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Last Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
French fight for immigrant youths
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

French police check papers
If immigrants' papers are not in order they can be expelled
A French pressure group claims that up to 10,000 children of illegal immigrants in France face deportation when they finish school in June.

Many families whose applications to remain in France had been turned down were given an amnesty so their children could finish the school year.

But that amnesty is drawing to a close - despite a partial climbdown this week by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

He said some 800 families would have their immigration status regularised if their children were born and brought up in France and had no links with their parents' nation.

The softening followed a grassroots campaign by a left-wing organisation linked to the trade unions, called Education Sans Frontieres, which has vowed to continue its fight - even encouraging supporters to hide children in their homes.

Threat back home

Naboudou moved to France with his parents several years ago from Ivory Coast. He is now in the middle of preparing for his end-of-year exams. But if the police catch him, he could be deported immediately.

"My application for a residence permit was rejected by the French authorities," he says. "So I appealed to the courts and to the Paris police headquarters. They sent me a temporary residence permit. But I now have to leave France by the end of June.

Everybody is terrified because they know in four weeks they will be expelled
Armelle Gardien
Education Sans Frontieres

"This is a clear expulsion order. If my papers are checked during a routine control, they can arrest me and put me in a detention centre and send me back to Ivory Coast. But I have no family there - they all left the country due to the war."

He says that as a Muslim he could be under "real threat" if sent back.

In the meantime, he is being hidden by Education Sans Frontieres, made up mainly of teachers who are vehemently opposed to the centre-right government's clampdown on immigration.

Armelle Gardien, who helps run the group, says she is prepared to hide children herself if the authorities send in the police to classrooms across the country at the end of June, as the government has threatened.

"We can't accept this government action. It's strictly against human rights, children's rights," she says.

"France is no longer a country of liberty, equality, fraternity."

Sarkozy's exceptions

Others at a demonstration near a school in Paris agree. Gwelane Volsik is an English teacher at a school in a Paris suburb, where two young children could also be deported this month unless the group gives them shelter.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy is following the lead of Australia or the US

"They have the pressure and the fear of being sent home. Every day they don't know if they can come back to school the next day," she says.

It is Mr Sarkozy who has helped polarise this debate. He has introduced a tough new bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and promoting what he calls "chosen" immigration: along the lines of Australia or the US, where immigrants are chosen for their skills.

Yet speaking to the upper house of parliament this week, he did soften his stance on deporting families with children born in France and promised that some exceptions would be made.

"When a foreign child, born in France or brought up in France from an early age - a child who has been at school in France and who doesn't speak the language of his or her native land... it would be very cruel to force them to go back, as it is not truly their country."

That means that around 800 or so families would be given exceptional leave to remain - though Education Sans Frontieres says that is not enough, and leaves anything up to 10,000 other children still at risk of deportation this year.

Yet most ordinary French people are less concerned by that prospect than by the sheer number of illegal immigrants currently living in France. According to the French government, it is now up to 400,000 people living here illegally, which many French voters think is enough.

Campaign risks

One woman on the Champs Elysees in Paris says: "We already have enough problems without having to solve other people's.

"If everyone behaved well, there'd be no problem. The thing is that integration causes a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, that's something that one notices when living in the suburbs."

With less than a year to go to the presidential elections, more than 10% of the French are currently planning to vote for the far right - mainly because of their fears that France - with its social unrest in the suburbs and 10% unemployment - simply cannot extend its welcome to those refused permission to stay.

That has made immigration a major issue for all parties, on the left and right, with few feeling able to take a softer line.

Despite that, Ms Gardien of Education Sans Frontieres is standing firm.

She says she and many others will continue their fight by hiding children from the French authorities, whatever the personal cost if they are caught.

"Each person who signs our appeal to help these immigrants, and who decides to protect and hide a child or family, risks a jail sentence and 30,000 euro fine (20,600) - but we all accept this risk."

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