On August 23, 1996, French police removed 98 men, 54 women, and 68 children who took refuge in Saint Bernard's Church near Montmartre in Paris two months ago in an attempt to remain in France after they were ordered to leave. The foreigners, mostly from Mali, had their applications for asylum rejected; were the spouses of legal immigrants but not entitled to live in France; were visa overstayers; or, were persons born in France of foreign parents. Since 1993, persons born in France are not entitled to automatic French citizenship.
Some of the immigrants began a hunger strike that attracted widespread publicity and support in June 1996. The immigrants demanded one-year work permits to give up the hunger strike, but the government, under criticism for not being "tough" on illegal immigration, promised only an individual review of each immigrant's deportation order. The government announced that all of the hunger strikers would be deported.
On August 24, 57 Africans were flown home, including four who were removed from the church, although local airport workers in Africa refused to unload the plane. Most of the other immigrants removed from the church were freed by court order, although many received orders to leave France by September 12. The government announced that those sent back to Africa would receive resettlement aid, and that 30 to 40 of those in the church would receive residence permits.
In protest, over 10,000 people demonstrated in support of the immigrants. Most commentators noted that the French government succeeded in angering the left by entering the church, and the right because many of those in the church were set free by courts.
President Chirac said that he hoped the police action would send the message to illegal aliens that "there is no more chance for you in France."
The immigrant protest began in another church in March 1996. The church had been occupied by 300 African migrants since June 28, 1996, and the interior ministry gave permission for 48 to stay in France--those who had children born in France before the law changed January 1, 1994.
After January 1, 1994, children born in France have to apply for French citizenship between the ages of 16 and 21 as a way of demonstrating their genuine desire to become French, and young people with criminal records can be refused naturalization. Before 1994, foreigners born in France could become French citizens automatically at the age of 18. Foreigners who married French nationals after 1994 had to wait 12 rather than six months for residence permits, and illegal alien spouses have to return to their countries of origin to obtain visas.
As the Africans gained publicity with their hunger strike, their occupation of the church became a test of the French government's "toughness" on illegal immigration.
On August 12, police entered the church to remove 10 hunger strikers. The hunger strikers were taken to a nearby hospital for check-ups; most returned to the church the same day. A parade of celebrities, including the widow of former president Mitterrand, visited the hunger strikers in the church after their release from the hospital. Supporters of the Africans ringed the church in an effort to prevent the police from entering.
The Interior Ministry announced that, in the first six months of 1996, 7,362 aliens were forcibly removed from France, versus 5,868 in the first six months of 1995.
There are nearly 3.6 million foreigners living legally in France, a country of 57 million. The number of illegal foreigners is estimated to be 100,000 to 400,000.
According to an article in the September/October Foreign Affairs, France has four to five million Muslim residents--half French citizens. With almost 10 percent of the French population being Muslims, Islam has become the second most important religion in France. According to the article, "France's Muslim community is probably the first in history that has contemplated integration into a Christian society," an integration that France encourages with rations in accord with Islamic dietary law to believers in the military and in prison.
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who criticized the government for not expelling the African immigrants, also criticized the French soccer team for recruiting players from outside of France and "baptizing" them as French. Since 1945, 15 percent of the French professional soccer players have been foreign-born. Currently, all the players are French citizens, but one was born in Ghana, another has dual Portuguese/French citizenship, and others have Italian, Algerian or Tunisian parents.
The Count of Paris made a rare public comment on July 10 saying that "If immigrants, no matter where they are from, settle in our country, then they must adopt our civilization and bend to our rules, habits and lifestyles."
Craig Whitney, " Illegal Immigrants Free Again in France," New York Times, August 27, 1996. Gail Russell Chaddock, "Standoff in Paris Church Highlights Immigrants Plight," Christian Science Monitor, August 19, 1996. Julian Nundy, "French stars rally round migrants in church refuge," Daily Telegraph, August 20, 1996. "French ruling party threatens to expel most of paperless," Xinhua News Agency, August 19, 1996. "Rightist says 'chuck out' illegal immigrants," Agence France Presse, August 14, 1996. Craig Whitney, "Hunger-Striking Africans are Briefly Ejected from Paris Church," New York Times, August 13, 1996. John Follain, "French raid sparks widening of Africans' protest," Reuters, August 13, 1996. "Pretender to French throne criticizes immigration," Reuters, July 10, 1996. "France Eases Law on Immigrant Parents," Reuter European Community Report, July 11, 1996. Milton Viorst, "The Muslims of France," Foreign Affairs, September/October, 1996.