Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in France are awaiting word on their applications for official permits, after their protests prompted the interior minister to call for a review of their cases "realistically, and with compassion."
France has seen a renewed wave of activism in the immigrant community, marked by demonstrations, petitions, and the emergence of thousands of the undocumented from hiding to demand the right to regular permits and normal lives. The high-water mark of the actions came this summer in a sit-in involving over 100 people at the Royal Basilica in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, which brought the undocumented community's case before the public and policy makers.
The latest wave of action comes five years after the undocumented community's hunger strikes and church occupations in the spring of 1997, which provoked a government crackdown and consequent wave of sympathy for the immigrants' cause.
Anxious to avoid the sort of conflict that might provide the opposition Socialist Party with an issue around which to mobilize, the conservative government decided to send out positive signals. On September 5, Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy announced the reopening of regularization procedures.
At the same time, the interior minister held a meeting for all prefects, the local authorities responsible for handling applications for regularization of status. He advised them that all requests for regularization, whether they had been refused already or not, should be re-examined "realistically, and with compassion." Officials estimate that as a result, between 80,000 and 400,000 hopeful candidates are waiting to receive their official permits and have their situations regularized.
But despite giving the impression of "easing the tension" surrounding immigration, the conservative minister quickly laid down limits to his proposals. According to information provided by his advisors, only those people "able to prove that they are in a special situation" will have their status regularized. This includes parents of children born in France and attending school there, those married to a French citizen, and immigrants able to prove that they have been living in French territory for at least 10 years.
These criteria mirror those laid down in legislation passed in May 1998, which effectively made possible a limited but regular influx of immigrants according to the needs of the economy. Sarkozy appears to be continuing this policy, which rests on the belief that immigration should not be stopped, but neither should there be a huge wave of regularizations similar to those in Spain or Italy. Indeed, the minister tempered his earlier statements about compassion with a subsequent declaration that "France needs immigrants, but cannot accept them all."
France's prefects seem to feel the same way. In Paris, the initial application of the "new" government policy spoke for itself: out of the first 200-300 cases examined, only 69 people obtained regular permits. In other French departments, many officials appear to be dragging their feet on regularization in much the same way that drew criticism after the passage of the 1998 law. The result, according to official counts, is that thousands of immigrants who meet the law's criteria have been denied regularization.
At the end of September, various human rights associations wrote to Sarkozy asking him to set up a national commission to examine all immigrant files. Although the minister refused, he nevertheless entrusted an administrative inspector with the mission of ensuring that all files are "treated in the same way," and, if necessary, of proposing changes to the law.