PARIS, May 2: French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin today signalled that his embattled government could soften a tough immigration bill heavily criticised by religious leaders, opposition parties and immigrant groups.
Villepin, whose authority has slipped in recent months as poor youths rioted, students protested and a smear scandal hit his government, defended the bill as a way to gain control over immigration flows and close loopholes like fake marriages.
Opening the debate, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told parliament that last November's riots showed the country's immigration and integration system was failing but that a regulated, selective immigration would be accepted by voters.
Villepin said he had reassured Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard and Pastor Jean-Arnold de Clermont, leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches in France, when they met him on Saturday to express their concerns about the bill.
''I told them it's clear we want, in the (parliamentary) discussions, to enrich the text as much as possible, while remaining faithful to its spirit, because we want (their) call for humane treatment (of immigrants) to be respected,'' he said.
In addition to criticism from the centre and left, Sarkozy's bill -- widely seen as part of his campaign for the presidential election next year -- has also drawn fire from the far-right.
''Nicolas Sarkozy suggests selective immigration, I suggest zero immigration,'' said far-right leader Philippe de Villiers.
French unemployed would be shocked to see Chinese computer experts, Indian engineers or Cameroonian workers getting on and poor countries would be deprived of their best people, he said.
''Zero immigration is a dangerous myth,'' countered Sarkozy, telling lawmakers that France faced national decline without an influx of fresh blood.
''Selective, that is regulated, immigration is all the more accepted by our compatriots because they will realise the positive contribution it makes to the nation's life,'' he said.
Son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy has had to defend himself against charges he is running a xenophobic drive to poach votes from the far-right's front-runner Jean-Marie Le Pen, who launched his presidential campaign yesterday.
WIN OVER LOST VOTERS
Le Pen, who has about 14 percent support in opinion polls, shocked France in 2002 by finishing second to President Jacques Chirac in the first round of voting. Sarkozy has long argued conservatives need to get some of his voters to win in 2007. The interior minister says the bill aims to attract skilled workers who would embrace French values and traditions, thus easing the tense race relations that led to last year's suburban riots by youths mostly of immigrant origin.
It would create a three-year ''skills and talents'' residence permit to attract skilled workers but also allow in workers in sectors and zones facing non-skilled labour shortages.
It would also make it harder for resident immigrants to bring their families here, force newcomers to take French and civics lessons and end their automatic right to a long-term residence permit after 10 years in France.
Left-wing critics say the law will not work, will stigmatise foreigners, discriminate against the poor and undermine France's traditional role as a haven for the persecuted.
''There are pages of the Bible that we can't just tear out,'' remarked the Catholic bishop of La Rochelle, Georges Pontier, referring to Jesus Christ's command to welcome foreigners.
More than 5,000 people marched through Paris on Saturday to protest against the bill following rare joint attack on the measures by Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches.
Le Pen told a rally yesterday Sarkozy's tougher line showed his own anti-immigrant views were gaining ground in France. Many held up a map of France with the slogan ''Love it or leave it.'' His far-right rival Villiers began his own presidential campaign this month with attacks on the ''Islamisation of France'' and a demand for an end to all mosque construction in France.
Political analysts say Sarkozy is courting far-right voters after ensuring Paris climbed down this month over a labour law reform that sparked sometimes violent mass protests. His presidential prospects could suffer if disillusioned voters switch to far-right parties as a result.