Chaotic Gym Fuels French 2007 Immigration Debate

Kerstin Gehmlich, Reuters, August 31, 2006

Cachan, France—Squeezed on a row of narrow mattresses, hundreds of African immigrants are refusing to move from a gym outside Paris, fuelling a heated immigration debate ahead of the 2007 presidential election.

Police evicted several hundred people from France’s largest squat two weeks ago, causing an outcry among rights groups who denounced the move as a “media stunt” by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to underline his tough immigration stance.

Dozens of illegal immigrants were arrested to be sent back to their country of origin and others agreed to be housed in hotels. But several hundred squatters vowed to stay in the overcrowded gym until authorities find them permanent homes.

“How would I cook my children dinner in a hotel room?” said Fanta Doumbir, sitting on a tiny mattress she shares with her three small sons.

“All I want is a home and some dignity,” said the 29-year-old who came as a refugee from Ivory Coast in 2003.

“Before coming here, I always painted France as this great country, where everything is possible. Like in a film, a country of rights,” she said, looking across what looks like a refugee camp with clothes, toys and food strewn across the floor.

Doumbir said she had moved into the squat because she had been unable to find an apartment despite her residency papers, a fate shared by thousands of poor French and immigrant families crammed into shabby hotels or living with friends.

Some 300,000 families are waiting for state-subsidised housing in the greater Paris region, officials say.

EYEING THE ELECTION

Immigration and poverty are set to be major issues in the 2007 poll after angry youths—many of them descendants of immigrants—rioted in poor suburbs last year.

Sarkozy, the conservatives’ presidential frontrunner, tightened French immigration rules in reaction to the riots and decided to expel thousands of illegal immigrants this year.

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Socialist frontrunner Segolene Royal criticised the evacuation as a publicity stunt and said many occupants were doing menial jobs that long-standing French residents did not want.

“If Madame Royal wants us to accept all illegal immigrants . . . she should tell the French that,” Sarkozy riposted.

There are some 4.9 million immigrants resident in France, official data show. Officials estimate between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal foreigners live in the country.

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