France Debates Whether It should Expel Immigrants for Petty Crimes

An immigrant whose deportation for petty crimes was blocked by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was involved in a shootout with police in a town the French prime minister was visiting, authorities said.

Police in Sallanches, in the eastern region of Haute-Savoie, opened fire Tuesday outside a hall where Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was dining, after a suspected car thief drove past barricades and ignored warnings to stop.

The driver, Cherif Bouchelaleg, is suspected of having stolen the car in Geneva and was detained after the incident, police said. They have not said whether they planned to charge him with a crime.

Bouchelaleg made headlines three years ago, when his case was taken up by a movement calling for an end to France's "double penalty" rule that allowed foreign-born criminals to be expelled after serving their prison sentences.

Bouchelaleg, who came to France from his native Algeria at age 11, had been facing possible expulsion after repeated convictions for robbery and drunken driving. Pro-immigration groups argued his deportation would unfairly target Bouchelaleg's six French children by breaking up the family.

The case even moved France's Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who averted Bouchelaleg's deportation by ordering that he be placed under house arrest in Lyon.

In his 2003 immigration reform, Sarkozy effectively watered-down the "double penalty" rule by barring expulsions for foreign criminals who could prove they had "profound ties" with France.

Far-right politicians were quick to seize on Tuesday's incident, saying it showed that Sarkozy, who is expected to run for president next year, was soft on immigration.

"No only does he not act against immigration, but by eliminating the 'double penalty,' he permits repeat offender immigrants to keep on committing crimes that go so far as to put the life of the prime minister in danger," extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen told i-Tele television.

"We must reinstate the 'double penalty,"' said fellow far-right lawmaker Philippe de Villiers, who called for Bouchelaleg's expulsion.

"He does not belong in (French) territory," de Villiers said on LCI television.

Sarkozy, who has made the fight against illegal immigration a top priority, was quick to respond to the criticism. He said the incident did not have any bearing on the relaxed "double penalty" law, and insisted it highlighted the need to boost existing legislation on repeat offenders.

Asked about Bouchelaleg, Sarkozy ruled out any possible expulsion, saying "his place is in prison."