France cannot afford to take in waves of North African migrants looking for jobs, the head of President Nicolas Sarkozy's party argued Wednesday, as European neighbors spar over what to do with thousands of unemployed Tunisians who have arrived illegally on this border-free continent.
Paris police detained illegal migrants from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in roundups around the French capital on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to city hall. That angered charity groups who are trying to find them housing and keep them off the streets.
Jean-Francois Cope said in an interview that France wants to revise Europe's open-border system and limit immigration because of economics, not xenophobia.
"Do we have the means to absorb job-related immigration? The answer is largely no," the chief of the UMP party told The Associated Press.
France's government debt is well more than half of its gross domestic product, and unemployment is nearly 10 percent. Joblessness is even higher among unskilled youth, which bodes ill for the largely unskilled young Tunisians clamoring to get here.
France and Italy have been at odds over how to deal with more than 20,000 illegal Tunisian migrants who entered the European Union via the small Italian island of Lampedusa since the longtime president fled a popular revolt in January. Most want to reach France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler, where they can speak the language and have friends or family.
Italy granted most of the Tunisians temporary residency permits, and insisted that EU countries share the burden of such an exceptional influx. In response, an angry France last week stopped a train carrying Tunisian immigrants from Italy at the French border, sending back those who could not support themselves financially.
Sarkozy and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi agreed at talks Tuesday to seek a revision of the Schengen border treaty that permits passport-free travel through Europe.
Germany indicated Wednesday that it's prepared to consider limited revisions to the treaty, but that Italy should take care of the Tunisians.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday: "if we can improve the Schengen system, then that's good and we should do it — but freedom to travel in Europe is such an important achievement that it must not be called in question."
A German Interior Ministry spokesman, Jens Teschke, said: "We don't see in the 26,000 who have landed on Lampedusa an excessive burden on (Italy) — in principle, these refugees can for now be spread out across Italy," he said.
France's Cope insisted that any revision of the Schengen treaty would not contradict the idea of a unified Europe.
"The measures we are taking are linked to the economic and budgetary situation," he said.
France's resurgent far-right National Front party has argued for closing France's borders with European neighbors, a move that Cope said would be dangerous and a "joke."
Sarkozy's UMP party has been bleeding support ahead of presidential elections next year, and Cope has been accused of pandering to far-right voters to try to counter the rising popularity of the anti-immigrant National Front. He was the driving force behind France's ban on the face-covering Islamic veil, and recently proposed other measures aimed at France's at least 5-million-strong Muslim community, the largest in western Europe.
Cope sought to distance himself Wednesday from the far right, insisting that the measures are aimed at preventing extremism and encouraging integration.
France is still seen as a promised land for many North Africans. Joblessness was high in Tunisia before the uprising there, and many sectors have suffered from the political uncertainty since.
Tunisia's interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, pleaded with his countrymen to end the migratory flux.
"We were at the origin of a crisis between European countries," he said at a news conference Tuesday. "We must control our frontiers and block the road to specialists in human trafficking," he said.
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.