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Nowhere to Run: Standoff in Paris Church Highlights Immigrants' Plight

Many African immigrants face expulsion from France, yet momentum is gathering in support of their demands to stay

On Saturday, a deadline passed for 10 hunger strikers and some 290 other illegal immigrants in Paris's St. Bernard Church to leave French territory. Now, the African immigrants and hundreds of supporters gathered outside the church prepare to resist the intervention of French riot police, expected at any time.

But much of the discussion inside the church centered on the birth that day of a new baby, the sixth since African illegals began a May 18 standoff with the French government to win the right to remain illegally in France.

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The exuberance of the children, who bat balloons across of the nave of the church, is a jarring contrast to the human drama being played out in a corner, where 10 African men in blue sleeping bags along the floor quietly marked their 44th day of fasting on Saturday.

Until recently, the strikers have moved about the church, listened to portable radios, or talked at length to journalists and well-wishers. Now, they have asked to be left alone to rest.

Outside the church, the crowd of supporters swells. Red banners, yellow arm bands, and a steady stream of Parisian personalities here to support the strikers have attracted high-intensity media coverage over this, the traditionally dullest of news weekends in the French political calendar. August vacation and a long holiday weekend usually empty the city of all but tourists.

The crowd mingling outside ranges from virtually professional protesters, to Paris intellectuals, to African immigrants, to sympathetic neighbors. Annie Lahmer, a local elected official from nearby Nogent-sur-Marne, has come in to collect signatures on some 3,000 petitions to the government calling for 10-year visas for the protesters and a change in France's anti-immigration laws. "I am of Algerian descent and proof that immigrants can win votes in France," she says.

On Friday, Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, called on the government to mediate the conflict on a case by case basis.

Each new rumor of impending intervention is reported over loudspeakers - and passed on to television viewers by a permanent corps of cameramen. Supporters say they will chain themselves to the strikers to prevent their expulsion. If the police arrive in the early morning hours, as expected, church bells and portable phones will be used to rally other sympathizers.

On Saturday, Parisian notables such as French Roman Catholic Bishop Jacques Gaillot, actress Emmanuelle Beart, and Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of the former Socialist French president, brushed shoulders with lesser-knowns, such as Francoise Compte-Boinet, the daughter of the French World War I hero, Gen. Charles Mangin.

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"They told me they needed personalities here to talk to the press, but most of the journalists are so young that they don't even know who my father was," says Mrs. Compte-Boinet. General Mangin first proposed the idea of using black troops from French colonies to build up France's capacity to fight the Germans in a celebrated 1910 book entitled "The Black Force."

"My father recognized that Africans would make good soldiers, at a time when there were 60 million Germans and only 40 million French," she said.

The protesters, most from Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania, began their protest on March 18, after six friends were picked up on a Paris street and deported because their papers were no longer valid. Most of these protesters entered France legally, but their papers were not renewed after France passed tougher anti-immigration laws three years ago.

Kolly Dianak, one of the protesters in St. Bernard, came to France from Mali in 1988 and worked for five years cleaning office buildings. "We came because there was no work in Mali," he says. When his papers were not renewed, he lost all rights to work and to social benefits. He is not a hunger striker, but says it remains an option. His daughter Fatiga was born on a mattress on the floor of St. Bernard Church on June 31. "We have no choice," he says. "There is no life for us [in Mali]."

For France's conservative government, the margin of choice appears equally narrow.

"If I stand firm, it's because it is in the interest of France and of foreigners," said Interior Minter Jean-Louis Debe. The government fears that concessions to the strikers could prompt new waves of illegal immigration and has promised tough new anti-immigration laws by the end of the summer.

"There will be no regularization [of their status]," he added in a weekend television interview. "A handful of people aren't going to call into question laws voted by Parliament."

The last time the government and protesters reached such a standoff at another church on March 22, the parish priest blinked, and requested government help to expel the illegals. There will be no such request this time, said the Rev. Henri Coinde, the parish priest at St. Bernard. He is backed by the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger.

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