Migrant expulsions ease in France, hardline persists

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PARIS, Nov 8 (Reuters) France indicated today it was falling behind in its drive to send home at least 25,000 illegal immigrants in 2007 despite a recent surge in forced expulsions.

President Nicolas Sarkozy created a controversial ministry of immigration, integration and national identity when he took office in May, facing down opposition criticism that he was pandering to the xenophobic far-right.

Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux told reporters that since his post was set up five months ago expulsions had jumped 23 percent compared to the five months beforehand.

But he said that between January and October some 18,600 illegal immigrants had been sent home, indicating that his office would struggle to hit the 25,000 target set by Sarkozy.

In 2006, some 23,831 foreigners were sent packing.

Hortefeux blamed this year's slippage on the political lull ahead of the May election and on the fact that Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants had largely dropped off the radar screen after their countries joined the European Union in January.

''I want to make clear one principle: a foreigner who is not regularised is destined to return to their home country,'' Hortefeux said, stressing that France wanted to entice the trained labour its economy needed rather than absorb unskilled workers.

He added that France would never fix quotas for refugees and was not obsessed with meeting its expulsion targets.

NEIGHBOURS NEED MORE WORKERS An EU document obtained by Reuters yesterday showed that the 27-nation bloc expected to receive a net 40 million immigrants in the next 40 years, but said this would not be enough to prevent a fall in the Union's working population.

In his first major news conference since becoming minister, Hortefeux said France had absorbed more foreigners than any other EU state ''in recent decades'', with up to 400,000 a year settling in the country in the 1960s and 70s.

In 2006, 191,475 foreigners were given residency papers in France, a two percent drop on 2005.

Hortefeux said France did not need as many foreign workers as its neighbours, with more than two children born on average to French women against just 1.3 in neighbouring Spain.

''France does not need massive immigration to support failing demographics,'' he said. The country lacked a million homes for its current citizens so could not physically absorb large numbers of newcomers.

He said his ministry would promote temporary work and study visas which would last a maximum six years so as not to provoke a brain drain from impoverished countries.

The ministry has also drawn up a list of 30 jobs where France had vacancies, such as metal workers, and was willing to hire immigrants. But priority would go to the existing immigrant community, which had an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent against a national jobless average of 8.4 per cent.

REUTERS MS RN1949

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