Illegal immigrants in France can no longer be held in police custody simply for not having residency papers, the country’s highest court ruled on Thursday.
Until now, police could detain “sans-papiers” [“without papers”, the French term for illegal aliens] even if they had not committed a crime.
Under French law, police detention only applies to people suspected of having committed an offence punishable with a prison term.
Police detention is limited to 24 hours, although it can be extended to 48 if further inquiries have to be made. Being an illegal alien, under French law, is not a criminal offence.
Being an illegal alien is not a crime in France
On Thursday the French “Cour de Cassation” [the country’s highest court] ruled in favour of a group of illegal immigrants who claimed their detentions were in breach of European law.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said after the ruling that the government would act swiftly to amend French law, although he maintained that “the ultimate removal of illegal aliens [from France] must remain central to any legislation on this issue.”
Immigrants’ rights groups were delighted with the decision to halt what were effectively automatic arrests, a situation that affects some 60,000 people a year in France.
“To date the police have been arresting and detaining immigrants on a massive scale,” said Agathe Marin, spokeswoman for the Cimade refugees’ association that represented the immigrants in the court.
“After they are detained, most of these people are released anyway,” she told FRANCE 24. “We hope that this ruling will ensure that the police are respectful of immigrants’ basic rights and stop treating them like criminals.”
Cimade has been putting the government under pressure since April 2011 when the European Court of Justice ruled that member nations could only arrest illegal aliens if they had committed an imprisonable offence.
Sarkozy’s administration more hostile to illegals
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing UMP administration, voted out in May and June in favour of the current Socialist government, was notoriously hostile to illegal immigration.
Sarkozy’s government argued that keeping illegal immigrants in police custody for a limited time was compatible with the EU ruling, while various courts issued contradictory verdicts on the precise legality of locking them up.
Patrice Spinosi, Cimade’s barrister at the court told FRANCE 24 that Thursday’s ruling meant that dealing with illegal aliens was now an “administrative rather than criminal procedure” and that French police would now be obliged to “comply with European law.”
“The priority will remain to accompany these immigrants back to the border, but that is not compatible with locking them up,” he said.
Spinosi, however, denied that Thursday’s ruling was in any way politically motivated.
“The fundamental difference now is that we have a government that is ready to change the country’s laws,” he said. “The previous government knew it was running the risk of being in breach of European law but refused to reform.”
The UMP’s spokesman for security issues called for “quick change in legislation which does not leave our police operating in an uncertain legal situation.”
The far-right National Front, meanwhile, was indignant. “This ruling is lax, ultraliberal, and pandering to the whims of a European legal oligarchy,” the party said in a statement.