The French parliament on Friday approved a divisive new immigration law which tilts the system in favor of qualified foreign workers and increases the restrictions on others.
The vote coincided with an escalating furore over threats by the government to deport school-age children whose parents are illegal immigrants, which is expected to cumulate in a mass protest in Paris yesterday.
The law, proposed by right-wing Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, creates a new type of residence permit -- named a "skills and talents permit" -- for foreigners with qualifications which are judged to be important for the French economy and labor market.
At the same time it increases restrictions on migrants moving to France to join their families, as the vast majority currently do.
Foreigners will be allowed into the country only if they can earn an income. The foreign spouses of French citizens will now have to wait longer for residence cards -- a move designed to combat convenience marriages. And migrants will be forced to sign an "integration contract" committing them to respect the French way of life.
The law also scraps regulations that previously allowed illegal immigrants to obtain French documents if they succeeded in living in the country for 10 years. Now their cases will be dealt with on an individual basis by the authorities.
The law has prompted a strongly hostile reaction from the left-wing opposition, rights groups, the Catholic church and some African countries.
Critics say it risks creaming off the most talented people from countries where they are badly needed and will make life harder for ordinary migrants.
"Keeping the best and sending back the worst is not exactly Christian," said Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon.
The government believes there are between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants in France and is planning 26,000 deportations this year, some on flights run jointly with Britain.
On Friday police said a 28-year-old illegal Moroccan immigrant committed suicide in the detention center where he was being held before being deported. His 18-year-old French girlfriend is pregnant.
As the immigration bill worked its way through parliament, a political row intensified over the fate of thousands of young illegal immigrants, who campaigners fear could be deported with their families once the school term ends early this month.
Politicians from the left-wing opposition, media personalities and sports stars have been among thousands to sign a petition which promises to provide refuge for children threatened with expulsion after June 30, when a government moratorium expired.
The children are from families who entered France illegally and who would normally be expelled along with their parents. But campaigners say that most of them know no other country and that deportation would be inhumane.
On Friday the lawyer appointed by Sarkozy to mediate in the dispute said there would be no immediate deportations of children.
"Families have till August 13 to lodge a dossier. There will be no child hunt ... there will be no expulsions this summer," lawyer Arno Klarsfeld told Sud radio.
In the middle of last month Sarkozy yielded to pressure from campaigners and agreed that some families might be allowed to stay in France "as an exceptional and humanitarian measure, in the interest of the children."
Prefects -- state-appointed governors -- have been told to examine individual cases and grant temporary residence permits to families in accordance with certain criteria.
But campaigning groups have condemned Sarkozy's concessions as window-dressing.
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