PARIS — French lawmakers debated a controversial immigration bill Tuesday which would expand the state's power to strip foreign-born citizens of their nationality if they commit major crimes.
The government says the bill is aimed at bringing French law into line with European Union immigration directives, but rights groups accuse President Nicolas Sarkozy of pursuing a populist anti-immigrant agenda.
The law was put to cabinet by Immigration Minister Eric Besson in March and subsequently toughened by Sarkozy and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux amid a security clampdown and accelerated mass expulsions of the Roma minority.
The bill extends the state's right to strip those who have immigrated within the last 10 years of their nationality if they kill or attempt to kill a person in authority, such as a police officer, a fireman or a judge.
Under current French law immigrants can be stripped of their nationality if they commit a crime against "the fundamental interests of France" or an act of terrorism.
The fifth immigration law in France in seven years, the bill makes it easier to expel foreigners, including EU citizens who "threaten public order" through repeated theft, aggressive begging or "abusive occupation of land".
Rights groups say that equating begging or setting up caravans with public order issues plays on fears and prejudices -- and unfairly targets Roma.
EU laws on freedom of movement currently only allow removal of EU citizens who represent a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society."
Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low, is seeking to consolidate his conservative base ahead of presidential elections in 2012.
The bill allows for the creation of ad hoc detention zones for fast-tracking asylum claims as if the would-be immigrant were not actually in France, making it easier to expel them to a country of origin or of transit.
Many of the bill's measures are seen as targeting Roma, who as EU citizens usually from Romania or Bulgaria have the right to stay anywhere in the EU for at least three months.
International bodies including the United Nations and the European Commission have criticised France's Roma expulsions, with the Commission due to rule on their legality amid uproar from rights groups.
Parliament "should reject measures in an omnibus immigration bill that appear to target Roma and weaken migrants' rights," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
"It is shocking that the French government is pushing for measures that clearly target Roma at a time when the European Commission is threatening legal action over France's expulsion of Roma," said HRW's Judith Sunderland.
"It smacks of a populist move at the expense of the most discriminated against and vulnerable people in Europe today."
The bill accelerates entry procedures for highly qualified immigrants and requires those seeking French nationality to sign a charter of citizens rights and duties.
Immigration Minister Besson said that he would be "very happy" if his ministry "could be a machine for making 'good French people.'"
"Last year we gave French nationality to 108,000 foreigners," Le Parisien newspaper quoted him as saying. "Being a 'good French person' doesn't mean denying your history, your roots or your French culture," he said.
The spokesman for opposition Socialist MPs, Bruno Le Roux, said that with every new immigration law "another step is taken in the deterioration of republican principles."
"The more voters flee, the more radical the laws become, the more discussions are centred on immigration and security matters," he said shortly before the start of the debate.
MP Etienne Pinte from Sarkozy's own UMP party said he would vote against the law which "seeks to pull in the National Front's electorate." He said he would seek up to 40 amendments to the bill in order to "humanise" it.
Rights groups have called for a demonstration outside the National Assembly on Tuesday evening.
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