French lawmakers debate a new bill, which aims toughening immigration rules and expands the state's power to strip foreign-born citizens of their nationality if they commit major crimes. Opponents say the measure would drive a new wedge between those born French and those who become French in a country
Does France have second-class citizens? A new bill introduced Tuesday in parliament aimed at toughening immigration rules would strip naturalized citizens of their nationality if they threaten the lives of police.
Opponents say the measure would drive a new wedge between those born French and those who become French in a country that sees itself as a haven for the world's oppressed.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been languishing for months in opinion polls, initiated the measure as a means to quash crime, but some worry that the proposed law would create two types of French in a risky bid to entice far-right sympathizers to his conservative camp.
"This is not a dangerous security excess," insisted Immigration Minister Eric Besson, opening what was certain to be several days of noisy debate in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
The bill "lays the first stones of a European project," he said, noting that the bill largely satisfies the terms of an EU immigration pact that all 27 members must translate into law. "The European Union must not be a supermarket of social protections," Besson said.
The sweeping bill includes measures that target fellow European Union citizens who abuse the generous French social welfare system or overstay their welcome. Those measures, along with tougher punishment for those found guilty of "aggressive begging," implicitly target Gypsies.
That risks worsening the already electric tensions surrounding France's recent expulsions of hundreds of Gypsies, or Roma, primarily to Romania. The expulsions, seen as targeting a specific ethnic group, have been condemned by the EU and the Vatican.
However, concern was above all focused on the amendment that would strip citizenship from people naturalized less than 10 years ago if they endanger police or other authorities. "This is unconstitutional," said Socialist lawmaker Serge Blisko. “You've invented a new status: French of the second zone," he said during debate, "a new sword of Damocles."
Some 45 associations, human rights, aid and religious groups, were holding a demonstration outside the National Assembly. Like the conservative government's leftist opposition, many of them claim it would create a two-tier system that makes some people more French than others.
Currently, a citizen can lose French nationality for treason or terrorism. Americans, too, can lose their citizenship if convicted of committing treason or swearing an oath of allegiance to another country - but not through conviction of a violent crime.
Sarkozy suggested modifying the rules for stripping nationality in a July 30 speech in which he announced a "national war" on crime that notably hits hard on immigrants who disobey the law.
"French nationality should be earned. One must know how to be worthy of it," the president said at the time. French nationality should be revoked "from any person of foreign origin who voluntarily threatens the life of a police officer" or other public authority, he said.
Sarkozy is known for his tough talk on crime, but critics say he is trying to boost his sagging popularity by appealing to public fears about security and thus pandering to the anti-immigrant far right. Tensions between police and youth in France's poor, immigrant neighborhoods sometimes erupt into tear gas and stone-throwing violence - or worse.
The conservative president has steadily focused on issues that indirectly affect those populations - from crime fighting to a controversial bid, led by Besson, to boost French identity. That latter effort was seen as stigmatizing second- and third-generation French youths with immigrant origins, often Muslims.
The bill under discussion Tuesday is the fifth proposed change in seven years to France's rules aimed at controlling the migratory flux and the second since Sarkozy took office in 2007. Critics denounce the creation of what amounts to a hierarchical order of citizenry for whom different rules apply. One is French or one isn't, they say, and nationality cannot simply be tossed away.
"We must cultivate pride in being French," Besson said in an interview published Tuesday in the daily Le Parisien, and extending the loss of citizenship to include those who attack police "has a serious symbolic and national meaning." The Party of the Left denounced a "Vichy-style measure," a reference to the collaborationist government in World War II that carried out Nazi policies.
"What is unbearable for us but also for the French people is that matters such as immigration, immigrants and Roma have been presented as the core of the political debate," Socialist lawmaker Manuel Valls said before the session. "Today, French are more worried about the economic situation ... and the injustices they are suffering."