Worried about Tunisian migrants, France stops trains from Italy

France's state rail operator, SNCF, acting in consultation with French regional administrators, halt trains crossing to and from Italy, citing public order rather than an attempt to prevent Tunisian migrants from entering France.

About 60 mainly Tunisian migrants and a group of French and Italian activists demonstrate on the tracks of the train station of the Italian border town of Ventimiglia after France cancelled trains due to cross the border. Italian Foreign Minister directed his embassy in Paris to lodge a protest with France.
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MARSEILLE, FRANCE // Italy and France were embroiled in a new diplomatic row yesterday after trains were halted over French concerns that scores of Tunisian migrants were about to cross the border.

Ten trains, five scheduled services in each direction between Italy and the French Riviera, were cancelled before traffic resumed.

Eight days before the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, were due to meet in Rome, Paris firmly denied it had acted outside European law on free passage. But the denials did not stop some Italian nationalists calling for a retaliatory boycott of French products. Italy has granted temporary residence permits to more than 20,000 Tunisian migrants out of a total of about 26,000 who have arrived in the country since January to escape violence at home.

To the French, this is a cynical ploy designed to take advantage of the wishes of an overwhelming number of them to join friends or family in France and neighbouring countries to the north.

But Paris insisted it was state rail operator SNCF, acting in consultation with French regional administrators, that decided to halt cross-border trains. Officials cited public order rather than a direct attempt to prevent the Tunisians from entering France.

Up to 300 left-wing and human-rights activists had gathered in Ventimiglia, on the Italian side, intent on accompanying Tunisians on a "train of dignity" along the Mediterranean towards Marseille, which has a large Tunisian community. The French considered this a demonstration for which no authority had been given.

The French government has been watching events in Ventimiglia with growing consternation.

Mr Sarkozy's ministers are already struggling to convince a sceptical public, whose feelings have been ruthlessly exploited by Marine Le Pen's far-right, anti-immigration Front National (FN), that it is tough enough on the influx of foreigners.

Ms Le Pen has repeatedly warned that upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East would lead to a huge wave of refugees seeking to reach Europe. She is among French politicians who have beaten a path to the small Italian island of Lampedusa, where Tunisian refugees have arrived in boatloads since the wave of protests began in North Africa.

Last week, the French interior minister, Claude Guéant, was accused of pandering to FN scare mongering by announcing "as a first step" a 20,000 reduction, from 200,000, in the number of foreigners granted residential rights in France each year.

When Tunisian refugees began to head for Ventimiglia, local officials said they were anxious to prevent the development of a Franco-Italian equivalent of Sangatte, the northern French village to which streams of Asian and African refugees flocked intent on crossing to England.

France has said it will honour the Italian-issued permits only if immigrants can show they are able to support themselves financially.

Mr Sarkozy will be eager to press in his talks with Mr Berlusconi for a start, if not already made by then, to the joint sea-and-air patrols agreed between the two countries earlier this month. The declared aim is to prevent further immigrants from Tunisia, but also Egypt and Libya, from sailing to European destinations, including Lampedusa.

Paris and Rome clashed at the start of the Libyan conflict when some Italian politicians suggested French enthusiasm for military action was driven by hopes of securing future contacts with the anti-Qaddafi rebels if they seized power.

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, admitted in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica [CORR] said that the dispute on migrants represented a "shadow" over Franco-Italian relations. This had to be addressed "by reaffirming the willingness of Italy and France to work together as founding members of the European Union".

"The problem of immigration is becoming a bit like nuclear power," Mr Frattini said. "Everybody wants to talk about it, but nobody wants it in their garden."

He added that the permits handed out by the Italians were valid in France under the so-called Schengen rules covering free movement within the EU. Europe would "go nowhere if we erect walls between countries".

The Italian press strongly criticised the French measure to block trains, calling it "a slap from Paris to Rome".

But in its early analysis of events, the European Commission sided with France, saying there appeared to have been no breach of EU rules. France said it had suspended the movement of trains "to avoid any risk of incident" when faced by a convoy of demonstrators and Tunisian migrants wanting to cross the border.

The measure was "temporary" and "has not gone beyond the bare necessities", the Commission said. Francis Lamy, a French regional administrator in Nice, 40 kilometres from Ventimiglia, said that he had "no power to halt a train" but did have a duty to alert the rail operator when a risk to public order arose.

Among the hundreds of Tunisians who have headed to Ventimiglia, there is recognition that a warm welcome does not await them across the border.

"We thought France was our friend," said one young Tunisian earlier in the crisis. "Now we know differently."


* Additional reporting from Associated Press.