PARIS — Speaking at a dinner in Orleans last summer, former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac shocked the French political Establishment with surprisingly strong--some commentators said racist--remarks about a predominantly Arab immigrant neighborhood in Paris. Historians may someday mark it as the moment that immigration became a dominant theme in late 20th-Century French politics.
Chirac, powerful mayor of Paris and heir to the political movement created by the late Charles de Gaulle, is an opposition leader and perpetual candidate for the French presidency from the moderate right. At the dinner in the town where Joan of Arc was born, he rose to defend what he described as struggling French working people surrounded by welfare-dependent North African Muslims in the Goutte-d'Or neighborhood on the north side of Paris.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 15, 1991 Home Edition World Report Page 4 Column 5 World Report Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in the Oct. 1 edition of World Report wrongly identified Orleans, France, as Joan of Arc's birthplace. The French saint and heroine was born in Domremy-la-Pucelle. She is known as the "Maid of Orleans" because she helped free the Loire River town from the English in 1429.
"When a Frenchman," he said, "who lives in the Goutte-d'Or and who works with his wife to earn 15,000 francs ($2,500) a month, sees a family crowded into the apartment across the hall consisting of a father, three or four wives and a score of kids drawing 50,000 francs ($8,300) in social welfare payments--not to mention the racket and the smells--it just burns him up."
Chirac went on to blast the immigration policy of the ruling Socialist Party under President Francois Mitterrand, charging that it had caused an "overdose" of immigrants. But what most people remembered, and what the political cartoonists jumped to caricature, was that a prominent French leader said that Arab immigrants had different smells than French people.
After years as a side issue in political campaigns, immigration has emerged as a central, volatile theme in many Western European countries.
In Germany and Austria (where the anti-immigrant Freedom Party made a strong showing in last year's parliamentary elections), the public concern is about waves of Eastern Europeans seeking asylum and economic opportunity in the West.
"I consider the increasing flood of asylum seekers the most important domestic issue next to monetary stability," German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said during a recent television interview. This year alone, an estimated 200,000 people--mainly from formerly Communist Eastern Europe--are expected to ask for asylum in Germany, according to Interior Ministry officials.
In Britain, immigration from the former British imperial raj territories of South Asia has become an issue that could figure in campaigns when Prime Minister John Major decides to call parliamentary elections. Former Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit caused a stir last year when he proposed a "cricket test" to measure the loyalty of immigrants: Do they root for the British side or their native lands at the grounds.
But nowhere is the emergence of immigration as a political theme more developed than in France, where the extreme-right National Front has used its anti-immigrant message to build a solid base of between 15% and 20% in the national electorate.
A Figaro magazine poll late last month revealed that 52% of the French are opposed to any new immigration to their country, despite its long history as a nation of asylum for political and economic refugees. In the same poll, 77% of the French said that the million-plus illegal aliens in the country should all be expelled.
The significance of Chirac's remarks, which sparked furious debate throughout France, was not so much in the words; National Front Party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has been using similar language for years. The difference this time was that the anti-immigrant polemic was coming from a mainstream French politician, two-time prime minister and mayor of France's most important city.
Since then it has become fashionable for prominent politicians of all stripes to join in the immigrant bashing.
Socialist Prime Minister Edith Cresson raised the idea of hiring charter aircraft to transport thousands of illegal aliens, mostly from French-speaking Africa, back to their homelands. Cresson has intensified immigration controls at airports and added transit visa requirements for residents of certain countries with high rates of illegal emigration. In recent weeks, aircraft arriving from foreign countries have been met by immigration officials waiting on the Tarmac who screen passports to separate "problem" nationalities from other passengers.
Former right-wing government minister Michel Poniatowski compared the immigrants, most of whom come from former French colonial territories, to the Nazi occupation during World War II. Outdoing even Le Pen, he advocates reviewing all marriages between French nationals and immigrants since 1988 to make certain they were not marriages of convenience aimed at fraudulently securing citizenship.