France shows immigrants the door

The French government proposes a new law to make it harder for foreigners to gain legal residency and tough penalties for those who break rules.

MOROCCO, FEBRUARY 24, 2010: Salima Boulazhar, 18, a Moroccan student, gazes from the apartment in Mohammedia, Morocco, where she has been staying since her expulsion from France last month. She is among growing numbers of foreigners - including students - being deported by French authorities. John Thorne/The National
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MOHAMMEDIA, MOROCCO // Early one morning in January in the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, a Moroccan culinary student called Salima Boulazhar opened her front door and discovered, to her shock, the police.

"I was hoping for my residency card instead," said Ms Boulazhar, 18, who had lived legally as a minor in France since the age of 13. "I was checking the letter box every day." Handcuffed and detained, she was deported from the country she calls home to Morocco, the land of her birth, while her twin sister, Selma, is currently hiding somewhere in France. The Boulazhar sisters are among growing numbers of immigrants being deported by French authorities as the country grapples with rising unemployment and frets over the question of national identity.

The deportations have stirred controversy in France, where the centre-right government is proposing a new law that makes it harder for foreigners to gain legal residency and stiffens penalties for any caught breaking the rules. That is especially worrying for North Africans, who for decades have made their former coloniser the top choice for working or studying abroad, and where many have family. Some Frenchmen approve of the government's tough new approach. But critics say authorities eager to please conservative voters are summarily tossing out immigrants who should be allowed to stay on legal or humanitarian grounds.

Ms Boulazhar's troubles began the day she and Selma were born 18 years ago to an unmarried couple in the Casablanca suburb of Bouznika. "They were afraid to keep us because of the shame we brought," said Ms Boulazhar, raised with her sister by their paternal grandmother. "It was she whom I called mother." She is demure and polite, expressing herself with short, quiet sentences; her calm eyes are shaded somewhere between brown and blue. She remembers trips around Morocco - "Fez, my first time in a swimming pool and buying slippers in the medina!" - and playing defender on her local football team.

But she also remembers taunts in the schoolyard and the silence of her parents when she ran across them in the street. In 2003, Ms Boulazhar's grandmother died of cancer. For a year the sisters bounced among relatives, and sometimes slept in the street, until their aunt Atika whisked them away to Clermont-Ferrand, in the green hills of France's Massif Central region. Today North Africans make up around one-third of France's immigrants. Big cities such as Paris and Marseille crackle with the sounds of French blending with Arabic, and the cafes serve drinks and café crème while Algerian football plays on the TV.

However, deportations of illegal immigrants have accelerated since a rising politician called Nicolas Sarkozy was named interior minister in 2002, said Corinne Mialon, a school teacher in Clermont-Ferrand and member of Education Without Borders, a nationwide network of teachers and activists founded to protest against expulsions of foreign students. "It's a veritable rounding up of foreigners." According to official figures, political identity checks of illegal immigrants have increased by more than half since 2003, reaching nearly 70,000 last year.

Moving to Clermont-Ferrand in 2004, the Boulazhar sisters enrolled in school and started a new life. "When I arrived in France I forgot the past," Ms Boulazhar said. "The first day was strange because I didn't speak much French, but I liked the country right away." Now a fluent French speaker, Ms Boulazhar has made friends, discovered French cooking - she loves truffade, a local potato-and-cheese pancake - and entered culinary school.

All she needs now is a residency card. Last July, authorities refused Ms Boulazhar's application, made shortly before her 18th birthday. "I appealed but got no response," she said. "Until the morning the police came to my door." Rioting in immigrant ghettos and worry about Islam have prompted a bout of national soul-searching over France's identity, as the economic crisis in 2008 drove the country into a year-long recession and wiped out hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Last year Mr Sarkozy, elected president in 2007, ordered his interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, to eject 27,000 illegal immigrants. Mr Hortefeux made it 29,000. "Statistics like these allow the government to score big" with voters, said Bertrand Chautard, Ms Boulazhar's lawyer. He says she was expelled without proper judicial oversight. As supporters staged demonstrations and French media swarmed to her story, Ms Boulazhar was flown last month to Casablanca under police escort and turned loose to wander the airport.

"She looked so beaten, I knew instantly it was her," said Leila Mougli, a human resources worker from Mohammedia, a Casablanca suburb, who heard about Ms Boulazhar and offered to take her in. Now Ms Boulazhar is living with Ms Mougli, awaiting a visa she said France's embassy has promised her. It is unclear what options await her sister, Selma, still hiding in France, but Ms Boulazhar said she hopes Selma will receive the same offer. Embassy officials said they could not comment on visa issues.

Ms Mougli lives in a comfortable apartment in a quiet street, not far from the sea. The two women have become friends and plan to stay in touch. "But I don't have family left in Morocco that will accept me," Ms Boulazhar said. "I don't see my life here any more."