France may have illegally evicted 250 people from a Roma settlement

Police evacuate Roma from an encampment near the French city of Lille this month.

French police Friday dismantled a Roma camp housing up to 250 people, as the official defender of citizens' rights accused the government of flouting its own rules on expelling them from illegal settlements.

Authorities have evicted tens of thousands of Roma from makeshift and often squalid camps across France over the last two years in line with a policy that has drawn criticism from the European Commission, rights groups and some government ministers.

Police moved in early in the day to clear the camp in the heart of the northern town of Roubaix, near Lille, moving out some 10 caravans, officials said.

Families lodged in about 25 other caravans had left on Thursday evening in what officials described as a "voluntary" evacuation.

The town's mayor Pierre Dubois said the move was linked to "reasons of security, health and considerable inconvenience to local residents."

He said about 30 Roma had been given temporary housing since 2009 and that 120 others lived in another illegal camp, adding that the town's resources were stretched.

"Roubaix has largely surpassed the limits at its disposal terms of hosting them," Dubois said.

Cristina Grosu, an 18-year-old cradling a baby, said she had no choice but to remain near the town hall in the evening.

"For this evening, there is no solution, we have to remain here," she said.

The crackdown follows a tough line championed by Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who last year issued local authorities with a set of guidelines on the dismantling of settlements currently housing more than 20,000 people, including a high proportion of children.

In theory, the rules mean camps can only be cleared three months after a judge has ruled that they are illegal and on condition that a plan to provide alternative housing has been put in place.

But in practice, these principles are rarely respected, according to Dominique Baudis, the Defender of Rights -- France's public ombudsman.

"The interministerial circular of August 2012 is not being applied in every case, far from it," Baudis said Friday.

"Too often, the expulsions are carried out without a judge having authorised them. Too often the three-month delay from a judgement being made to a camp being dismantled is not respected."

Baudis said he had transmitted his concerns to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in July. "Alas, so far I've had no response," he said.

The criticism from an official watchdog came at the end of a week in which Valls triggered a row by claiming most Roma would never integrate into French society and should go back to their countries of origin, Bulgaria and Romania.

Two of Valls's cabinet colleagues condemned the remarks as unacceptable, rights groups described them as racist and the European Commission accused the minister of picking on a persecuted minority for electoral gain.

Municipal elections in March 2014 will be the first electoral test for the Socialist government which came to power last year.

The administration is under pressure on issues of crime and insecurity, which polls suggest are among voters' biggest concerns and have been linked to an upward spike in support for the far right Front National.