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France Gets Tough on Immigrants Ahead of EU Vote 

Dominique de Villepin
The French government Wednesday announced a series of tough measures to stem the tide of illegal immigration. The announcement comes a day before officials from five European countries gather in the French capital to discuss ways to jointly fight illegal immigration.

French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin described the rule behind France's immigration policy as one of firmness. In an interview published in the country's conservative Le Figaro newspaper, he outlined new measures that include reducing arranged marriages, recruiting new immigration police, and promoting new so-called biometric visas with fingerprints and other information about their bearers.

Mr. de Villepin said the numbers of illegal immigrants in France - between 200,000 and 400,000 - were far lower than many estimated. But he also said he intended to increase the number of people deported for failing to meet entry requirements.

Human rights groups and members of the opposition Socialist Party have criticized the government's new measures as unjust.

Like many European countries, the question of illegal immigration and foreign workers is a sensitive one in France. Especially now, less than three weeks before French vote on the new European constitution. The latest polls show the French electorate evenly split on the charter. Fears that French jobs will be taken by cheaper rivals from the new EU members has helped fuel the 'no' vote.

Aurore Wanlin, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London, believes the coming referendum factors into Mr. de Villepin's new immigration measures.

"I think the move by Mr. de Villepin is really a political move, which is not very sensible in economic terms," said Aurore Wanlin. "The problem is that, in most Western [European] countries -and Spain is really the exception - there is very high unemployment, and there is a feeling of insecurity. A feeling that, because of the enlargement [of the European Union], most companies will move eastwards, where labor is cheaper, or that new migrants will come and take away jobs."

As Ms. Wanlin noted, neighboring Spain is pursuing a very different immigration strategy. The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero recently offered an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants living in Spain to apply for legal status. But other European countries, including Germany and Britain, are trying to curb illegal immigration.

Analysts say that Europe needs immigrants. Falling birthrates mean fewer younger worker and more retirees. Immigrant workers not only can fill the void, but they can also help bankroll the region's soaring pensions. Europe needs all kinds of foreign workers, Ms. Wanlin says.

"Our societies need high-skill labor, along with low-skill labor," he said. "We just need to let them all in. But this is something the governments dont have the courage to say."

On Thursday, officials from Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy gather in Paris to consider ways to curb illegal immigration at the European Unions expanded borders. That may be hard to do, experts like Ms. Wanlin say, without agreement from all 25 block members.