France May Order Language Tests for Migrants

Jon Henley, Guardian (London), July 23

Immigrants may have to pass a French language test if they want long-term residence rights in the country, a junior social affairs minister said yesterday.

In a further tightening of already strict immigration laws, Catherine Vautrin, the state secretary for social cohesion and women’s rights, said the French government aimed to create “a link” between linguistic competence and the granting of a 10-year residence permit.

“We want to encourage as much as possible the integration of new arrivals,” she said. “At present there is no language requirement, and I believe one is necessary. What interests us is successful immigration—and behind language lies employment, accommodation, everything.”

Few EU states require immigrants to master their language. Britain, Spain and Italy only demand an ID card and an employment contract before issuing a residence permit. But in Germany, applicants for permanent residence must pass a language and general culture test, and Austria and Denmark have introduced similar measures.

Ms Vautrin was speaking at a centre in the south-western city of Lyon where some of the 110,00 to 120,000 legal immigrants who arrive in France each year—refugees, economic migrants and family members of existing residents—go for basic tuition in the laws and principles of the republic as well as to sign a “Welcome and Integration Contract”.

The contract, written in a dozen languages including Arab, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Hindi, was introduced three years ago to remind immigrants that France is an “indivisible, secular and social” state, that religion is a private matter and that men and women are equal.

Officials say about 90% of immigrants who are granted a French residence permit have signed the document, which entitles them to 500 hours of non-compulsory French language teaching and a two-day civic education course.

The programme is supposed to make it easier for immigrants to renew temporary residence permits and, eventually, acquire French nationality. It costs the government €60m (£41.7bn) a year. Some 8,000 immigrants signed the contract in 2003, and 37,000 last year.

“Language is a problem,” Ms Vautrin said. “Only 60% of new arrivals take lessons and it’s not enough. For married women in particular it’s important: to live their lives in France they have to be independent, and the first condition of independence is to be able to speak our language.”

The prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, last month asked an inter-ministerial committee to study ways to “ensure immigration is more closely tailored to France’s economic needs”—seen by many critics as a hint that France was prepared to introduce quotas for legal immigration.

But Paris also recently unveiled a package of tough new measures aimed at combating illicit immigration. Putting the number of illegal aliens in France at between 200,000 and 400,000, Mr de Villepin said it was “far, far too easy” for people to enter on a tourist visa and then stay on illegally. If caught they could claim to have no papers and to be unaware of their nationality, preventing any expulsion, he said.

France aims to boost expulsions by up to 30% a year, the prime minister said, partly by creating a special 600-strong “immigration police” and an immigration control service to coordinate the activities of the police, gendarmerie, local authorities and government departments.

· The French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said yesterday that in the wake of the second wave of terrorist bomb attacks in London, he was launching a “major operation to track down the radicalising elements”—mainly radical imams—among France’s 6 million Muslims .

Mr Sarkozy said France would “substantially increase” the security services’ budgets. “Everyone in France has the right to practise his religion,” he said. “But when you see the images of the kamikazes in London you see the responsibility of radical preachers for young minds. I do not intend to tolerate it.”

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