PARIS - The French Senate has passed a bill proposing to extend the right to vote in local elections to non-EU immigrants living legally in the country, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
"How can we justify that an Algerian or Moroccan worker who has lived in France legally for decades cannot vote nor be elected to public office?" leading socialist Senator Francois Rebsamen said.
The introduced bill would allow foreigners to vote, become municipal councilors, but not to become mayors or take part in national elections.
It has long been supported by socialists and other left-wingers, emboldened by a historic victory over the right in Senate elections in September.
Supporters say that letting non-European Union citizens vote and get elected in municipal elections would bring more immigrants into the fold of French republican values and soothe community tensions.
"The Left has a historical attachment to this bill, even if it's only symbolic, to signal their sympathy to certain segments of the population," Stephane Rozes, head of political consultancy CAP, told Reuters on Thursday.
After a fierce debate, the bill was adopted by a Senate dominated by the opposition Socialists, Communists and Greens, with 173 against 166 votes.
Sixty one percent of French people were also in favor of voting rights for foreigners who have lived in France for five years, a BVA poll published on November 28 showed.
Support had grown quickly since January - a period in which President Nicolas Sarkozy tightened citizenship requirements and ramped up expulsions of illegal immigrants.
"The difference is that public opinion has shifted clearly in favor of this initiative," Rozes added.
"And that, paradoxically, is a consequence of the government's tougher stance on illegal immigration."
Britain, Spain and Portugal let some non-EU foreigners, most of them from former colonies, vote in some elections.
Meanwhile Italy, Germany and Austria share France's more restrictive current approach.
EU citizens have been allowed to vote in local and European elections since the Maastricht treaty was passed in 1992.
Opposing the opinion of the majority of their people, the country's ruling right government expressed a firm opposition to the introduced bill.
In a rare upper-house appearance, conservative Prime Minister Francois Fillon said he was firmly opposed to the bill that he said "undermines one of the foundations of our republic".
He accused left-wing parties of "running the risk of voiding French nationality and citizenship of their substance".
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said: "We vote because we are citizens; we are citizens because we are French. Nobody is a citizen because he lives in France."
Struggling to guarantee support from far-right followers of Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front Party, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's was also against the idea; despite him expressing public support for it in 2005.
Le Pen has been focusing on inciting fear on the role of Islam in France, home to up to six million Muslims, adopting anti-immigrant approach to gain public support.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has only one concern on this issue and that is to appeal to the hard core of the right wing," Rozes said.
By definition France's population of EU and non-EU foreigners, estimated by the INSEE statistics office at 3.7 million in 2008, will not weigh on the outcome of next April's election.
To France's ruling right, allowing a foreign and largely Muslim constituency to influence local policy would usher controversial issues such as halal meals at school cafeterias and women-only days at municipal swimming pools.
Though passing through the left-controlled Senate, the bill has no chance of passing in a right-controlled lower house, pollsters say.
It was abandoned once before, in 2000 for similar reasons.
Even if the law were to pass through the National Assembly, the final decision would lie with the president, who could put it to a referendum or lay it aside.