By Grard Bon
PARIS (Reuters) - France deported a record number of illegal migrants last year, figures showed Tuesday, in the latest sign that President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has hardened its stance on immigration in the run-up to a presidential election.
An unprecedented 32,912 foreigners were expelled in 2011, a 17 percent increase from the year before, according to the figures released by hardline Interior Minister Claude Gueant.
The figures reflect a shift to the right in immigration policy ahead of the election in April and May, as polls indicate support for the far-right National Front has grown.
The deportation figure included 5,000 Tunisians who fled the country's uprising in early 2001.
Gueant, who announced a crackdown on both illegal and legal immigration when he took his job, told a news conference he would clamp down further in 2012, setting a target of 35,000 deportations for this year.
He said he also wanted to reduce legal immigration to 150,000 people a year. France has already cut its quota to 180,000 from 200,000 in recent years.
"It is unreasonable to bring in migrants to be unemployed here," said Gueant, who estimates that a quarter of non-European Union foreigners in France are without work.
The figures also showed the number of naturalizations also dropped by 30 percent.
Anti-racism group SOS Racisme decried today's figures as "figures of shame" and criticized the government's "hardline policy."
Around 3.7 million EU and non-EU foreigners were living in France in 2008 out of a population of 65 million people, according to national statistics agency INSEE.
"This is not about withdrawing behind a Maginot Line, but about respecting the rules," said Gueant, referring to the barrier France built along its borders with Germany and Italy after World War One.
MORE RIGHT THAN FAR-RIGHT
Sarkozy, a conservative, has also hardened his line on immigration and controversially banned full-face Muslim veils.
The French president also said he wanted to tighten Europe's border control rules after the "Arab Spring" uprisings began.
Gueant, one of Sarkozy's closest aides and a former national police chief, was appointed interior minister in a government reshuffle last February.
He has said that crime rates are higher among foreigners in France and was widely criticized for stating, as the government clamped down on Muslims praying in the street, that the French "no longer felt at home."
In less than a year in office, he has tightened rules on obtaining study and work visas and reduced the budget for asylum seekers. As of January 1, new rules making it harder for immigrants to obtain French nationality were introduced.
Applicants will now have to prove they can speak French as well as a 14-year old native speaker, and answer questions on French history, culture and society. They will also have to sign a new charter pledging to uphold the country's values.
The number of residency permits granted in 2011 fell by 3.6 percent to 182,595, and the number of work visas plunged by 26 percent to 9,154, according to Interior Ministry data.
"This tightening of conditions is the culmination of three years of debate over national identity and on what it means to be French," said Pierre Henry, director of France Terre d'Asile, an association that defends the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants.
"It's part of an overall debate designed to portray foreigners as suspicious and ultimately undesirable."
(Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)