Paris - France's main opposition party has proposed ending automatic nationality rights to anyone born in France, challenging a long-cherished tenet of immigration policy as it seeks to address concerns of right-leaning voters.
Immigration is dominating political debate in France before next year's local elections, with the controversial deportation last week of a teenager of Roma origin the most recent case to grab national headlines. Separately, the interior ministry said on Wednesday it would soon overhaul asylum arrangements.
Unlike neighbour Germany and many other European countries where blood ties are major determinants of nationality, France holds the concept of nationality based on "jus soli," or "right of the soil" as one of its treasured values
UMP President Jean-Francois Cope, a protege of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy who could run for president in 2017, said he would introduce a bill to parliament by year-end year to cancel automatic nationality for children of illegal immigrants.
"Children born in France to parents illegally on French soil cannot automatically become French," Cope told reporters late on Tuesday. "It's incomprehensible and it's hardly seen anywhere else in Europe."
His proposal echoed those of the far-right National Front (FN), which has long pushed for sweeping immigration reform, such as stiffening the naturalization process, systematic deportation of illegal immigrants and a drastic reduction in the number of legal immigrants allowed into France.
"UMP in the land of the FN" blazed Wednesday's headline on Liberation, a left-leaning newspaper.
The FN is capitalizing on record-low voter dissatisfaction with Socialist President Francois Hollande and discontent with the mainstream UMP ahead of municipal and European elections next year.
The recent victory of a FN candidate over his UMP rival in a local by-election in southeast France underlined the party's expanding appeal among disgruntled Socialists and UMP voters through tough talk on hot-button topics such as crime and illegal Roma immigrants.
The government is reeling from a recent dispute involving a 15-year-old girl pulled off a school bus and deported to Kosovo because she and her family were in France illegally after failing to obtain political asylum.
Most French agree
Many Socialists said the deportation ran contrary to the values of France and hundreds of students protested in cities. Surveys showed, however, that most French wanted the family out.
Currently, a child born in France to non-French parents can acquire citizenship at birth if at least one parent was born in France. Parents, whether or not legally in France, can petition for French nationality for children born on French soil from age 13 if the child has lived in France at least five years.
Cope's comments provoked dissent within his own party, including lawmaker and ex-Sarkozy aide Henri Guaino, who said the territory-based nationality right was an integral part of France's culture and one defended by Sarkozy, who many see returning to stand as president himself in 2017.
The ex-president's May 2012 defeat to Hollande was in large part attributed to his shift to the right on issues such as immigration and religion.
As the National Front has surged in popularity in recent months, Hollande's Interior Minister Manuel Valls has toughened his rhetoric against illegal migration and makeshift Roma camps - to the dismay of left-wing allies.
On Wednesday, Valls said proposals to overhaul France's asylum system in depth would be submitted to the government by mid-November, following several months of consultations.
The reform would seek to shorten the amount of time between an application for asylum and the judge's final decision.