PARIS France's hardline interior minister blamed central and eastern Europeans Tuesday for a 16 percent surge in burglaries last year, stimulating debate on immigration just three months before a presidential election.
Claude Gueant has raised eyebrows with his right-wing stance on immigration since President Nicolas Sarkozy promoted him to his cabinet a year ago.
Gueant hailed 12,000 fewer incidents of crime in 2011. It was a 0.34 percent reduction from 2010 and the ninth straight year of falling crime. But he pointed to a recent rising trend in crime by central and east European offenders.
"It's a trend we've been seeing for two years. These are raids by teams of criminals from abroad, especially central and eastern Europe," Gueant told a news conference.
He said he would support a change in legislation to deport foreigners convicted for such crimes. "It's very difficult to fight because these are people who slip from one country to another very quickly," he earlier told RTL radio.
A spokeswoman for Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande described Gueant's comments as "a xenophobic tirade."
Gueant, who has been one of Sarkozy's closest aides during his presidency, oversaw the conservative government's controversial deportation of illegal Roma people early in his term and launched a crackdown last year on Romanian pickpockets.
Sarkozy's government has toughened its message on immigration as it tries to win back voters who have defected to the far-right National Front under Marine Le Pen.
Earlier this month Gueant trumpeted the deportation of a record number of illegal migrants in 2011.
He has set himself the goal of cutting legal migration to France to 150,000 people a year, having already cut the quota to 180,000 from 200,000 in past years.
Le Pen said Gueant's immigration and security policy was mere posturing for electoral gain and that crimes committed by foreigners had risen as the number of immigrants had risen.
"In front of television cameras, Gueant endlessly deplores the rise in crimes by immigrants, but he has done nothing but welcome more immigrants," said the National Front leader, who is running third in opinion polls but narrowing the gap on Sarkozy and Hollande.
Le Pen, who has sought to shift the traditional National Front focus from immigration and French identity to protecting the French economy, has pledged to reduce immigration from 200,000 people a year to just 10,000.
(Additional reporting by John Irish; Writing by John Irish and Catherine Bremer; Editing by Ben Harding)