PARIS — Alarmed at the progress of the far-right National Front at the ballot box, and disgusted by immigration legislation they say harks back to the mentality of Vichy France, hundreds of French writers, actors, directors and other cultural figures have launched a civil disobedience campaign and challenged authorities to arrest them.
The immediate trigger for the protest is a parliamentary bill that would crack down on illegal immigration. More generally, however, there is concern over the growing success of the xenophobic doctrine of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front--and the inability of mainstream political parties to halt it.
"In France, there is a push by the extreme right that is both dangerous and revolting," said author Dan Franck, who began the petition drive among French writers.
Last Sunday, the National Front captured a fourth city hall, in the Marseilles suburb of Vitrolles, netting for the first time an absolute majority of votes. Now some French thinkers charge that the conservative government of Prime Minister Alain Juppe, in view of next year's legislative elections, is trying to woo voters by acting more like the National Front itself.
The lightning rod for the intellectuals' ire is a bill, bearing the name of Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre, that requires a French citizen hosting a foreigner to inform the local city hall of the guest's departure within eight days.
Foreigners who are not citizens of European Union countries and who plan an extended stay would be fingerprinted upon entry.
French law already requires a foreigner from any non-European Union country who plans a private or family visit of up to three months to request a certificate from the French citizen who will furnish the lodging. The certificate is to be obtained from city hall.
That law, however, is spottily enforced. In their petitions, the cultural figures called upon their fellow citizens to disobey the Debre law, which is to be voted on by the National Assembly later this month. Some also declared they had broken the existing law by "hosting foreigners in an illegal status."
More than 402 actors, including Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau, signed, as did 300 theater workers, 1,200 journalists and lawyers, and 300 writers.
"This is a movement of revolt against a law that we find not only unfair but despicable," film director Bertrand Tavernier said. "This law makes every citizen an informer."
Like Franck, Tavernier likened the Debre bill to an ordinance issued in 1941 by the Nazi-allied Vichy regime that made it illegal for the French to have a Jewish guest without informing the police.
Similar protest petitions circulated among doctors, scientists and comic book artists are expected to be printed today by the Paris daily Liberation. The civil disobedience campaign appears to be the first in France since April 1971, when, in the "Manifest of 343," hundreds of Frenchwomen announced that they had had abortions when the procedure was still illegal and carried a prison sentence.
"The fact is, people are ashamed at the state of France," Tavernier said.
Over the weekend, Juppe defended the Debre bill as a "balanced text" after one of his advisors hinted on TV that it might be amended. Juppe's ministers and political allies also rejected the intellectuals' approach, saying that not addressing widespread concerns about illegal immigration would play into the National Front's hands.
"Refusing to take measures against clandestine immigration is not a responsible attitude, because we know that the [National Front] prospers precisely because of this phenomenon," said Pierre-Andre Wiltzer, spokesman for the center-right Union for French Democracy, or UDF.
"In a state of law, all citizens are supposed to respect all laws," government spokesman Alain Lamassoure said. But it seemed likely that the government would be forced to blunt some of the bill's more controversial provisions.
Bernard Stasi, the UDF mayor of Epernay, said some of the bill's clauses are shocking. "If the law were approved, we would apply it, but in a spirit of humanity," said Stasi, vice president of the Assn. of French Mayors. "We would examine case by case."