Ordered out

Published : Sep 24, 2010 00:00 IST

The police evacuate a Roma family from a camp in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, northern France, on August 24.-LUC MOLEUX/REUTERS

The police evacuate a Roma family from a camp in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, northern France, on August 24.-LUC MOLEUX/REUTERS

Scandal-scarred Sarkozy wins political points with the deportation of the Roma to their native land and a ban on wearing the hijab in public places.

FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been buffeted by a series of scandals in recent months, seems to have found a sure-fire way to revive his sinking political fortunes. After effecting a constitutional ban on the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women in public places, he ordered, in the third week of August, the mass expulsion of the Roma people and other itinerant groups known as gypsies to their native Romania.

Sarkozy's political ratings, which had dipped to a record low after he and his associates were found deeply mired in the financial skulduggery involving the L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, and were also accused of illegal party financing, have now started to look up.

With anti-immigrant feelings high among a population reeling from the impact of a prolonged recession, Sarkozy's latest moves have won him open praise from the xenophobic Right and silent support from even sections of the Centre-Left. The secular fundamentalists in the Left were happy after the French National Assembly passed a resolution that made women wearing veils liable to prison terms. There was only one dissenting vote, and that too from a member of the Centre-Right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Sarkozy is surfing a radicalisation of public opinion on the question of security and immigration. His declarations are a series of landmines that he's slipped under the summer sand. It helps remobilise the Right, while at the same time creating divisions on the Left, said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Sarkozy's shift to the extreme Right became all the more evident in a speech he delivered on July 30 in Grenoble. He said the camps of the nomadic Roma people would be dismantled and entire families would be penalised for crimes committed by their next of kin. The President announced that he would wage a war against criminal gangs. In the run-down suburbs of the big cities, there are large concentrations of immigrants, mostly of Arab origin. The unemployment rate is the highest among them. Many of the criminal gangs operating in these suburbs naturally have a preponderance of naturalised Frenchmen of Arab or African origin. Sarkozy said French citizens with an immigrant background would be deported if they indulged in criminal activities.

Two weeks before he delivered the speech, racially fuelled clashes broke out in the towns of Grenoble and Saint-Aignan. Strong-arm tactics of the police resulted in the death of two youth. It must be possible to cancel the French citizenship of all those people of foreign descent who wilfully inflict damage on the life of a police officer, a soldier or any other person of public authority. French citizenship is a reward for which one must prove oneself worthy, the President said. In his Grenoble speech, Sarkozy said the values of people such as the Roma were unacceptable to the French people. He accused them of being responsible for many of the internal security problems the country was facing.

Sarkozy ordered his Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, to put an immediate end to the unauthorised gypsy settlements. The Minister has promised to dismantle 51 of the 300 Roma camps identified by the government. Seven hundred Roma people were deported by the end of August. Hortefeux, without submitting credible evidence, said the Roma camps were hotbeds of illegal trafficking, the exploitation of children for begging, prostitution or crime. Unlike other citizens from European Union countries, the Roma, who have migrated in large numbers from new E.U.-member states such as Romania and Bulgaria, are not permitted to work in France before 2014. There are an estimated 10-12 million Roma people in Europe.


Simultaneously, the French authorities are keeping up the pressure on the sizable Muslim minority. Immigration Minister Eric Besson said he wanted to deny French citizenship to those citizens who force their wives to wear full-face veils, refuse to shake hands with female officers, or fail to accept the principle of secularism or non-clerical government. The leader of the neo-fascist National Front party, Marine Le Pen, was quick to come out in support of Sarkozy. She said Sarkozy was doing what the party had been demanding for many years. French commentators have noted that the last time any French government took such draconian steps was during the Second World War.

The puppet Vichy government deported thousands of gypsies, and many of them ended in Nazi gas chambers. The French newspaper Le Poste wrote that every time the current government tries to deal with topics that have a bearing on religious, criminal, social, or family issues, it treats them by adopting the same reasoning of the Vichy legislators. The laws being adopted by the French government are palpably against the country's Constitution and European laws, which guarantee equality regardless of ethnic origins.

During the Second World War, gypsies and Jews were the main groups targeted for extermination by the Nazis. The Nazis and their collaborators killed between 250,000 and 300,000 Romas. There are an estimated 400,000 people of Roma origin currently residing in France. Only around one-third of them still follow a nomadic pattern of life. Around 20,000 Roma people, mostly hailing from Romania and Bulgaria, came to France after the two countries joined the E.U.

Last year, according to Le Monde, France expelled 10,000 Roma people despite the fact that as E.U. citizens they had the right to stay in the country. Roma some 90 per cent of whom are settled are still considered undesirables in Europe and are either corralled in shanty towns or deported. Last year, every fourth gypsy was attacked, threatened or harassed, reported Le Monde.


The French government's action has elicited tacit support from other E.U. countries such as Germany, Italy, Denmark and Sweden. Most of these countries have also started adopting a deportation policy, albeit on a smaller scale, for the Roma.

The most vociferous supporter of France in this matter is Italy, whose Interior Minister, Roberto Marroni, applauded Sarkozy's move to expel the Roma and called on other E.U. governments to follow suit. He claimed that France was simply copying Italy, which had been using this technique of voluntary and assisted repatriation for many years. Marroni, who belongs to the Northern League, an anti-immigration party, said he would like Italy to be able to expel E.U. citizens who did not meet the minimum income and housing requirements and were a drain on the state's welfare system. In 2008, the government led by Sylvio Berlusconi had proposed the fingerprinting of all Roma people.

The European Commission (E.C.), which had earlier criticised the expulsions, seems to have modified its views. The E.C. spokesman said the commission did not view the French action against the Roma people as a case of mass expulsion. But the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, an independent human rights body of the Council of Europe, has accused the French government of stigmatising Roma migrants and holding them collectively responsible for criminal offences.

The expulsions have generated widespread criticism from many other quarters, too. The Catholic church and the United Nations anti-racism panel have criticised the French move. Teodor Basconschi, the Romanian Foreign Minister, has warned against xenophobic reaction by European governments in the wake of the economic recession in Europe. What has happened in France shows that we must have an integration plan across Europe for Roma citizens, he told the media.

The E.U. said France should adhere to the freedom of movement laws of the group while expelling the Roma people deemed to be living illegally in the country. The Socialist bloc in the European Parliament said France had violated E.U. legislation by deporting the Roma migrants. The recent treatment of the Roma people in France was appalling and cannot go unchallenged, said Martin Schulz, the leader of the bloc, the biggest in the European Parliament. He said recent events witnessed in France should never be repeated.

Ilga Tomova, a researcher on the Roma at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, told AFP that she was saddened that France, the symbol of democracy, was contributing to the stigmatisation of the Roma. French Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry issued a statement criticising Sarkozy for sliding into anti-republican ideas that hurts France and its values. But the leader of the main opposition party, probably keeping in view the opinion of the French public on the subject, has not yet publicly criticised the anti-immigrant and racist stance of the Sarkozy government.

Brice Hortefeux, however, reacted by saying that his country had nothing to apologise for. France is the country in Europe which most respects the right of foreigners, so we do not have any lessons to learn, he said.

France is, meanwhile, putting pressure on Romania on the expulsion issue. It is threatening to block its entry into the E.U.'s Schengen border-free zone if Bucharest fails to control the flow of the Roma or raises the issue in international fora.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, in a letter to the E.C., suggested that the $5 billion the E.U. gives Romania every year should be used by its government to keep the Roma in their native land.

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