At the recent inauguration of a Moscow memorial to the victims of the gulag Nicolas Sarkozy made a fervent speech about the importance of human rights, underlining the necessity of interaction between authorities and population.
In accordance with the republican tradition, he stressed that in France "no one is above the law". Curiously, the French president seemed to have forgotten that in his country the law is currently being reformed so as to contradict the very human rights he was referring to.
Sarkozy's newly created ministry for immigration and integration maintains an image of support for immigrant families and their descendants, while its new policies are by far the most aggressive France has witnessed in the last decades.
One of the proposed steps for tighter immigration procedures involves a DNA test, which would be used to control family links. The introduction of hardline immigration controls has sparked a furious response from immigrant welfare groups. Not only would these tests constitute a major infraction of civil liberties, they would also have to be taken at the expense of the applicants - excluding many from the possibility of obtaining a visa.
Prior to the DNA test controversy, the French government had adopted a drastic policy concerning illegal immigrants. In order to meet its target of 25,000 deportations, 14,000 of which have been carried out so far, it has resorted to aggressive measures. ID checks, police custody and arrests have become part of everyday life, especially in the banlieues.
It is not surprising that many severe accidents have occurred as sans-papiers were trying to escape police investigations - a 51 year old Chinese woman even fell to her death from a window as she fled what she thought was a police round-up and a 12 year old Russian boy fell from the fourth floor when the police came to arrest his family.
In March police clashed with parents and staff opposing the arrest of a mother outside a nursery school in Paris. The presence of young children didn't stop them using tear gas on the protesters. Police violence also took place in September, when police officers went into a school to arrest the son of an Albanian asylum seeker family. Claiming the boy's parents had been in an accident, they tried to persuade the teachers to hand over the seven year old with the intention of taking him out of the school to a detention centre.
French law prohibits the deportation of children attending school. During the holidays, however, children become a primary target for immigration officers. It is also against the law to expel either children or their parents when they are separated from one another.
Networks have sprung up all over the country against this exercise of state violence, assisting and often hiding children likely to be expelled. Supporters tend to be mostly mothers of immigrant origin, but with the increasingly menacing atmosphere, and countrywide police raids, people of all backgrounds have participated in this resistance movement.
"This is a crucial moment in our country's history," one of the movement's supporters said. "It evokes a highly uncomfortable episode of France's past, and we have the choice not to repeat the mistakes the collaborators made some 60 years ago. For us, hiding these children is the only right thing to do."
The campaigners of this new resistance have gathered from a variety of associations hitherto mostly dealing with discrimination and Islamophobia. Having surmounted the difficulty of organising one large and coherent immigrant movement is a big step forward.
In France there is the additional difficulty attached to the concept of equality. Officially, all citizens of the republic are equal. There are no records of ethnicity or religious belonging. Even so, the divide between "real French" and "French on paper" - terms coined by fascist leader Le Pen - remains a powerful one. Without these records, discrimination becomes impossible to prove, and all organisations fighting it have to operate semi-officially.
This lack of sources also plays into the hands of the extreme right. Le Pen's National Front (NF) often manipulates data so as to hold sans-papiers responsible for all recent political and economic problems. The NF suggests an even more radical extradition policy, something that seems shocking given the already brutal nature of the current one.
The suburban riots in France have shown the growing desire for an overhaul of the immigration laws, but arbitrary arrests, persecutions and state violence hardly seem like appropriate solutions.