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HUNGER STRIKE HIGHLIGHTS IMMIGRATION FLOOD

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A few hunger strikers, wasting away in bright blue sleeping bags, have brought home to France that a huge African nation - fast-growing and desperate - lives in its midst.

For Africans like Sidi Diarra, 29, France is less a land of opportunity than a last resort. "What difference if I eat here?" he asked a reporter at the Paris church where 10 young men lie under the soft glow of stained glass windows. "There's nothing in Mali, either."Perhaps half a million black Africans have immigrated to France, living in loosely linked communities that contain a greater population than six African countries.

Many of them have valid resident permits and working papers, if not French citizenship. Many, however, have no papers at all.

With the hunger strike in its 40th day, the government must soon decide whether to expel weakened Africans under the glare of television lights or venture into a quagmire with Europe-wide implications.

Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre says only he will stand by the law, warning that any exception would invite countless other such cases, not only in France but throughout Europe.

Moussa Keita, a 29-year-old hunger striker from Mali, sneaked into Marseille after 13 days alone in a dark cargo hold. He will starve before he goes back, he says. To Debre, he is an illegal alien.

Privately, French officials admit they are torn between humanitarian concerns and an administrative problem of dizzying proportions. The trouble, they say, is that the status of Africans in France is so diverse.

"We're here to stay," said Massaouda Coulibaly, a graying Malian in a robe of many colors, who came to France in 1988. "For us, we're not immigrants. We are in our native land."

Coulibaly's father fought for France in World War II. Until 1960, Mali and much of West and Central Africa was made up of French colonies. In the 1970s, African laborers were welcomed in France.

Today, with French unemployment at 12.5 percent and a political far right that wants to send foreigners home, the picture is dif-ferent.

Coulibaly has a visa but no job. Many other Africans are illegal, living 12 to a room in condemned buildings, fearful of frequent police checks that could lead them to a plane home.

In the Goutte d'Or and Belleville neighborhoods of Paris, whole blocks seem to have been dropped intact from the equatorial coast.

Spicy aromas from Aida's Senegalese Restaurant blend with pungent odors of dried fish and fiery red chilies. Tie-dye cloth in shop windows blazes color.

"Expel the Africans?" mused an entrepreneur from Ivory Coast named Jean-Louis, with a French wife and 30 years in Paris. "Good luck. I have friends who are tossed out. I see them back a week later."

Gabriel Omolade, a university art graduate from English-speaking Nigeria who drives a cab, said many people still come from former French Africa but also from other countries.

"It's all different now," he said. "From Nigeria, from Ghana, from Sierra Leone. They are here." Few have papers, he said, but most manage to survive in the shadows.

No one knows how many Africans are in France. An Interior Ministry spokeswoman did not return calls when asked for official figures.

"The government doesn't know much," said Jean-Claude Chesnais of the National Institute for Demographic Studies. "They know about legal entries, but little about illegals and nothing about exits."

When asked for his own estimate, he answered with a hearty laugh. If forced to guess, he said, he would say at least 500,000, with 200,000 to 300,000 of them lacking the documents to work.

The last official study, based on the 1990 census, listed 254,132 legal black African immigrants but admitted that many were missed in the count. It did not include people born in France.

Until recently, Africans in France barely made the news. About 3 million North Africans, who are considered Arabs and seen as a very different group, are much more noticeable.

Because people in many African societies offer shelter and share belongings with the most distant of relatives, few Africans are among the homeless that increasingly populate French urban streets.