France reached out to its 15,000 Roma gypsy immigrants today promising new measures to help them to find jobs and permanent camp-sites.
However, the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, warned that the destruction of illegal encampments would continue, despite criticism by fellow Socialists and the European Commission.
In an attempt to distance his government from the aggressive anti-Roma policies of the Sarkozy era, Mr Ayrault hosted a conference today for senior ministers and leaders of the Roma community. Afterwards, his government announced a relaxation of France’s temporary exemption from European labour law, which imposes limits and bureaucratic obstacles on jobs for Romanian and Bulgarian gypsies.
The French government is also to study new ways of providing permanent camp-sites or homes for a floating population of 15,000 to 20,000 gypsies from Eastern Europe.
The new Socialist government provoked splits within its own ranks and warnings from Brussels early this month when it authorised the expulsion of Roma from several large squatter camps declared illegal by courts. Critics accused the interior minister, Manuel Valls, of seeking to establish a tough reputation by reviving an anti-Roma witch-hunt started by former President Nicolas Sarkozy two years ago.
Mr Valls said that he was obliged to uphold the law and to protect local residents, and the Roma, from appalling conditions in up to 300 camps without water or sanitation. Mr Ayrault defended this position today.
“You have to look at things as they are,” he said. “Unacceptable” squatter camps of up to 1,000 Roma had built up on wasteland on the edge of conurbations such as greater Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Lille. “Court decisions have to be applied but it is my duty to find strong, clear and humane solutions,” Mr Ayrault said.
The Roma or “Roms” are described by the European Commission as the “most marginalised” minority in Europe. Over 1,000,000 Roma live in Eastern Europe – including 500,000 in Romania alone – in conditions equivalent to the worst shanty towns of Africa or Latin America.
Under European law, the Roma have the right to travel to other EU countries. They must leave if they have not found employment within three months. Under the French exemption from the EU-wide labour market, they are allowed to work in a limited number of jobs and only after an employer has spent €700 and waited several months to acquire a permit.
Under the new system, agreed today, the job opportunities will be widened and the permit and fee will be abolished.
France spends €18m a year to repatriate Roms who have overstayed their welcome. Many come straight back again. They are accused by some critics – not just on the French Right – of organising networks of begging, theft and prostitution.
During the presidential election campaign last Spring, François Hollande promised to end the crackdown on the Roma ordered by Nicolas Sarkozy in the summer of 2010. The housing minister, and former leader of the French Green party, Cécile Duflot, said today that France planned to create a “forward-looking” policy for the Roma people which would “set an example for the whole of Europe”.Reuse content