The French authorities on Thursday continued the previous conservative government’s controversial policy of dismantling illegal Roma (Gypsy) camps and “repatriating” their residents to Romania.
Two camps housing some 350 people were forcibly evacuated near the northern city of Lille, following similar operations in Paris and the south-western city of Lyon.
Meanwhile, the authorities were due to fly around 240 Roma “back” to Romania from Lyon in the biggest such operation since former president Nicolas Sarkozy was voted out of office in May.
Discriminated against in France?
Roma who are voluntarily “repatriated” are given 300 euros per adult and 150 euros per child, a policy criticised by many who believe they could easily use the money simply to return to France.
“The French government is wasting huge amounts of money to give them holidays back in Romania,” said Valeriu Nicolae, founder of the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities in Bucharest, an NGO which works to provide work and education opportunities to young Roma.
“What else do you think they’re going to do?”, he told left-leaning daily Libération. “After all, it is much more comfortable living in a French ghetto than a Romanian one. They stay a couple of weeks, then they go back to France.”
The policy of dismantling illegal camps and sending their residents back to Romania and Bulgaria -- both of them EU members since 2007 -- was initiated by Sarkozy in 2010.
It was widely condemned, with the EU’s Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding comparing the round-ups to World War II-era deportations.
Sarkozy was also accused of taking a deliberately hard-line stance in a desperate bid to court France’s significant far-right vote in the face of a difficult reelection campaign.
The continuation of the policy under Socialist President François Hollande, who ousted Sarkozy in May, has raised eyebrows.
Hollande had promised in his election campaign that while the dismantlement of illegal encampments would continue, satisfactory “alternative arrangement would be offered.”
But rights groups said no arrangements had been made for the residents of the illegal camps near Lille, which included some 60 children.
“What will become of these families?” said Arthur Hervet, a local priest who had planned to publicly baptise a number of the children to draw attention to their plight. “Everything is being taken away. It’s a breach of their fundamental rights.”
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, determined to foster an image of being “tough on crime”, said the raids were necessary because of the unsanitary conditions in which hundreds of people were living.
Paris insisted there was no racist motivation in closing the camps, adding that the evicted Roma had overstayed the time they were legally allowed to stay in France.
System ‘condemns Roma to begging’
Under the terms of Romania and Bulgaria’s succession to the EU in 2007, freedom of movement was granted throughout Europe.
“Transitory measures” in the succession agreement, however, mean that citizens from these countries are not allowed to work legally in France until December 31, 2013.
There are up to 20,000 Roma in France, around half in the Paris region.
While it is a relatively small minority, Roma tend to be particularly visible because of their poverty, while many resort to begging because they have no access to welfare or employment.
Malik Salemkour, vice president of France’s League for Human Rights, told Libération: “The right to work is fundamental to the fate of Roma in France and elsewhere."
“The current system condemns them to begging and hamstrings any meaningful attempts to integrate them into the community.”
On Thursday, Valls said the government was looking at ways to provide aid and was reviewing restrictions on working in France.