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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Sangatte looks set to stay
Police and refugees at Sangatte
Police guard Sangatte refugees after a camp riot

Any French person who follows the British press will have found recent coverage of the Sangatte refugee affair utterly perplexing.

On day one they were told that a deal had been struck under which Britain would accept all or most of the 1,300 asylum-seekers in return for the camp's closure.

Whatever the "objective," Sangatte remains

This apparent arrangement merited the banner headline "Blackmail" in one tabloid daily.

They will then have read vigorous denials of the deal by both the French and British governments.

And on day two they receive the news that there has indeed been a switch of policy on the part of France, which now says the closure of Sangatte is an "objective."

This is said to have been "welcomed" by British ministers, even though in London the government knows full well the closure of Sangatte - set up as a temporary holding centre in 1999 - has been a French "objective" from the very start.

For the French, who are accustomed to a less imaginative reporting tradition, it has all been an object lesson in what happens when you give the British press corps a bit of head.

Plus ca change...

For the record, the French position on Sangatte, as outlined on Thursday by the new Interior and Security Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is this:

In an ideal world the camp would, of course, be closed. It is an affront not just to Britain, but - more importantly from the French perspective - to local people, to the forces of law and order and to the refugees themselves.

French Interior and Security Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (centre)
Sarkozy went to see the centre for himself

So the closure is an "objective." However, this is not an ideal world and so the closure is no more a prospect now than it was under the previous Socialist government.

As Mr Sarkozy put it, "The over-hasty and precipitate closure will lead to more problems of security than it solves. The long term solution can only come through a new European policy on immigration."

This, we can safely assume, is not going to happen quickly.

Mr Sarkozy wants Britain to make itself less attractive to asylum-seekers and new controls on the EU's external frontiers, but even if these were practical goals it would be months or years before any effect was felt on the pressure of immigration.

The French position on Sangatte, in other words, remains pretty much unchanged.

First visit

This is not to say that Britain should not react positively to the centre-right government's new interest in the issue.

Mr Sarkozy is, after all, the first ever French minister to visit the camp - which is a fairly scandalous comment on the previous government's neglect.

And, in general, Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett will find their new French counterparts speak their kind of language on this as on many other subjects.

However it would be idle to pretend that there is any quick fix.

Mr Sarkozy - to his great credit - came to Calais to learn the truth of the situation.

He discovered angry locals, an overstretched police force and an increasingly restive population of young Kurds and Afghans crammed into a Red Cross hangar.

But he also heard the advice of officials on the ground who said that to close the camp would simply be to disperse the refugees back onto the streets, where they would be even harder to control.

So whatever the "objective," Sangatte remains.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"The Tory leaders comments have been attacked by ministers"
The BBC's Daniel Sandford in Dover
"We've got Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair locking horns over it"

Is closing the camp the solution?
Should Britain take some of the Sangatte refugees?



8004 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

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See also:

24 May 02 | UK Politics
23 May 02 | UK Politics
23 May 02 | UK Politics
23 May 02 | Europe
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