Iranian exiles feel France isn't as friendly as it used to be. Paris denies that standoff with Tehran has changed policy
It is lunch time at a tiny Iranian restaurant. Iranian, Lebanese, and French customers jostle for space amid shelves piled high with breads, spices, and other Middle Eastern products. Dina, a young woman grilling kebabs behind the counter, stops for a minute to talk. ``I'm very worried about my visa,'' she says. Dina left Iran early this year and her permit to stay expires in August. ``The police have promised to give me another one, but I'm just not sure... .''
Dina is not alone. Since tensions began to rise between France and Iran, culminating in the break-off of diplomatic ties last month, life has become more difficult for many of the 30,000 Iranians here.
Although French Foreign Ministry officials deny any change in policy, many Iranians feel mounting discrimination in France. ``People are suspicious, and there are many problems with work and visas,'' says Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a former Iranian president now living in exile in Versailles.
Such suspicion marks quite a change. Since the 1950s, France has served as safe haven for Iranians of all political stripes. In part, this tolerance stems from France's long tradition of taking in political exiles of other nationalities. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lived here when no other country would take him.
Today, about 20 percent of the Iranians in France are political refugees fleeing the Khomeini regime. They include members of persecuted ethnic and religious groups, as well as many members of the Westernized middle class.
The large anti-Khomeini community has put the French government in a delicate position. When Prime Minsister Jacques Chirac attempted to normalize relations with Iran, he forced the leaders of the anti-Khomeini People's Mojahedin to leave for Iraq.
Even worse, Iranian exiles say, nightly television reports of Tehran-sponsored bombings and cold-blooded killings has created an image of the fanatical Iranian terrorist which touches them all.
``Everyone looks suspicious now,'' says Karim Lahidji, the president of the Iranian Human Rights League. His identity papers clearly state that he is a political refugee working for the French Foreign Ministry. But the last time he drove across the Swiss border, French border agents rifled through his car trunk and his suitcases.
The worst problem concerns visas. Dina's brother Ali has lived in France for 12 years, opening the tiny Iranian restaurant in Paris. His children are French citizens. Since he arrived, his visa was always automatically extended. But when Ali went to renew his visa several months ago, all he received was a temporary one, good only for one trip to one country. Now every time Ali wants to leave France, he has to wait three weeks for another visa.
Not all is despair, of course. Many Iranians believe that the French will come to understand that they are not responsible for the present problems between the two countries.