© Michel Euler / AFP/Getty ImagesFrance's President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and Interior Minister
Foreigners must take a tough new language test and swear allegiance to 'French values.' Critics call it a far-right ploy for votes in upcoming elections.

France has made it harder for foreigners to obtain French citizenship by forcing them to take a tough new language test and swear allegiance to "French values."

Critics of the new regulations, introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government just four months before presidential and parliamentary elections, say it's a cynical vote-winning ploy pandering to the far right.

"France has the motto 'Liberty, equality, fraternity.' But we are not seeing a lot of equality at the moment," said Aline Le Bail-Kremer, spokeswoman for SOS-Racisme, a group that battles discrimination.

Under new rules that took effect New Year's Day, candidates for citizenship will be tested on French culture and history and will have to prove they can speak the language as well as an average French 15-year-old. They will also be required to sign a new charter setting out their rights and responsibilities.

Another passage states "applicants will no longer be able to claim allegiance to another country while on French soil." However, dual nationality will still be allowed.

"Becoming French is not a mere administrative step. It's a decision that requires a lot of thought," reads the new charter.

Claude Gueant, France's conservative interior minister, described the process as a "solemn occasion between the host nation and the applicant," adding that migrants had to integrate through language and "an adherence to the principles, values and symbols of our democracy."

In what is seen as an additional swipe at Muslim applicants, who make up the majority of the 100,000 people granted French citizenship every year, Gueant said applicants had to understand the importance of the secular state and equality between men and women.

Gueant has taken a relentlessly hard line on immigration with several controversial measures, including targets for the number of illegal immigrants to be expelled and plans to reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed to come to France each year from 200,000 to 180,000. The government has also considered revising laws to withdraw nationality granted to polygamists and convicted felons.

Last year Gueant personally intervened to block an Algerian-born man living in France from obtaining French nationality because of his "degrading attitude" toward women. The man admitted not allowing his French wife to leave the couple's home freely.

On Monday, Le Bail-Kremer said the French government was engaged in the politics of "suspicion, stigmatization ... and chasing votes from the far right."

"Listening to the tone of the political debate at the moment, and hearing how people feel free to indulge in racist speech, is sickening and terrifying," she said.

Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate in the upcoming presidential election, described the new regulations as "the election strategy of a right wing ready to do anything in order to hold on to power."

Christophe Girard, the Socialist deputy mayor of Paris, wrote in Le Monde newspaper when the new regulations were introduced in June that the history of France and its mix of culture were under threat, noting Sarkozy's Hungarian roots.

"This return to nationalism that locks and pits citizens against each other in fear and hatred is a proven risk," he wrote. "The atmosphere fostered by the current government is even more revolting given that the current head of state himself is the son of an immigrant father and his third wife is French-Italian."

Willsher is a special correspondent.