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French minister hints at retreat on foreigner vote

PARIS (Reuters) - French Interior Minister Manuel Valls hinted the government may be rowing back on a controversial campaign pledge to grant foreigners the right to vote in local elections, saying the issue was divisive and could stir up far-right sentiment.

His comments in the daily Le Monde suggested that President Francois Hollande was backing off on a reform he touted strongly during his campaign for the May election but which could be ill-timed as France grapples with high unemployment.

Granting voting rights to foreigners was among the most left-leaning of Hollande’s campaign ideas, appealing to Greens and leftists in the same way as former president Nicolas Sarkozy sought rightist backing to reduce immigration.

On top of encouraging assimilation into French society, Hollande argued that allowing foreigners to vote in local polls would give France a more modern image by bringing it in line with European Union members Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Valls cast doubt on the prospect of Hollande trying to pass the measure in a referendum, which he could lose.

“Is this something that people are asking for today in French society? Is this a powerful engine for integration? No,” Valls told Le Monde. “Today, the challenge facing French society is that of integration (for foreign populations).”

A source in Hollande’s office said the government still planned to implement the campaign pledge but would not specify a timetable. Le Monde said no plans had been made for a debate on a reform that was originally scheduled for 2013.

Britain, Spain and Portugal let some non-EU foreigners, most of them from former colonies, vote in some elections, while Italy, Germany and Austria share France’s restrictive approach.

After Hollande’s election, government officials fell silent about his plans for foreigner voting rights, omitting it in a schedule of reforms covering jobs, green energy and education but not immigration.

Factors ranging from rioting in August by immigrant youths in the northern city of Amiens, to rising criminal violence in Marseille and evictions of Roma migrants have altered the political climate surrounding immigrant rights.

The last polls on the issue in 2011 showed a majority of French people in favour of voting rights for foreigners.

Lacking the three-fifths majority in parliament required to pass a constitutional amendment, Hollande would have to put the idea up to a referendum.

Valls said that in a time of economic crisis, a debate on the issue could inflame right-wing sympathies and cause rifts in society, a view rejected by dozens of Socialist lawmakers.

In an open letter published online, 75 of them argued that foreigners who pay taxes should vote, quoting Hollande’s campaign promise that he would allow those living in France for more than five years to vote in local elections.

“To those who say this measure is pointless, we say it’s essential - notably to give meaning to a civic ritual that has been degraded in many poor neighbourhoods,” they wrote.

Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Roger Atwood