France to grant residency to 6,000 illegal immigrants

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France will grant residency permits to roughly 6,000 illegal immigrants but expel more than twice as many under controversial new immigration rules, its interior minister said in an interview published on Monday.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative presidential frontrunner, tightened residency rules after youths in poor suburbs, many of them home to descendants of immigrants, went on the rampage last year in a wave of rioting that shocked France.

The government has decided to use children registered at French schools as a way of tracking down families without residency papers. Sarkozy has previously vowed to expel the youngsters and their parents during the summer holidays.

Sarkozy told Le Figaro newspaper that of up to 20,000 expected requests for residency permits by illegal immigrants, roughly 30 percent, or 6,000, would be granted.

The remainder would be turned down, he said.

"Contrary to what some have led others to believe, there will be no 'child hunt', but those who do not fulfil our criteria must either leave voluntarily or they will be forced to," he said.

Some 4.5 million immigrants live in France, official data shows, and the interior ministry estimates there are between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal foreigners in the country.

The campaign has provoked widespread unease, with opponents accusing Sarkozy of targeting the weak and defenceless as part of his bid to woo hard right voters.

In an effort to take the sting out of growing protests, he announced last month that some illegal immigrants would be granted residency if their children did not have any links to their country of origin.

That concession has led to the authorities being swamped with thousands of illegal immigrants seeking to convince officials their family met the new requirements.

Sarkozy had previously said only that several thousand people would be allowed to stay.

If confirmed, the number of immigrants granted residency papers will be lower than some of Sarkozy's opponents had forecast. Socialist spokesman Julien Dray had said some officials were talking of 40,000 residency permits.

Sarkozy said he was seeking a middle ground between the opposition Socialists on one side and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen on the other.