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Immigrants Occupy French Church

September 01, 2002|JOHN LEICESTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

SAINT-DENIS, France — The river of humanity began at the basilica's stone entrance, stretched past its stained glass windows and spilled toward the ticket booth for the tombs of French kings.

Other lines heaved on the streets outside. Parents, children, burly men, all waiting in hopes of one thing: getting papers to live and work legally in France.

A dramatic two-week occupation of a famous church by hundreds of illegal immigrants has forced France to re-examine one of its most divisive problems: how to balance immigration with fears that the country is being overrun.

The immigrants are known in France as sans-papiers, meaning "those without documents." Many have lived illegally in France for years, hiding from police, surviving on charity, working for little pay. The protest at the basilica of Saint-Denis drew them out into the open.

Encouraged by media coverage and the mistaken belief that they would get papers simply by registering with protest organizers, the number of sans-papiers at the church snowballed. Organizers said they had taken the names of 1,000 people from 23 countries.

"The French can say it's their country and that they can reject who they want, but in that case they should not say that theirs is a country of law," said Nura Haouadeg, who came from Algeria three years ago with her husband. Their tourist visas expired long ago and officials refused them asylum.

"We live in fear -- fear of the police, the gendarmes," she said.

The extremist National Republican Movement said protesters should be sent home. But France has found it hard, and politically risky, to do so. Many come from former French colonies plagued by poverty, rights abuses and, in Algeria's case, Islamic insurgency.

By Friday, the protesters appeared to have worn out their welcome. Saint-Denis' bishop said they should leave. Organizers said the occupation, which began Aug. 17, would end this weekend or soon after. "It will finish here, but the struggle won't stop," one said.

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