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Immigrant Bill in France Splits Elite From Masses

The Paris intellectual, or intello, is as much a fixture in the French capital as the Eiffel Tower. They are to be seen in fashionable cafes along the Boulevard St. Germain, scarf tossed lightly about the neck, thinking the important thoughts or writing the big book.

But in the last few weeks, they have moved out of the cafes and back onto the streets - and opened up a gap between Paris and the provinces that could give greater voice to the extreme-right National Front Party and its anti-immigrant platform.

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It started with a petition. On Feb. 12, 59 filmmakers called on artists to refuse to comply with a new government proposal to curb illegal immigration. A controversial provision in the proposed Debr law would require citizens to report when foreigners overstay their visas.

Since then, 55,000 have signed similar petitions, under rubrics such as: actors, artists, editors, musicians, choreographers, journalists, judges, lawyers, and Internet professionals.

On Saturday, 100,000 marched to the center of Paris to protest the proposed Debr law, chanting "We are all the sons of immigrants!" Yesterday, protesters rallied outside the National Assembly, where legislators were taking up a revised version of the bill that eliminated the requirement of citizens to inform on illegals.

For Paris intellectuals, the anti-Debr protest is a chance to stand up publicly for the universal values of human rights. Young filmmakers who launched the movement said they refused to see their society "Lepenized," a reference to National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant party won a fourth city hall in the southern city of Vitrolles on Feb. 9.

We are witnessing "a moral revolt in France," says Ariane Mnouchkine, head of the International Association of the Defense of Artists.

These protests are also a wake up from a long sleep. Except for expressions of solidarity over the Algerian civil war and Bosnia, Paris intellectuals have had no big issue since the 1970s. They sat out the big public transport protests that brought the country to a standstill in December 1995.

But the leaders of this new movement of intellectuals are not the lettered elite, as in revolts of the past. Instead, the new leaders are making their mark in film and the visual arts, such as Mathieu Kassovitz, whose film "La Haine" ("Hatred") was the first to take a gritty look at daily life for immigrants in a poor Parisian suburb.

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French writers, artists, academics, and filmmakers are among the most subsidized in the world, and they are overwhelmingly concentrated in Paris.

But their protest has found little echo outside the French capital.

For example, at the height of the 1995 public sector protests, some 50,000 to 100,000 protesters marched through a driving rain in Marseilles to support striking transport workers.

This past Saturday, however, only 300 turned up to protest tougher curbs on illegal immigration. The left-leaning Paris daily Liberation explained the falloff in Marseilles by noting that last weekend's protest fell during school vacations and on a sunny day with good skiing nearby.

But critics say the fact that this movement has been limited to downtown Paris signals how disconnected the intellectual elite is from the day-to-day problems of those sharing high unemployment rates and crumbling public housing projects with immigrants.

Two-thirds of those marching in Paris this weekend had at least two years of university study, and 49 percent had advanced degrees. Only 4 percent were workers, according to a poll in the daily Le Monde.

In addition, some 69 percent of French citizens approve of the Debr proposal, as amended yesterday, according to weekend polls by France 2 and the daily Le Figaro. And approval ratings for President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Jupp have risen since their government proposed the Debr law.

For embattled conservative leaders, the intellectuals' protest is the first public sign that their promise to curb immigration is having an impact. Privately, some welcome the rage of the intellectuals as proof to right-wing voters that the government is taking action on this issue.

"French intellectuals have a conscience, and historic roots in education and culture, but they don't represent a mass movement," says an official close to the French president. "We're concerned about their protests, but in the end, they're not very important."

THE artists leading the petition drive say they want to force the government to withdraw the Debr proposals completely. But many in Paris's world of letters worry that the artists are ignoring the concerns of ordinary French workers, and they fear a backlash.

If intellectuals only speak out for immigrants, they "will only further isolate the voters of the National Front, who seek at least understanding, if not compassion, from their compatriots," writes Jean Daniel, editor of the influential weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

"It's dangerous to separate an elite such as filmmakers, writers, and professors from the rest of the citizens," adds Michel Winock, coauthor of the newly released "Dictionary of French Intellectuals."

For some working Parisians, that backlash has already begun: "Intellectuals never housed a single immigrant. They don't take public transport and are out of touch," says Franois, a newspaper vendor.

"They may be laden with diplomas, but that doesn't mean their commentary is any good," says a cab driver.

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