France starts expelling its Roma

PARIS, France — The French government has followed through on its vow to dismantle unauthorized Roma community squats and deport illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe, with the first Bucharest-bound, one-way flights leaving France this week.

Despite drawing the condemnation of the international community, the European Union and criticism at home, the plan is on course to send Roma “back to their countries before the end of the month,” according to Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux.

A flight carrying 79 passengers to Romania took off from Lyon, though the location was kept secret until the last minute. Immigration officials insisted the expulsions were standard fare for foreigners with irregular residency status.

Adults who volunteered to go were offered 300 euros and children 100 euros, in addition to transportation. So far, at least 51 camps across France — deemed dens of criminal activity by the authorities — have been demolished. More Bulgaria- and Romania-bound flights are scheduled for departure in the coming days.

The government crackdown was announced following a ministerial meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy in late July that concluded that more law-and-order was needed. It was “not intended to stigmatize any community whatsoever, but to punish illegal behavior, including the illegal occupation of land or buildings,” according to the interior minister.

Romanian Roma people coming from France arrive at the Baneasa airport in Bucharest on Aug. 19, 2010. (Daniel Mihailescu/Getty Images)

The meeting was in response to several violent skirmishes involving police. In one incident in Grenoble, near riots broke out after police shot a suspect in a casino robbery. An unrelated incident in central France left a 22-year-old Roma dead after he failed to stop at a police roadblock and ended with Roma allegedly attacking a police station, news reports said.

The government’s swift response included a call for the destruction of 300 illegal camps nationwide within three months, immediate expulsion of Roma lawbreakers and checks to determine people’s residency status.

An estimated 15,000 Roma from Bulgaria and Romania are thought to live in France. As citizens of the European Union, they can travel to France, but if they choose to stay more than three months they must prove they are working or studying and can support themselves. Often, they are unable to find jobs or integrate into French society and end up living in poverty.

Separately, the country also has several hundred thousand French citizens who belong to nomadic communities. Towns are obligated to provide grounds with an adequate water supply and electricity to accommodate them.

A traveling community in Bordeaux recently formed a caravan blockade on a highway to protest against what they deemed inadequate space to park. In a court motion they filed, they asked for and were denied an exhibition ground space with grass after refusing the mayor’s offer to allow them to set up in a parking lot.

In publicizing its tough stance on crime, the government has seemed to lump the Roma and the traveling communities together, although they are distinct. A United Nations anti-racism panel has said France should be careful about treating people who are  within their rights as EU citizens fairly. And the European Commission has cautioned that France cannot keep EU citizens from circulating freely. It is monitoring the deportations.

The president was also accused of melding the issues of immigration and security, since his zero tolerance on crime approach calls for the deportation of foreign-born lawbreakers and stripping French nationality from anyone of foreign origin who is convicted of trying to kill a police officer.

Although more than half of French surveyed are in favor of the stricter measures, according to a public opinion poll, critics said the idea seemed incongruous with the French ideal of equality for all under the law.

Appearing to incite others to commit violence against law enforcement officials also has its consequences. Earlier this month, the interior minister Hortefeux filed a court complaint against a rapper named Abdul X after an “explicitly insulting” video clip titled “Shoot the cops” surfaced. Though the video has been removed from some websites, it remains visible and includes scenes of the rapper brandishing a gun. Of particularly offense were the following lyrics: “If you see one, don’t miss.”

“I will not let an unknown rapper threaten men and women who ensure the safety of our citizens, in sometimes difficult conditions, including at the peril for their lives,” Hortefeux said in a statement.

But on last week’s cover of the magazine Marianne, it was Sarkozy who was referred to as a “thug.”

Groups like France’s Human Rights League are collecting petition signatures against the president’s strict measures, and have called for opponents nationwide to send the government a message at rallies on Sept. 4. One lawmaker said the campsite raid round-ups were reminiscent of scenes from World War II.

Political opponents have accused the president of using the latest incidents to stoke security fears for political gain - his popularity ratings rose from 32 to 34 percent after the July announcements. Various polls revealed that more than 60 percent of French favored dismantling the camps.

A bank employee who did not want to be identified in exchange for speaking more candidly applauded the effort but was skeptical expulsion would accomplish much given that many could easily find a way to return. She said the Roma have brought such a lack of sympathy for their plight on themselves.

At her branch, she had noticed a marked increase in the number of attempted robberies by teenage Roma of customers as they withdrew from cash machines as well as an escalation in violence, which can include pushing and shoving.

“They’ve become more and more violent and more and more insolent,” said the woman who was standing outside her bank on a cigarette break. “The youngest I’ve seen was 11 years old.”

Just last week she said, two girls who were arrested by the police on a Tuesday were back at the branch two days later. “They know they risk nothing” because they are minors and cannot be held by police longer than a few hours. But how can you blame them when “it’s definitely a network,” most likely of adults inciting the teenagers to act even, she said.

The thefts occur more frequently between May and September in well-to-do neighborhoods frequented by tourists, and thieves sometimes can get away with as much as 2,000 euros in one transaction. They prey on the elderly, women and anyone who looks vulnerable, the employee said. “That could be my grandmother.”

It’s hard to feel sorry for them, the bank the employee said: “They attack people and earn more than I do.”