By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS (Reuters) - A long-running issue over whether to let non-EU immigrants vote in French local elections is to be considered in the Senate on Thursday, with conservatives vowing to stamp out a left-wing initiative five months before a presidential election.
Posturing before what was billed to be a heated parliament debate shows how both sides are using the argument to gain favor with their supporters on a tricky and sensitive question of identity.
The vote in the left-controlled Senate, the upper house of parliament, is more about making a point than changing the law to allow foreign residents to vote. The bill has no chance of passing in a right-controlled lower house, pollsters say. It was abandoned once before, in 2000 for similar reasons.
Socialists and other left-wingers, emboldened by a historic victory over the right in Senate elections in September, say that letting non-European Union citizens vote and get elected in municipal elections would bring more immigrants into the fold of French republican values and soothe community tensions.
A change would also bring French law into line with EU members Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.
Britain, Spain and Portugal let some non-EU foreigners, most of them from former colonies, vote in some elections, while Italy, Germany and Austria share France's more restrictive current approach.
To France's ruling right, allowing a foreign and largely Muslim constituency to influence local policy would usher in halal meals at school cafeterias and women-only days at municipal swimming pools, controversial issues they say endanger the nation's secular tradition and which have knee-jerk resonance with far-right voters.
"The government is resolutely against this proposal," Interior Minister Claude Gueant told parliament on Wednesday.
Even though the proposal is unlikely to become law, the subliminal issues are important.
"The Left has a historical attachment to this bill, even if it's only symbolic, to signal their sympathy to certain segments of the population," said Stephane Rozes, head of political consultancy CAP.
By definition France's population of EU and non-EU foreigners, estimated by the INSEE statistics office at 3.7 million in 2008, will not weigh on the outcome of next April's election. However, the pool of voters sympathetic to them - from youths to descendants of immigrants - is far wider.
"The difference is that public opinion has shifted clearly in favor of this initiative," Rozes added. "And that, paradoxically, is a consequence of the government's tougher stance on illegal immigration."
Indeed, a BVA poll published on November 28 showed 61 percent of French people were in favor of voting rights for foreigners who have lived in France for five years. Support had grown quickly since January - a period in which President Nicolas Sarkozy tightened citizenship requirements and ramped up expulsions of illegal immigrants.
EU citizens have been allowed to vote in local and European elections since the Maastricht treaty was passed in 1992.
"NOT IN MY BACK YARD"
Sarkozy's camp is against the idea - despite him expressing public support for it in 2005.
Their opposition is rooted in the need to guarantee support from far-right followers of Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front Party, in the presidential election's final round.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has only one concern on this issue and that is to appeal to the hard core of the right wing," Rozes said.
Rarely have their ideas been so closely aligned. To whip up opposition to the voting rights bill, Le Pen has pulled out all the stops, printing more than 100,000 posters and 1.4 million pamphlets, in addition to an online petition.
Opposition runs deep, extending even to conservative elected officials who operate in immigrant-heavy communities.
"In some towns the foreign population can make up half of the total," Xavier LeMoine, mayor of Montfermeil, a troubled suburban town northeast of Paris, told Reuters. "With the vote they could radically change the way of life in those towns."
While EU citizens shared a "common identity, a common culture" with the French, he added, "in the other countries where many of our foreigners come from, there is nothing in common culturally, much less any common political system."
Georges Lemaitre, an immigration expert at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, disagreed.
"Anything that gets people more involved in the life of a country is positive - we need more of that," he said. "It does make a certain amount of sense."
(Editing by Matthew Jones)