is that she is from Algeria. "Immigrants from other North African countries receive legal status in France much more easily than Algerians," Yasmina said.

But a new Franco-Algerian immigration agreement may end what some say is unequal and unfair treatment of Algerian immigrants.

Signed in July, the accord would shorten the wait for Algerians to apply for legal status in France, from 15 to 10 years which is the waiting period for most immigrants here. Algerian parents of French children would also be granted full residency rights. And Algerians retired from jobs in France would be able to travel between France and Algeria freely. The agreement would also soften reunification requirements for Algerian couples like Yasmina and Raba.

Catherine Wihtol de Wende, an immigration expert and director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, believes the French-Algerian agreement illustrates a gradual distancing of the French government from tough measures it adopted in 1993 that made it difficult for immigrants to gain legal status in France. The new procedures sparked criticism in France and overseas, but the French government said the measures were necessary to stem the flow of illegal immigration.

In 1998, the leftist government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin revised the procedures. But the new amendments were not applicable to Algerian immigrants, who are governed by a bilateral treaty between France and Algeria.

During colonial days, Algeria once counted among France's overseas departments, and many Algerians were French citizens. But in 1963, after a long and bloody war of independence, France relinquished control over Algeria, and Paris gradually phased out many of the special benefits Algerians had enjoyed, such as the right to travel and stay in France. When the Algerian civil war broke out a decade ago, the French welcome mat all but disappeared and the numbers of French visas granted to Algerians plummeted, although those numbers have risen in recent years.

Bernadette Hetier, immigration expert for a Paris-based organization that fights racism (MRAP), says at one time even those Algerians who were fleeing persecution from Islamist terrorists had problems gaining asylum in France. "As the persecution was not by the state, but by Islamist groups, France insisted on never applying the Geneva Convention on refugees to those who were persecuted by Islamic groups," Ms. Hetier said. "But it had a very paradoxical effect, which was that in certain specific circumstances, Islamic activists - of course not terrorists, but Islamic activists - would be recognized with refugee status under the Geneva Convention because they were persecuted by the state."

Raba Mahiout, spokesman for the Association Amicale des Algerians, a Paris-based Algerian association, says that in early days Algerians who retired from jobs in France could easily travel between the two countries. Now, Mr. Mahiout says, it takes Algerian retirees months to get a visa to return to France and collect their retirement checks.

Immigration rights groups also say French prefectures, or local administrative departments, often apply immigration laws arbitrarily, and sometimes unfairly. And the tougher French immigration requirements have sparked a wave of protests in recent years by so-called Sans Papiers movements - those who are without legal papers.

Traore Mamadou is spokesman for one Sans Papiers group in Paris that claims 350 members - mostly West African immigrants who are living in France illegally. Mr. Mamadou says he believes the French-Algerian immigration agreement is a positive step. But he says he will keep fighting for more lenient French laws for all immigrants.