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Europe's besieged immigrants

Dreux. Antony. Sarcelles. Aulnay-sous-Bois. They are uninteresting, even bleak towns that few Americans could identify as suburbs of Paris. Though such names are unlikely to grace many conversations on this side of the Atlantic, recent elections in what Parisians call la triste banlieue are indicative of a powerful and worrisome trend in European affairs.

What these suburban towns have in common is the presence of an immigrant population of at least 20 to 25 percent, reaching an absolute majority in some housing projects. In an anti-immigrant backlash during municipal elections this past fall all the towns swung to the right, not merely to the Gaullists and Giscardians, but also to the quasi-fascist National Front.

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This National Front success was made possible by the decisions of local Gaullists and Giscardians to make common cause with the far right because, as one Gaullist leader explained, ''We need them to get the absolute majority necessary to oust the left.''

The simple reality is that the problem of foreign immigration now is Western Europe's most pressing domestic concern, after the recession to which it is tied.

The political hue and cry over persons of non-French culture (about 8 percent of the population) is such that the civil-rights-conscious government of President Mitterrand has tightened border controls and ordered police to make more random identity checks on ''suspected foreigners.'' This has aroused the resentment of the highly visible Arab community, protesting that almost half of their number are French citizens anyway.

Frenchmen with a longer perspective realize their country has a long history of absorbing immigrants - Poles and Russians in the 1920s, anti-Mussolini Italians and anti-Franco Spaniards in the 1930s.

The percentage of foreign residents in France today is the same as it was in 1930. The difference today is that while the nearly 2 million Russians, Italians , and Spaniards are practically invisible in French society, the 2.6 million Arab immigrants often refuse to assimilate. Many have adopted militant Islam to arm themselves against ''French cultural imperialism.''

The situation in Germany is no different. As in France, the problem is not so much the absolute number of immigrants, but their concentration in certain areas. In both Paris and Frankfurt, about 20 percent of the population is foreign, whereas in small towns it drops to 1 to 2 percent. Both Germans and French worry about the quality of schools in areas with many foreign students.

In all West European countries the treatment of minorities is determined by ancient stereotypes that often have little to do with present realities.

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Having lived in France, I can testify to the relatively better treatment blacks from former African colonies receive than Arabs from Algeria. This is due partly to the fact that there are far fewer blacks (150,000 heavily concentrated in Paris) but also because France's African colonies attained independence peacefully, currently maintain cordial ties with Paris, and encourage their nationals to take pride in a mastery of the French tongue.

Over 20 years after the end of the Algerian War, the French are still unforgiving about ''people who fought us so desperately for their independence, and then landed on our doorstep,'' as one middle-class housewife put it.

Britons also face the problems inherent in multiracial societies. They have clear memories of riots in urban ghettos. Here, too, the situation is complex, with studies showing subcontinentals (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangla Deshis) integrating into British society with far greater ease than Caribbean blacks. Polls throughout Western Europe confirm that solid majorities of native populations realize that many of the jobs immigrants perform would not be done without them.

Britain was the first to adopt the immigration policy later accepted by the German Federal Republic and France: A virtual cutoff of new immigrants who are without immediate family in the host country.

The French government is working to train Algerians who want to return home with skills needed in the developing country's building and petrochemical industries. Lured by the promise of work in Algeria, as well as a $2,000 bonus given by the French, 400 Algerians a month are making the one-way trip to Algiers.

But such efforts do not, of course, solve the problems of the great majority of immigrants who choose to stay in Western Europe and who never will be forcibly repatriated. Some American writers, smarting from European smugness about racism in the New World, have been quick to overdramatize the problems of the Old. This is a temptation that should be avoided, because even though Europe's huddled immigrant masses have become a major political issue, the situation is not without hope. Polls repeatedly show, for instance, that though Arabs resident in France must endure occasional epithets, 75 percent of them categorize their relations with the French as ''good.'' Too, Frenchmen of goodwill recently have been challenging a deeply held but false cliche: that Arab immigrants are a burden on French social services, when in fact, the Arab community is a net contributor to the social security system.

In the long run, most of today's immigrants will be absorbed into European society, and their children, in turn, no doubt will feel threatened by some later arrivals. I saw an example last spring in Paris, where a National Front candidate was campaigning in an area with a large Algerian population. As the political aspirant heatedly declared that immigrants should be shipped back to their home countries, a young French-born Algerian turned to me and said, ''He's right. I'm tired of all of these Pakistanis coming here and taking over. . . .''

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