PARIS — The National Assembly approved tough new restrictions on immigration yesterday, completing a major step in President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s program to roll up a famously well-trodden welcome mat.
The bill, which still needs Senate approval and a second vote in the Assembly, requires would-be immigrants for the first time to demonstrate a knowledge of the French language and cultural values.
Its most controversial clauses provide for voluntary DNA testing of applicants seeking to show they are related to current French residents, and legalize some data gathering based on race and ethnicity.
The bill is largely driven by a public perception that the flow of unskilled workers into France contributes to high unemployment and strains the nation’s social welfare system. Such fears were crystallized by weeks of riots in suburban areas populated mainly by Muslim and African immigrants in the fall of 2005.
“For many of our countrymen, immigration is a source of concern,” said Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux upon introducing the bill. “They see a threat to their security, their jobs, their lifestyle. We must understand the … hopes of this silent majority.”
However, the bill has roused a range of critics, including leftist politicians, scientists, human rights groups, the Vatican and even French police and members of Mr. Sarkozy’s own party and government.
Some argue that would-be immigrants, if they cannot enter France legally, will simply do so by illegal means.
“The desire to go to Europe is very strong,” said Catherine de Wenden, an immigration specialist at the National Center for Scientific Research, a Paris think tank. “And the tougher the policy, the more likely it will lead to illegal immigration.”
Several hundred protesters gathered in front of the National Assembly in Paris on Tuesday, brandishing banners denouncing the legislation and the country’s center-right president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the son of a Hungarian immigrant.
The legislation makes good on a promise by Mr. Sarkozy to introduce “chosen immigration,” favoring skilled workers who can fill critical labor gaps. In his previous position as interior minister, he championed two laws that hardened the country’s immigration policy.
Mr. Sarkozy stirred a furor last year by deporting students who were in the country illegally, and alienated many foreigners with his tough handling of the 2005 riots.
Mr. Sarkozy directed authorities to deport 25,000 illegals this year, compared with 15,000 in 2004. His immigration minister chastised regional prefects last week for failing to meet the quotas.
But the president also championed affirmative action or what he dubs “positive discrimination” in jobs and education. And his new government is striking in its ethnic diversity, starting with Justice Minister Rachida Dati, the daughter of North African immigrants.
Mr. Sarkozy’s immigration policies have played well among ordinary citizens, as did the slogan he once borrowed from far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen: “France, love it or leave it.”
A survey published Tuesday in Le Figaro newspaper found that 74 percent of respondents favored immigration quotas. Most also supported French-language requirements for would-be immigrants and opposed blanket regularization of illegals, according to the OpinionWay poll.
France’s choosier approach toward immigration is reflected elsewhere in Europe, where countries are turning away boatloads of poor Africans while trying to attract better-qualified foreign workers.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this month introduced a new immigration policy very similar to that of Mr. Sarkozy, requiring that new immigrants first learn to speak English and throwing up barriers to unskilled applicants.
The policies are expected to reduce the number of people entering Britain by at least 35,000 a year.
EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini, noting that the 27-member European Union attracts only 5 percent of skilled migrants compared with 55 percent who head for the United States, vowed to introduce a labor “blue card” next month.
As Europe’s answer to the U.S. “green card,” the document would allow holders to stay for an initial two-year period and eventually become qualified for longer-term residency or to work in other EU states.
But some analysts say graying Europe needs all kinds of immigrants, including unskilled ones.
“Immigration has been a major concern in almost every European society,” said Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, in London. “But at the point where European societies are so anxious about the issue, economists and others say we’re going to need 20 million more immigrants in the next 50 years.”