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Opinion: France's Immigration Policy Is An Exception -- Of Tolerance

Despite recent criticism for its anti-immigration tendencies, France is less restrictive than other European countries

Immigrants protest in Paris

By itself, the French picture might fool you. But set against the rest of the European family album, it grows much clearer. Last summer's expulsions of members of the Roma community, the rising popularity of the far-right's Marine Le Pen, the possibility of deporting foreigners convicted of crimes: all these developments were quickly assigned as proof of a renewed xenophobic trend. But these tensions in France are weak compared to the more radical identity movements emerging in the rest of Europe.

And the new European presidency is a symbol of this shift. Since January 1, Hungary is leading the European Union. The country's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is known for an aggressive brand of nationalism: both his territorial provocations toward their Slovak neighbor, like issuing Hungarian passports to the Magyar minority in Slovakia; and through ethnic pressures against minorities in Hungary, especially the Roma.

"Hungary hasn't gotten over the fact that Europe's Christian roots were put in question," says French Deputy Minister for European Affairs Laurent Wauquiez. If territorial quarrels are still dominant in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe it is religion, especially Islam, which drives the tensions.

And these tensions are so strong that they push traditionally open countries to question their integration models: the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders' Freedom Party became the country's third political force; Germany, where, after using national sentiment during the Greek crisis, chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the country's multiculturalism.

Further north, in Finland (just four months ahead of legislative elections) and in Sweden (where it was once officially banned), xenophobic attitudes are rising in opinion polls. And the heart of Europe is no different. Switzerland's evolution is very important, because, according to a Europe expert, the country is often an indicator of future immigration policies. In November, just a year after a referendum banning Muslim minarets, the Swiss voted in favor of deporting foreign criminals.

It is no coincidence that nationalistic or even xenophobic tendencies have gained ground in the past two years. For Wauquiez: "the financial crisis revived fears linked to identity." "The difficult economic and financial environment makes people more wary about immigrants, and their attitude toward illegal immigration get tougher," adds European Commissioner in charge of Interior Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom. But she also blames governments: "Often a lack of political leadership can open the door to populist approaches on immigration. Extremism finds fertile grounds where politicians fail to engage in real debate and don't give concrete answers to problems like immigrant integration and illegal immigration management."

In the meantime, words aren't the only thing getting tougher on immigration. Practices are following suit, with the possible return to a "European fortress." Britain and the Netherlands weren't the only countries to toughen up their immigration policies: the number of residence permits granted across the EU in 2009 declined by 9% to 2.3 million.

In a union where each state remains in control of its immigration policies, the European Commission can only act indirectly to help the free movement of non-EU workers. "Europe needs legal immigration and will need it even more in the future because of negative demographic trends," says Malmstrom. Many service jobs depend on it as well as high-tech sectors already lacking researchers and engineers. "Closing the door is not in our interest," says the commissioner.

But France is not following the European trend. The financial crisis doesn't seem to have weakened its choice of a "chosen" and "concerted" immigration with a dozen countries. The decline in residence permits was barely visible in 2009 (down 3%) with 175,000 permits, 75% more than in Germany. And for the first 11 months of 2010, 182,000 permits have already been granted, as many as in 2008. A sign of France's openness, welcoming foreign students has a lot to do with it.

But France's immigration policy image is given by its more restrictive approach in matters of asylum (Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux pledged to limit to "real dissidents') and expulsion of illegal immigrants.

Approved by Parliament in early October and headed for the Senate in February, the law would raise the detention period for foreigners being deported from 32 to 45 day, the time needed for the country of origin to approval the reentry. It is far from the toughest in Europe: a year ago, Spain brought it to 60 days, just like Portugal; In Germany it can go up to 18 months.

For Gérard Longuet, the President of the ruling UMP group in the Senate: "When you look at immigration practices in other European capitals, Paris really shouldn't be ashamed." Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux likes to repeat this anecdote: in the European pact on immigration and asylum pushed by France and adopted in 2008, it was Spain's Socialist-led government that requested and obtained that "illegal immigrants on a member state's territory" not only "risk" but are "obliged" to leave the country.

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