AFP, April 1, 2010
The French government unveiled a bill on Wednesday to toughen immigration rules and impose strict penalties on anyone employing foreigners without work permits, raising howls of protest from human rights groups.
It is the sixth time since 2002 that France has looked to tighten its immigration laws and comes after President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a debate on national identity that critics say pandered to far-right extremists.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who has recently backed calls for a French ban on the full-face Muslim veil, or burqa, presented the bill to the cabinet on Wednesday.
Amongst the measures was a move to increase the time illegal immigrants can be held in detention to 45 days from 32, after which the authorities have to make a decision on whether to expel them or further investigate their request for asylum.
It also postpones the moment that a judge can review their case, leaving it up to an administrative official to make the first call on their detention.
“This is a serious assault on fundamental liberties,” Patrick Henriot, deputy head of the French magistrates’ union was quoted as saying in Le Monde newspaper.
The government decided on this change after judges in January swiftly freed some 124 mainly Kurdish immigrants, who had washed up on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, rather than move them to the detention centres.
Besson, who has been set a goal by Sarkozy to expel 30,000 illegal immigrants from French soil this year, defended the push to extend the detention period, which will give authorities more time to check asylum demands.
“(The period) is 60 days in Portugal, six months in the Netherlands, Austria or Hungary, eight months in Belgium, 18 months in Germany, 24 months in Switzerland, and unlimited in Britain,” he wrote in his presentation of the bill.
Under the terms of the proposed law, anyone caught employing illegal immigrants will face up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of 15,000 euros ($20,140).
The bill also calls for immigrants hoping to naturalise to adhere “to the essential principles and values of the republic” and requires people to sign a “charter of the rights and duties of the French citizen”.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population and the government has been particularly concerned over whether Islam is compatible with the country’s secularist model.
The debate on national identity was supposed to define what it meant to be French, but it swiftly descended into a bitter argument over the presence of Islam in France, with the far-right demanding much stricter controls on mosques.
Halal foie gras, non-alcoholic champagne, sauerkraut garnished with pork-free sausages: Muslim-friendly food is moving away from its immigrant roots and merging with mainstream French tradition.
While the fine wine and gourmet food exports that underpin the French food industry have been hit hard by the global crisis, the halal niche market has been growing fast.
The boom went largely unnoticed until a hamburger chain tried a halal menu in some of its restaurants, sparking charges of “communautarisme”–a term roughly meaning “ghettoization”, which grates against the French insistence on integration.
The growth of halal products is largely thanks to young descendants of Arab and African migrants, who want to enjoy the same culinary diversity as their non-Muslim French neighbours while remaining true to their cultural roots.
“It’s mostly driven by the second and third generations,” said Antoine Bonnel, director of the Paris Halal trade show held this week.
“It’s not a case of the Muslim community withdrawing into itself, but rather one of integration, since they want to be able to buy halal sauerkraut or spring rolls,” he said.
Bonnel was referring to the increasing number of Muslims joining the French middle classes and expanding their culinary horizons, a trend that has even spawned a new term–“beurgeois”, a slightly ironic mix of “bourgeois”, or middle class, and “beur”, slang for North African.
French sales of halal food are forecast to hit 5.5 billion euros (7.42 billion dollars) in 2010 and move “from the ethnic market to the mass market”, said Bonnel.
The word halal–meaning “lawful” in Arabic–applies to food that has been prepared according to the prescriptions of the Koran.
Islamic law requires meat to be slaughtered under religious supervision and forbids the consumption of pork and alcohol.
The halal market, targeting France’s estimated five-million-strong Muslim population, has obvious attractions for retailers and restaurateurs, and market researchers say it is growing rapidly.
Supermarket chain Casino has created a halal brand, Wassila, and fast food chain Quick is trying out a halal menu in eight of its 350 burger joints.
But the increased presence of halal in French life has raised some hackles in this staunchly secular country.
Several politicians from both right and left have complained that providing halal options will divide French society rather than help welcome Muslims into the culinary mainstream.
Quick’s introduction of halal options in some areas with Muslim populations was attacked by a mayor from the opposition Socialist party, who threatened legal action, and by members of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s own ruling right-wing UMP party.
“I am not in favour of anything that smacks of communitarianism,” said UMP party leader Xavier Bertrand.
No-one at the Halal Expo agreed with their concerns.
“There are already kosher products and sections for world foods in the supermarkets–why not halal?” asked Anisa Bouarbi of Paris Hallal, a firm which lists restaurants online for a young smartphone-equipped audience.
“Discrimination means not allowing people to follow their tastes.”
Around her in the exhibition hall, the products on show seemed to support the view that the burgeoning market is encouraging Muslims to eat and drink the same products as other French people, just in halal form.
Halal is also providing fresh business for French businesses.
Christine Darcon, director of Corico, which produces the turkey often used to replace pork in halal versions of European dishes, said that her company was simply supplying “a clientele which is asking for specific products”.
“Halal is on the way to outselling organic products in the supermarkets,” boasted Hakan Cetin, sales manager of Oz Pa, which produces gelatin free halal sweets and biscuits.
He and his colleagues feel that the politicians’ concerns will evaporate, as firms rush into the growing market segment, and the only problem they foresee is the lack of a unified halal certification scheme.
Manufacturers currently use a wide variety of organisations to establish their credentials, or even certify their products as halal themselves. This has led to consumer demand for a single halal stamp of approval.