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EU mulls French treatment of Roma

France's expulsion of hundreds of Roma has European lawmakers scrambling for a response.

EU Roma
Roma eat in front of a tent in a new camp on Aug. 27, 2010, after being resettled a day after their deportation from another camp in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, northern France. The U.N. anti-racism committee has urged France to avoid the collective deportations of Roma. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Perhaps it was the crass attempt to build pre-election popularity by picking on the weak. Or maybe it was the photos of the frightened children being uprooted. Or possibly even the gaping news hole in a typically slow August. Whatever the reason, things got ugly very quickly for French President Nicolas Sarkozy during his August deportations of hundreds of Roma from France.

Sarkozy may now have tidier streets, but besides some kudos from like-minded Italian officials such as Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, who wants European Union law changed to allow for easier expulsions of Roma, the move has brought him little but grief. Condemnations have come in from the United Nations, the Council of Europe and Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders.

The Sarkozy government didn’t help itself by then calling together a mini-summit of immigration ministers from Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain — and not inviting EU representatives, a decision that was later altered to include Home Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstrom.

Things have turned just as ugly for the EU, to which all three of the main players — France, as well as the most common countries of origin, Bulgaria and Romania — belong. The three are supposed to share legal principles, including the free movement of citizens enshrined in the EU Freedom of Movement Directive.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said in the Czech press that Sarkozy’s behavior is “at odds with the spirit and statutes of the European Union,” and smacks of racism, though French officials maintain that the Roma had overstayed their allotted three months — non-French EU citizens wishing to stay in France must prove within three months that they can support themselves — had no means of earning a living and were contributing to crime.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, first tried to stay above the fray, saying the deportations were a national matter, that the French government had assured everyone all laws were being respected and that expulsions had been looked at on an individual basis. It was only after more than a week of constant peppering of her spokesman that Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding released a statement acknowledging that the situation concerned her, especially because of the rise in anti-Roma rhetoric, and that she’d look into it and report back to her fellow commissioners this week. Commissioners were meeting informally in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, with the Roma issue high on the agenda.

Ironically, Sarkozy just may have done a favor for his opponents. Tara Bedard, of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, notes that expulsions have been taking place for years and “on a very large scale, but it’s been happening very quietly.”

The sympathetic coverage of the Roma plight over the last month couldn’t possibly have been orchestrated by even the most gifted public relations team.

“What has happened,” Bedard said, “is to give prominence to an issue that has been going on for some time but which civil society alone has not been able to raise as such an important issue. So in fact he’s done a favor in some respect to civil society organizations because he’s forced the European Commission and other intergovernmental institutions to pay attention more seriously to what is happening.”

Reding finally dipping her toe in, Bedard said, is “very welcome from our perspective.”

Nonetheless, expulsions from sub-standard temporary dwellings are surely not the kind of “action” the founders of the international “Decade of Roma Inclusion” envisioned marking the halfway point through their “action plan.”

Launched in Bulgaria in 2003, that initiative pledged eight European governments (the number has since risen to 12) — supported by a similar number of international organizations — to “work toward eliminating discrimination and closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society” between 2005 and 2015.

The French government’s roundups of the Roma and the generally positive reaction from French citizens make it hard to believe there’s been any headway made in the last five years — or that another five will be enough to narrow, much less “close” the gap between Roma and the rest of Europe.

Or could it be that, five years ago, things were so much worse that there are milestones to celebrate?