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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 11:49 GMT
Filmmaker fights French law
Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier: Film with a social message
by Rory Mulholland in Paris

French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier is at the forefront of a campaign to abolish legislation that allows French courts to deport thousands of foreign petty criminals every year once they have served their prison sentences.

The offenders, mostly north Africans who have grown up in France and who often have wives and children here, are sent back to countries with which they have few direct links and whose language they may not speak.

Anti-discrmination poster
Last year, French judges ordered 6,400 expulsions
"The constitution says you cannot pay twice for the same crime, but they are paying twice," said Tavernier, whose previous films include D'Artagnan's Daughter and Life and Nothing But.

His latest film documents a 51-day hunger strike by 10 north Africans in the central city of Lyon facing what in French is called "la double peine", or double penalty.

"Not only they are paying, but their families are paying because often they are married, they have children, their children are French, living in France," Tavernier added.

"It is something which is coming from the colonial days.

"A French person who commits the same crime gets only a prison sentence, but a foreigner serves his prison sentence and is then thrown out of the country."

Tavernier's film on the 1998 hunger strike, Histoires de Vies Brisées (Broken Lives), was released in France in November.

Michel Tubiana
Michel Tubiana: Europe can only condemn individual cases
"I met the hunger-strikers and what they told me was so heart-breaking that I felt I had to make a film about them," said Tavernier.

"They were fighting against legislation which was destroying their lives."

Today eight of the 10 hunger-strikers have temporary residence permits that prohibit them from leaving the Lyon area. The two others have been granted regular residence permits.

Last year, French judges ordered 6,400 expulsions and almost 3,000 were carried out.

Michael Faure, the author of a book on the subject, estimates that 17,000 people have been deported in this manner.

A sociological study into the effects of "la double peine" showed that 75% of those deported were men from the former French colonies or protectorates of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

Three-quarters of them were married or lived with a partner, and 62% had children in France.

Jacques Myard, a politician with the opposition RPR party, says that it is just that any foreigner who infringes French law can be deported.

Staff and clients at the offices of the Mouvement de l'immigration et des Banlieues
Staff and clients at the offices of the Mouvement de l'immigration et des Banlieues
"No foreigner has the eternal right to stay in France," he said.

Murad Aitourab has an Algerian passport but was born in France. All his immediate family lives here, and he considers himself French.

He was deported for the first time in 1988 after serving two years in jail on a drugs conviction. His common law wife at the time, a French woman who was the mother of his two-year-old son, was jailed for the same charge.

"We both got out at the same time," explains Aitourab, 42, as he sits in the premises of the Mouvement de l'immigration et des banlieues, an organisation based in the Paris suburb of Montreuil that fights for immigrants' rights.

"She went home, I was put on a plane for Algeria.

"I know no-one in Algeria, I don't even speak Arabic. For the Algerians I was a foreigner."

Aitourab returned to France clandestinely after a year. Since then his life has been a series of prison terms for petty crimes and a series of expulsions to Algeria and illegal returns to France.

He now holds identity papers that allow him to stay in France until next February but which prevent him from working legally.

Tavernier's film poster
Tavernier's film is being shown around France alongside debates with the director
"It's apartheid," chips in Abdelhamid Berzel, a 43-year-old Moroccan who came to France at the age of five and who has no close relatives in Morocco.

His story is also one of petty crime, deportations and clandestine returns to France.

La Ligue des Droits de l'Homme, the French human rights league, agrees that the legislation is wrong.

"It's prohibited by article eight of the European Convention of Human Rights to deport people who have lived in a country for a certain number of years and who have strong family links in that country," says the organisation's Michel Tubiana.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly condemned France for this.

Launch pad

"But the European court can only condemn on each individual case, they can't make a general regulation about the national law," explains Tubiana.

The human rights league is one of 15 organisations - immigrant groups, trades unions, and human rights groups - involved in this latest stage in the campaign to end "la double peine".

It used the release of Bertrand Tavernier's film as its launch pad.

Tavernier is currently travelling around France to take part in public debates after screenings of Histoires de Vies Brisées.

But he says he has difficulty in finding anyone to defend the "double penalty".

"Every time the politicians who are supposed to be in charge of these matters are invited to take part in a debate with me on radio or TV, they avoid me," he said as he prepared to board a train bound for the eastern city of Strasbourg.

"They run away as if I was somebody very dangerous."

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