The leader of the centre-right UMP Jean-Francois Cope(Photo: Reuters)
France's Socialist government on Wednesday rejected an opposition proposal to abolish the automatic right to citizenship for anyone born in the country as part of a radical rewrite of immigration policy.
In a move seen as a response to a surge in support for the far-right National Front (FN), Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of the centre-right UMP, also backed qualifying periods of up to 10 years for some welfare benefits and the abolition of State Medical Aid (AME), a safety net system that ensures doctors get paid for treating patients -- notably asylum seekers -- who are outside the country's social security system.
"France is being hit from one side by a rise of serious tensions between (ethnic) communities and from the other by the extreme right," Cope told AFP. "Only the UMP can deliver a solution and we have to rewrite immigration policy completely.
"We are the most attractive country in Europe for migrants and that has to stop."
Cope's proposals were given short shrift by the Socialist government's Moroccan-born spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who accused the UMP leader of "seeking to reopen a pernicious debate on national identity."
She added: "The France that Jean-Francois Cope seems to dream about is one scrunched up in its own little corner. That's not the France we dream of, not the one we are building."
The principle of automatic citizenship for everyone born in France -- known as "le droit du sol" (the right of the soil) -- is a cherished one for many in France, who see it as one of the cornerstones of the republic and the country's long history of providing a haven for refugees from all over the world.
Its abolition in 1993 by a centre-right administration was hugely controversial and the legislation was reversed five years later, so any child born in France to foreign parents automatically becomes a French citizen at 18 provided they have lived in the country for five of the previous seven years.
Demographic experts say that automatic citizenship for all French-born children makes little difference to overall population trends but the issue is a hugely symbolic one at a time when immigration is rising up the political agenda.
Recent opinion polls have suggested the FN could emerge as the leading party in European elections scheduled for next year, and both the government and the UMP have been forced to tailor their respective messages to try to retain voters flocking to the far right.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has become the most popular politician in the country thanks in part to his tough talking on immigration. Valls sparked controversy last month when he said Roma migrants from eastern Europe should be kicked out of France, but polls suggested three in four voters supported him.
The FN says it would end net immigration into France, most controversially by ending the right of migrants to bring their immediate family members to live with them. Party leader Martine Le Pen poured scorn on Cope's new proposals as a watered-down version of the FN's ideas.
"Everyone can see this is just a mini-measure put forward by a man who could easily have implemented it when his party was in power for 10 years," Le Pen said.
Separately, the government announced Wednesday an overhaul of France's asylum procedures that comes in the wake of a furore over the deportation to Kosovo of a Roma family that had spent several years living in France whilst battling to secure refugee status.
Supporters of the family argued that the length of time the children had spent in French schools should have resulted in them being allowed to stay.
Valls said the proposed reform would seek to bring average processing times down from 16 months currently to between six and nine months.
France had just under 50,000 asylum seekers as of January 1, according to figures from the UNHCR.